JUST COINCIDENCE, I know. Maybe the gods of the news cycle were feeling particularly puckish.
But three times on Sunday, scratching a news junkie's itch, I tuned to CNN -- and three times I caught back-to-back reports on the same two stories. From Brooklyn came footage of Lubavitcher Hasidim thronging around the coffin of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, their revered rebbe, or spiritual leader. Immediately afterward, CNN followed with coverage of lesbians and homosexuals marching in Gay Pride Day parades around the country.
What a juxtaposition.
I am neither Hasidic nor gay, though there have long been people in my life who are one or the other. Both ways are strange to me. I would not choose the conformist and somewhat mystical intensity of Hasidic Judaism, and I cannot imagine being attracted to men rather than women. For a nongay non-Hasid, both of the scenes caught by CNN's cameras couldn't help but seem bizarre.
At the rebbe's funeral: crowds of men wearing identical dark suits, black hats, and beards. At the Gay Pride parades: men on floats decked out in wigs, rouge, and feather boas. To an outsider, the Hasidim looked like extras in a movie set in 16th-century Poland; the more flamboyant Gay Pride marchers appeared to have stepped out of a rack of fetish magazines.
Obviously, Hasidim mourning a departed rabbi and homosexuals making merry on Gay Pride Day aren't like most of us, let alone like each other. What the happenstance of CNN's news budget drives home, though, is the quality of that difference.
Those Lubavitcher Hasidim surging around that coffin -- what links them? What is the "Hasidic lifestyle" rooted in? Not the clothing or the beards, but the attempt to infuse the humdrum routines of daily life with a touch of something divine. Hasidim are united by their faith, by a style of worship that prescribes joy and song as a means of approaching God, by an effort to make their flesh-and-blood existence something holy.
Like everyone else, Hasidim eat, sleep, belch, yawn, make love, and curse when they stub their toes. They have their share of bums, fakers, and leeches, just like every other population. But they also teach their children that doing good deeds can bring the Messiah. They adhere to a rigorous discipline of modesty, study, and dress that went out of fashion three centuries ago because it helps them become more spiritual. In their eyes, the sum and substance of a person is not his physical appetites and characteristics. Hasidic sights are set a little higher.
What unites the gay paraders, by contrast, is a characteristic utterly and consumingly physical: sexual orientation. It is precisely the demands of their bodies that pull together the tens of thousands of Gay Pride marchers who would otherwise have little or nothing in common -- the medical students, the software developers, the soccer players, the Log Cabin Republicans, to say nothing of the drag queens and "Dykes on Bikes."
That doesn't mean that only people with one-track minds celebrate Gay Pride Day, or that the parades are only about sex. Many of those joining gay marches over the weekend seek to demonstrate political clout and build pressure for gay-rights laws. Many want corporations to recognize that homosexuals and lesbians "are everywhere," and to change their policies accordingly. Others share the grief of having lost a loved one to AIDS. Some just want to dance and party in the streets. And the share of Pride Day celebrants for whom the festival is about solidarity, openness, and public acceptance is probably close to 100 percent.
Nevertheless. The marchers' unifying attribute, the singular feature without which there would be no Gay Pride parade and no Gay Pride Day, is -- being gay. They are defining themselves in terms of something bodily: carnal desire. And not just defining, but acclaiming. Gay pride. "This is who we are," the parade announces. "We are men who love men, women who love women, and we rejoice in it."
Rejoice? In the swerve of their sex drive? That is not ennobling or uplifting. It is coarsening, and a little dehumanizing. The point is not that homosexuality is good, bad, or neutral -- that's a different column -- but whether the essence of our selves is merely the total of our thirsts and desires.
We are beings of bone and blood and sweat, but we are more than that. Alone among the creatures, we have the power to tame our inclinations -- to be the masters of them, not they of us. CNN's jarring juxtaposition is an echo of that all-too-human tension, one as ancient as Eden and as contemporary as last weekend's news.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)
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