10/13/2010 04:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Paladino, Rabbis and a New Religious Taxonomy

Absent from both the New York Times and the Daily News reports of Paladino's anti-gay rant in a Borough Park synagogue was the second piece of sexual discrimination involved in that speech: it was given after a meeting from which female journalists were excluded. By building a newsworthy event around that meeting, the New York gubernatorial candidate actively participated in preventing women from doing their jobs.

Beyond the obvious lesson that an anti-gay bigot is a threat to all of us, lies, I believe, a deeper concern that can help clarify how we need to address religion in the contemporary world.

The evil that occurred in Borough Park was a collaboration between a Catholic candidate and his Jewish hosts. Both acted vilely out of religious belief.

And yet -- we all know many practitioners of both faiths who are not bigoted against either women or gays. Just as we all know practitioners of other faiths who are as bigoted as Paladino and the Borough Park rabbis.

Simply put, it is time to make religious distinctions based not upon what particular religion you practice but rather what kind of religion you practice.

I first started thinking about this as the Park51 debate played out. Reading Iman Rauf, I realized that his voice reminded me of nothing so much as that of Reform rabbis. It wasn't just his words that were comforting and familiar, it was his entire tone and outlook.

So let me propose that we stop thinking about Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and secularists.

Let us instead create a taxonomy of fundamentalists, the tolerant observant and the enlightened (meaning those whose beliefs are directly derived from the Enlightenment).

The moment that I began thinking this way, a bunch of personal paradoxes fell away. I understood for the first time why I, a militantly secular Jew, was more comfortable with enlightened Episcopalians than I was with Orthodox Jews. And why I was perfectly happy to be at a modern Orthodox wedding while my presence at a sex-segregated ultra-Orthodox wedding appalled me as much as the fundamentalist billboards that litter North Carolina.

Put this way, we can understand that Iran is not evil because it is Islamic but because it is fundamentalist and no different, actually, than 16th-century Spain (or, for that matter, than the intolerantly atheistic Soviet Union).

Because we share tolerance, the enlightened and the tolerant observant can talk with and respect each other. Because they share religion, the tolerant observant and the fundamentalist can do the same. (This does, alas, place a perhaps unwanted burden on the tolerant observant as the only group who can talk with everyone. I'm increasingly convinced that if the hot and cold religious wars that are raging globally can be soothed, it shall be at the hands of the tolerant observant.)

It also explains that weird 17 percent of Americans who believe President Obama to be a Muslim. When they look at him, they see the Enlightenment and it appalls them in the same way that creationists appall the enlightened.

This division does draw a bright red line: What is unacceptable is not religion (and here I part company from many new atheists) but rather the attempt to either force others to conform to your beliefs or to exclude from general society those who do not behave as you do. I have no problem with anyone who has moral scruples about abortion. I have a great problem with anyone who would limit my reproductive freedom.

Ironically, the same day that Paladino and the rabbis were rejoicing in their mutual discrimination, the New York Times Magazine ran a lovely article by Frank Bruni about a Crown Heights pizzeria whose mission was to unite its disparate communities. The restaurant was founded by an Orthodox Jew and managed by a practicing Catholic who insisted her gay nephew be one of the waiters. Bruni describes the reaction of an Orthodox couple upon discovering their server's sexual orientation: they asked what dating was like for a gay man.

The next time I see anyone in religious garb, I'll just hope that they are closer to the spirit of that restaurant in Crown Heights that the synagogue in Borough Park.