PRIDE AND THE PROMISED LAND: JOURNEYS OF JUSTICE
Delivered in 2013 by Rabbi Adam Rosenwasser
Edith Schlain was born in Philadelphia in 1929. The youngest of three siblings in a modest Jewish household, Edith almost immediately experienced hardship in her life as her father lost his business and then his home in the Great Depression. By all accounts, Edith was an intelligent and vivacious young woman who attended Temple University and earned a degree in psychology. Immediately after graduation, Edith, called Edie by her family and friends, married Saul Windsor, a friend of her brother. However, Edie knew that something was not right. At the movies, she realized that she was identifying with Dick Powell, the handsome male lead, and not with Ruby Keeler. Less than a year after the wedding, Edie asked Saul for a divorce.
Edie decided to move to New York City to start her life anew. Her first apartment in the city was on West 11th street, close to New York University. It was a cramped 3rd floor walkup space with the bathroom located in the hallway. After a few unsatisfying secretarial jobs, Edie enrolled at NYU and received her master’s degree in mathematics.
Edie knew she was gay, but in those days, even in New York, it was not prudent or advisable to be out. But one day, she worked up the courage to ask an old friend if she knew of any places to meet lesbians. She ended up in the West Village at a place called Portofino which on Friday nights was a hangout for gay women. One night, in 1963, Edie met Thea Spyer. Thea had received her PhD in psychology from Adelphi University after having been expelled from Sarah Lawrence College for kissing an older woman. Edie was mesmerized by this charming and intellectual person. The two ran into each other on various occasions over the next couple years. One night, at Thea’s house in the Hamptons, Edie asked Thea, “Is your dance card filled?” “It is now,” Thea replied. And that was it.
Edie and Thea spent many happy years together, but in 1977 their lives changed when Thea was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Before long, Edie quit her job to care for Thea full time; helping her get into and out of bed, using the lifts and pulleys to help her into a van, or a swimming pool.
Edie and Thea knew they wanted to get married, but Thea’s disease worsened, and in 2007, Thea was told she had less than a year to live. The couple flew to Toronto and got legally married there in May with Edie sitting on the arm of Thea’s wheelchair. Thea died on February 5th 2009.
And then things got even worse. In her grief, Edie suffered a heart attack. Then, she received a bill from the federal government for $363,053 that Edie was expected to pay in estate taxes, because despite having been together for more than four decades, in sickness and in health, and despite their wedding in Canada, our government did not recognize their union. So Edie, at 80 years old, widowed, weak, and living on a fixed income, decided to take action.
Judaism teaches us that when we face injustice, we should do something about it. Edie Windsor is one among many Jewish women throughout our history who have fought to change the status quo, to bring about radical transformation to our world. Pinchas, our Torah portion for this Shabbat, teaches us about five courageous women who, like Edie, alter how society functions. Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, the daughters of the late Zelophechad, stand before Moses, Eleazer the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the tent of meeting. They say, “Our father died in the wilderness. Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen.” (Numbers 27:3-4) Zelophechad’s daughters, like Edie, grew up in a society which viewed them as second class citizens and denied them rights. So they bring their case to Moses, who brings it to God. And God tells Moses, “Ken b’not Zelophechad dovrot .” Yes, the daughters of Zelophechad speak rightly. You should give them a hereditary holding. Transfer their father’s share to them. But God goes even further and changes the law not just for Zelophechad’s daughters, but for all women. God tells Moses to instruct the people, “If any householder dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter.” (Numbers 27:7-8). Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah make a compelling argument, win their case, and in doing so, they transform the traditions and uproot what had been status quo. They become agents of change and make society a little more just.
On Wednesday, our country became a little more just. In his ruling for United States vs. Windsor, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the following, “The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) instructs all federal officials, and indeed all persons with whom same-sex couples interact, including their own children, that their marriage is less worthy than the marriages of others.” Justice Kennedy, along with justices Breyer, Kagen, Sotomayer, and Ginsburg, understood that Edith Windsor and many others was being treated unfairly, and so they struck down this odious act. They recognized how society evolves and just like in the case of Zelophechad’s daughters, the five justices concurred that the laws and ways in which society functions should be a reflection of what society looks like.
The story of Zelophechad’s daughters takes up 11 verses of Torah. Not much at all. And Justice Kennedy’s opinion is 26 pages long. But the road to both of these places was long, filled with setbacks, disappointments, despair, and loss. This is pride weekend, and we should celebrate, relax, hold our loved ones close, and smile. But we are not at the end of the road. There is still so much work to be done. We still live in a broken world, where the Edie’s and the Machlah’s, Noah’s, Hoglah’s, Milcah’s, and Tirzah’s experience pain, suffering, and injustice. Our Supreme Court certainly handed us a victory this week, but the previous day, it struck down a key piece of the Voting Rights Act. Even as our court bestowed justice upon Edie, me and Shalom, and many of you here this evening, its decision on Tuesday threatens to disenfranchise and disempower other minorities in our country. And although we celebrate DOMA’s demise, we still know there are 37 states which do not allow all of their citizens to marry their loved ones. We know that there are still plenty of places where it is ok to fire someone for being gay or lesbian or transgender. We still hear about kids killing themselves because another child bullies them, or calls them hateful names. So where do we go from here?
Immediately after God hands down the judgment concerning Zelophechad’s daughters, God gives Moses the following instructions. “Ascend these heights of Abarim and view the land that I have given to the Israelite people. When you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your kin, just as your brother Aaron was.” (Numbers 27:12-13) God is revealing a fundamental truth of our existence to Moses. There is always work to be done. The Promised Land remains just slightly out of reach. If we are lucky, we get a glimpse of it at times during our lives. On Wednesday morning, I saw a glimpse of the Promised Land. I saw the future. And it was a future that treats me and my husband like every other married couple we know. Just a couple of guys who love, and usually, even like eachother. Two men, who eat, sleep, go to work, walk the dog, and one day, God willing, raise children. Men who pay taxes together, who don’t have to worry about being kicked out of a hospital room if one of us gets sick. And on Wednesday morning, I cried. Because when I came out at 16, I was not sure I would ever have that. But now I know I can and will, and I know that the family Shalom and I create together will be just like every other family. That is the Promised Land. I can see it, but it will take all of us to do what Moses could not. The journey continues. This Shabbat, we give thanks for the blessings of the past week. We lift up Edie Windsor. We remember the great love that she and Thea shared. We resolve to keep marching. And we thank God for letting our holy community experience these sacred moments together. Praised are you, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, who gives us life, who sustains us in life, and who allows us to share these special moments of holiness, justice, and love together.