Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, we’re sharing a post from 2008 where Debora A. Larry Kearne examines Parashat Devarim. This reflection is particularly poignant when you consider just how far we have come since 2008. At the time of this d’var Torah was written only two states had ruled in favor of marriage equality.
In this week’s parasha, Devarim, Moses speaks to “all Israel on the other side of the Jordan” (JPS, Deuteronomy 1:1). Having completed its 38 years of desert wandering, kol Yisrael (all Israel) now stands, poised between the wilderness and the Promised Land, their past and their future. In 2008, as members of the Jewish and queer communities, we may feel that we too stand on the other side of the Jordan. After all, some Jewish congregations declare their openness to queer Jews, same-sex unions are now legal in Massachusetts and California, and “don’t ask, don’t tell,” though imperfect, does allow the LGBTQ community to serve in the United States military. If we are the new generation who is standing on the other side, then what purpose does Moses’ lengthy prologue, have, why the historical review of the covenant between God and God’s people?
Because stepping into the unknown—even if it is the Promised Land—takes faith, and in this parasha, Moses reminds us that losing faith separates kol Yisrael from the Eternal One.
First of all, it can be difficult to depart from a momentous mountaintop experience. Indeed, God had to order the people to leave Mount Horeb: “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. . . . Go, take possession of the land that the Eternal swore to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (JPS, Deuteronomy 1: 6-8). Queer Jews, as part of the larger queer community, may marry or declare civil unions—but only in two states. Furthermore, within days of the California Supreme Court decision, groups who oppose the right of gays to marry collected enough signatures to place California Proposition 8, an amendment to the state constitution that defines marriage as between a man and a woman, on the November ballot. Taking possession in this instance means we must leave the victory in California and prepare to defend against those who wish to take away the right of queers to marry.
Moses recalls how the people behaved when they reached the edge of the Promised Land the first time: “Yet you refused to go up, and flouted the command of the Eternal your God. You sulked in your tents and said, ‘It is out of hatred for us that the Eternal brought us out of the land of Egypt. . . What kind of place are we going to?’” (JPS Deuteronomy 1:26-28). It is easy to dismiss the fear that the people felt at that time. It is easy to dismiss the fear felt today when, during a 23 July 2008 hearing held by the House Armed Services Committee, Military Personnel Subcommittee, Elaine Donnelly, President of the Center for Military Readiness, declares in all seriousness, “Inappropriate passive/aggressive actions common in the homosexual community, short of physical touching and assault, will be permitted in all military communities, to include Army and Marine infantry battalions, Special Operations Forces. Navy SEALS, and cramped submarines that patrol the seas for months at a time.” What kind of place are we going to?
Moses’ rebuke, “You have no faith in the Eternal your God,”(JPS, Deuteronomy 1:32) and God’s anger, “‘Not one of the men, this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers”(JPS Deuteronomy 1:35), sting today as they did then. Strong words to deliver a strong message: Losing faith in God and ourselves separates us from God and the covenantal relationship of our people, Jewish and queer.
Like the people standing before Moses, we stand on the other side of the Jordan, on the threshold of change. Acknowledge the fear of leaving the past and the known. Grab hold of faith, in God’s power and in our ability to walk proudly into the Promised Land.
“These are the words” (JPS, Deuteronomy 1:1).
Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the Torah Queeries online collection, which was inspired by the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible. This week, Jo Ellen Green Kaiser examines Parashat Matot and Parashat Masei, taking a careful look at vows and the role of women in a patriarchal society.
At the close of Bamidbar/Numbers, the fourth book of Torah and the last book of the Jewish journey to the Promised Land, Moses engages in a long colloquy with the leaders of the tribes (matot) on the nature of oaths and vows. Parashat Matot begins with Moses instructing the leaders of the people on when vows can and cannot be broken. Parashat Masei (“Marches/Travels”) closes with tribal leaders asking Moses to adjust the vow made by Moses to the daughters of Zelophehad that they would inherit their father’s portion.
Strikingly, both of these discussions center particularly on women and vows. In Matot, we learn that a man has no choice: if he makes a vow or oath, he must “carry out all that has crossed his lips.” Whether a woman must carry out her vow—or even whether she is permitted to carry out such a vow—depends very much on her social status. If she is divorced or widowed, i.e., outside the sphere of a man’s influence, then her vows cannot be broken; she has the same status as a man in this regard. However, the world of Torah is patriarchal: if a woman is married or if she is an unmarried woman living in her father’s house, then she is considered subservient to the male head of the household, and he has the right to dismiss her vow.
Before we shudder about the inequality of women’s roles in the Torah, we should take a second look. What is perhaps most surprising about this discussion of vows is how limited a man’s power is to circumscribe women’s obligations. The man only has 24 hours after learning that his wife or daughter has taken a vow to cancel it. If he does not act in that time, the vow is in full force. In fact, if the man forces the woman to annul her vow after that time, it is he, not she, who will suffer the divine consequence.
Moses faces precisely this kind of challenge at the end of parashat Masei. The leaders of the tribe of Manasseh come to Moses with a problem. Moses has just divvied-up the land of Israel, giving set acreage to each tribe. The problem for Manasseh is that back in Numbers 27, Moses vowed to give the daughters of Zelophehad, members of Manasseh, their father’s inheritance, as there were no male heirs. Yet, in tribal Israeli culture, if Zelopohehad’s daughters married, their heirs would be considered members of their husband’s tribe, and thus some tribe other than Manasseh would inherit their land.
Moses cannot break his vow, because it was not a simple legal agreement made with these daughters but a vow made in the name of God—God said, “The pleas of Zelophehad’s daughters is just; you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.” Moses had to let that vow stand, yet he had to do something; tribal leaders would revolt if they thought that women could inherit land that would then pass out of the tribe’s control. Moses’s solution was that the daughters of Zelophehad had to marry within their own tribe, so that their heirs would be members of the tribe Manasseh.
The case of Zelophehad’s daughters illuminates the constraints around women’s vows in parashat Matot. Even though women in the biblical world have far fewer rights than men, parashat Matot insists that women have full rights before God—they have the same ability as men to forge a private relationship with God through vows. Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher, calls this relationship the I-Thou relationship. God sees us for who we are; when we stand before God, we are naked, stripped of the social world that usually surrounds and binds us. We speak to God “face-to-face.”
In the world, however, we rarely are able to maintain an I-Thou relationship with God or even with each other, seeing each other as the person we really are. The social world intrudes, with its material requirements. Such is the situation for women in the biblical world. Their entire society was patriarchal, based on the rule of the householder over his house, the rule of the tribe over the householders, and eventually, the rule of the king over the tribes. These relationships are not I-Thou relationships, but I-It relationships; individuals are not known for who they are in themselves, but as objects, objects that dictate their role in the tribe.
Because the society was patriarchal, women had no agency at all in the social structure. Thus, allowing them to have an I-Thou relationship was dangerous, as an I-Thou relationship is predicated on the complete agency of the two who face each other. So, Torah allows the man who has most agency over a woman in the society, that is, who has the strongest I-It relationship to her, to prevent her I-Thou relationship with God. That the discussion of vows is really a discussion of the implementation of patriarchy is made clear by the fact that Moses only gives instructions about vows to the heads of the tribes (rashei ha matot). The instructions here are not about the value of women’s vows; the instructions are about how these leaders can preserve patriarchy.
We like to think we have moved far from the tribal society of Moses’ time, yet I see many comparisons. Reading this parasha brought to my mind the fight over same-sex marriage. In Judaism, the wedding ceremony itself does not entail a vow to God, yet marriage itself is understood as a sacred covenant, made by two people in the sight of God. Marriage is the ultimate I-Thou relationship between two people, a commitment to know each other as we really are, to see each other “face-to-face.” As we agree to meet the other as ourself, we bring ourselves closer to God as well. This is precisely the difference between marriage and a “domestic partnership.” A domestic partnership is a legal arrangement, in which we cede each other certain rights. A marriage is a sacred covenant, in which we agree to treat the other as a “Thou.”
Just as leaders of the matot were concerned that women’s vows would overturn their patriarchal society, so leaders of our civil society are concerned that gay and lesbian vows will overturn our hetero-normative society. They understand—we understand—that there is real power in the I-Thou relationship, a power that tends to overturn social mores and social structures. Seeing another as oneself is in some ways both the most sacred and most transgressive act, an act that defies social boundaries and cultural customs.
What I find most inspiring about Matot Masei is that Torah tells us that God welcomes this powerfully transgressive relationship. God welcomes the women of ancient Israel to make vows as well as men. God welcomes us to forge I-Thou relationships with God and with each other. It is not God who stands in the way of our deepest relationships. It is society that is not ready for God.
This week on Kveller, Rita Collins told her story of falling in love, facing discrimination, growing her family, and getting married. She shared how “a wedding and its preparation can really connect you to Judaism,” and reflected on how her marriage helped her feel more at ease with both being gay and being Jewish.
So, a rabbi, a Hindu doctor, and two lesbians walk into a country club…
It’s not the start of a joke, but a few years ago people would have been laughing at the idea that this was the start of a wedding story.
My relationship began just a few days before Prop 8 passed in California (I had only been in heterosexual relationships up until that point). I remember driving on the freeway in Los Angeles and hearing the news that the proposition had unexpectedly passed and that gay marriage, which had been legal for four months in California, was now illegal. I wasn’t anywhere near ready to be married at that point, but I remember thinking to myself for the first time in my life: so, this is what bigotry feels like.
I had always supported gay rights and gay marriage, even before realizing my own attractions to the same sex, but I don’t think there is a way of truly understanding bigotry until you are the victim of it. I had been married to a man…I met him, we had a relationship, and one day we chose to get married, but now I wouldn’t have that right anymore, because I was falling in love with a woman. I am truly not a very emotional person, but I remember driving on the freeway that day and crying.
The Fourth of July is one of those official summer milestones. No matter what part of the country you’re from, there’s some uniformity to the celebrations. There are picnics! Firework displays! Patriotism—waving flags and full on American flag outfits.
To be honest, it’s not my favorite holiday. There’s a sense of machismo to it that doesn’t resonate with me or my lifestyle. I like a good display of pride, but I react to the loud booms of fireworks by cowering, not standing taller. Truth be told, I was hard pressed to reflect on Independence Day in a light that made sense for the Keshet blog and community. But when I sat down to really think about it, I was struck by the parallels between the Fourth of July and the recent progress made in LGBTQ equality. Both are centered on two hard to miss themes: freedom and community.
Which makes me wonder, can a case actually be made for July Fourth as an LGBTQ Jewish holiday? Let’s break it down.
Just two months ago we celebrated the 10 year anniversary of legal same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. It makes sense that Massachusetts, home to Paul Revere’s midnight ride, the (original) tea party of the Boston Harbor, and the shot heard around the world, would be the place for same sex marriage to originate.
And, the fight for our freedom has taken root and spread. Currently, 19 States—plus the District of Columbia—protect the rights of their citizens with legal, same-sex marriage. And here’s what those numbers mean:
- Nearly 44% of the U.S. population lives in a state with the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.
- Over 46% of the U.S. population lives in a state with either marriage or a broad legal status such as civil union or domestic partnership.
- Over 48% of the U.S. population lives in a state that provides some form of protections for gay couples.
We’re fighting for freedom and for progress, and this is seen not just in our government, but in synagogues across the country as Jewish individuals lead the charge for equality. There is still a long way to go, but the Jewish community has truly begun taking concrete steps towards inclusion. And with that change comes an independence from outdated ways of looking at gender or sexual orientation.
From block parties, to family gatherings, to the idea of country, the Fourth of July is about community. And community isn’t just about where you live; it’s about a sense of belonging. Community is central to the identity of many LGBTQ Jews. Community often comes in the form of chosen families, or from synagogues and institutions that support LGBTQ Jews. Community isn’t something that’s taken for granted by most LGBTQ Jews. Over the month of June we heard stories about LGBTQ pride from countless individuals, and with those stories came mentions of communities—both supportive and otherwise. Communities play a huge role in being comfortable with our identities. And, just as we celebrate the entirety of our American community on the Fourth of July, it’s important to celebrate the way our communities push us to be better people and comfort us when we struggle.
So, there you have it. My argument that July 4th isn’t just about blind patriotism—it’s also about appreciating our many varieties of freedom and the communities that make us strong.
On June 20th, 2014, Rabbi Ellen Lippmann offered the following words of prayer at the UJA-Federation’s “Community Conversation on LGBTQ Engagement,” a conference convened to discuss ideas of LGBT inclusion in Jewish institutions.
I am here because I am a lesbian, a Jew, a rabbi who sees Jews as my people and LGBTQ people as my people. So my partner gets to say, often, that she thinks a man and a woman together are intermarried. I am here because my partner and I celebrated our 30th anniversary this winter and could only get married 3 years ago.
I am here because there are a whole lot of issues other than marriage on the LGBTQ plate. And, I am here because I want as a Jew to say never again and know that I mean never will anyone obliterate any entire population AND I want as a queer person to say never again and know I mean there are so many things that should never happen again.
Never again a rabbinic student going through school in hiding.
Never again to be cast away by those who use the Bible to dismiss us.
Never again a college student jumping off a bridge to his death because his roommate mocked his sexual connection.
Never again a parent unable to be with a child because of misguided lawyers and enacted prejudice.
Never again a trans person attacked on the street just for being transgender.
Never again LGBTQ deaths due to neglect and abandonment.
Never again state-approved killing of LGBTQ people anywhere in the world.
Never again a gay man beaten by Jews on the street.
Yes to the wisdom, clarity, heart God places in human beings and yes to the times they are used for good.
Yes to marriage rights expanding across the country and across state lines, yes to love and yes to great sex.
Yes to the “It Gets Better” videos and to all the ways people encourage those who are losing hope.
Yes to LGBT centers across the country.
Yes to gay churches and synagogues that paved the way and yes to the amazing efforts of gay Muslims that will create a gay mosque and yes to every religious group that opens rather than closing doors.
Yes to activists and advocates of every generation who pushed hard and keep pushing.
Yes to the memory of Stonewall and yes to resistance.
Yes to UJA-Federation opening its doors even if it seems a little scary
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Pride and community go hand in hand. For a good part of my life, I didn’t have much of either.
I grew up in a small suburb in Western Pennsylvania. I was shy, anxious, and uncomfortably Asian-American—not enough of one, too much of the other as far as some members of the Taiwanese émigré community were concerned. While my own parents didn’t give me too much of a hard time about being assimilated, I always worried about measuring up to expectations. And though I had a small group of friends, I never felt at ease with most of my classmates, who all seemed to know more than I did about pop music, shopping, and the opposite sex.
Keep in mind that this was in the ‘80s: before Ellen, before Will & Grace, before Michael Sam and Melissa Etheridge and others who were visibly out and proud. There were no role models where I lived, and no discussion of homosexuality. Looking back, I can tell I had crushes on girls. But had I been aware of it at the time, I probably would have burrowed far, far back into the closet—a closet I didn’t even realize I was in.
Breaking free of all that didn’t happen immediately, but moving to Boston definitely helped. I quickly met a slew of warm, nonjudgmental people who took me just as I was. Naturally, when I finally admitted to myself that I was gay and started telling my closest friends, none of them were shocked (or even surprised). Their love and acceptance gave me the confidence to keep coming out of the closet and to venture out to LGBT events, including the swing dancing class where I met my future wife.
Fast forward to 2008 … by then, my wife Kate and I had been legally married for four years. During that time I had experienced her family’s lovely traditions and learned some very basic information about Judaism. Since we both wanted more, we decided to look into joining Temple Emunah in Lexington, Mass., where Kate had previously been a member. I was more secure with my lesbian identity by then, but was still a little anxious about how the temple community would react to a same-sex interracial couple.
I needn’t have worried. As it turned out, Temple Emunah, through the efforts of its Keruv committee, had already been working hard on welcoming gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews as well as interfaith families. This, paired with the natural friendliness of the Emunah members we met, made us feel right at home. And when later on I decided to convert, our rabbi, Rabbi David Lerner, didn’t lecture me on how hard it would be and how much I would have to learn in order to qualify as a Jew. He instead expressed total enthusiasm for the idea and added, “And then you could get married under the chuppah!”
And that’s exactly what we did! In 2009, a few weeks after my conversion, Kate and I stood under the chuppah, and Rabbi Lerner married us in a special ceremony in front of our family and Temple Emunah friends. And five years later, we stood again on the bimah and received an aliyah in honor of our 5th and 10th wedding anniversaries: a public statement of love and acceptance that I, in my wildest dreams, would never have predicted.
When I reflect on that happy moment and on all the congratulations and warm wishes we received that day, I’m incredibly thankful for the embrace and support of our temple. I’m also grateful to all the organizations working toward inclusion, whether it’s Keshet’s efforts with the Jewish community or the many civil rights groups advocating for marriage equality and equal protection under the law. And I’m proud to belong to a faith that declares that we are all made in the image of God, and commands us to treat each other accordingly.
As we celebrate the ten year anniversary of legal same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, we’ve invited members of the community to share their reflections. Today’s post comes from Rabbi Toba Spitzer of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, a Reconstructionist rabbi who performed same-sex religious weddings before the verdict—but was finally able to legally marry Massachusetts same-sex couples 10 years ago.
I performed a number of weddings while still a rabbinical student, in the mid-1990s, as my friends began to make lifetime commitments and, being unaffiliated, turned to me—clergy in training!—to help them with their ceremonies. It was somewhat ironic that so many of my (straight) friends and acquaintances turned to me for this particular lifecycle event, as I had never been a huge fan of marriage. That may have been due to my own inklings as a kid that heterosexual white-wedding fantasies were not for me, or due to many years of being single and having to sit through other people’s weddings, or to my feminist and lesbian questioning of an institution that had historically been far from progressive.
Yet with all of that, I was happy to help my friends take this first step in creating a Jewish household together. My movement, Reconstructionism, was the first to officially sanction same-sex religious ceremonies, and so I had no qualms about helping anyone, gay or straight, craft a Jewish ceremony that reflected their sensibilities and values.
What I realized, however, soon after I began to do weddings, was that I had no interest in being an agent of the state for an institution that discriminated against me. Once I became a rabbi, I concluded that to sign a marriage license for a heterosexual couple would be somewhat akin to driving a bus that I was forced to sit at the back of. If I couldn’t get legally married, then how in the world could I participate in legally sanctioning the marriages of others?
And so, my policy for doing (heterosexual) weddings was that the couple would need to take care of the civil piece themselves, and further, that somewhere in the ceremony we would need to mention that legal marriage remained a privilege not accessible to everyone. With these two stipulations in place, I found myself able to stand under the chuppah with couples with a sense of integrity and wholeheartedness.
When the SJC (Supreme Judicial Court) handed down its landmark decision in 2003, I realized that my policy would soon be up for revision. As it happened, the first wedding I had scheduled for the spring of 2004, once the new marriage laws were in place, involved a lesbian couple. Not only that, but they had decided—for reasons of their own—to hold the ceremony in a restaurant with a bowling alley.
I had decided before rabbinical school that my achievable lifetime goal would be to bowl in every state of the U.S. (My unachievable goal would be world peace). So to officiate at my first civilly-sanctioned same-sex marriage in a bowling alley was too good to be true! And indeed, it was a marvelous moment when I signed the civil document, and under the chuppah pronounced the couple, by the power invested in me by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, legally married.” Mazel tov!
As we celebrate the ten year anniversary of marriage equality in Massachusetts, we’ve invited members of the community to share their reflections. Today’s post comes from Sarah Richards, who married her wife once in a religious ceremony in Georgia, and again legally in Massachusetts.
As I sit down to write my reflections on ten years of marriage equality in Massachusetts, it strikes me that I’ve recently done something mundane yet remarkable. My spouse and I signed our first joint federal tax return. It’s honestly difficult for me to say what feels better: not having to pay the “gay tax” that has cost our family approximately $4,000-$6,000 each year, or not having to check the insulting little box marked “single.” Even though we signed our returns in our kitchen, with no audience or fanfare, no congratulatory hugs, it feels like a watershed moment. It feels a lot like the moment I experienced ten years ago walking into the town clerk’s office in Northborough, Massachusetts on May 17th, 2004.
My wife and I had already been married in a lovely ceremony nineteen months before when we lived in Georgia. We did the whole wedding thing: fancy clothes, flowers, a tiered cake with ribbon, a DJ. My hometown rabbi flew down from Massachusetts to do the ceremony for us. Many friends and relatives attended from around the country. But palpably missing was my wife’s family. Her parents and brother couldn’t attend because they “had other plans” that weekend. A dear friend who had served as a career mentor and surrogate mother of sorts walked my beloved down one side aisle while my parents walked me down the other side. We joined in the middle, and after the vows and blessings, we exited through the center aisle together.
So there we were, a thousand miles north, back in my home state, about to get married for a second time. This time we held the ceremony in our home and invited all our local friends to join us in becoming “legal.” The same rabbi married us again. But this time instead of signing a ketubah, the traditional Jewish marriage contract, we signed the marriage license papers we had obtained from the clerk. But they’re not the papers that hang framed on our bedroom wall. And when we talk about our anniversary, we always mean the one in October, not the one in May.
Our family lives back in Georgia again now. We’ve been blessed with three beautiful children since those events, all born here in my wife’s home town of Athens. There was a lawsuit filed recently in Atlanta on behalf of several plaintiffs who share stories similar to ours. The suit seeks to add Georgia to the list of states recognizing couples and families like us. And so we march on.
I’m glad for the progress our country has made this past decade. I’m glad our children will grow up in a place where that type of discrimination is written into law less and less. I’m glad that fewer and fewer people will look out at the guests attending their wedding and feel a stab of pain not seeing their own family among them. And I feel a lot of gratitude. I am proud to hail from the state that led the way. I look forward to the day when I can tell my grandchildren about a time when things were different, harder. I want to see the expressions on their faces. I want to see in their eyes that hearing about a time without equality is like hearing about a time without electricity.
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As we celebrate the ten-year anniversary of legal same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, we’ve invited members of the community to share their reflections. Today’s post comes from Nahma Nadich, Associate Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, as she reflects on the power of organizing and the lessons she—and her daughters—learned through their work as allies ten years ago.
In the Fall of 2003, I was starting my 4th year as Director of Social Justice Programs at the Jewish Community Relations Council. I’d left a clinical social work practice in the gay and lesbian community, moving from the realm of the “personal” to the “political”. Since those were clearly separate and distinct spheres—or so I thought…until the Goodridge decision.
Having grown up with Jewish mentors who were civil rights activists, I was now thrilled to be part of the Jewish chapter of a civil rights story unfolding in my own time. Equally exciting was the opportunity to have my children witness this moment, and feel the pride that comes from seeing your people do their part to change the world.
In Boston, we were the first JCRC in the country to affirm and advocate for marriage equality, working closely with other Jewish organizations to leverage the influence of our community. As we navigated the politics first of our own community, and then at the State House, our most powerful tool was sharing personal stories. Our board members expressed their anguish at their adult children being treated like second class citizens; Jewish constituents talked with their legislators about the toll of inequality on their families. They changed hearts and minds.
The showdown came at a constitutional convention in the spring, when marriage equality was threatened. Advocates for equality faced vocal opponents, who were bused in from far and wide. As evening approached, the ranks of the opponents grew thin and the call went out for reinforcements. So I seized this opportunity to bring both of my girls to the battlefront. I told them to get out of their pajamas and stop doing homework—they were about to have their first visit to the State House!
When we arrived, we encountered an extraordinary scene: thousands of champions of equality in the halls of power, their voices ringing out in song after song of love and marriage. Holding hands, and as the time grew later, cushioning each other throughout the floor of the Great Hall, they were exercising their rights in the most personal way. They were citizens giving voice to a fundamental human aspiration—to be treated with dignity and respect. This display may not have been the most typical example of state house lobbying to show my daughters, but what they witnessed that day taught them a priceless lesson; politics, when done right, are deeply personal. And campaigns, when they deliver, change people’s lives, for generations. Like many of us, I wept my way through the weddings that followed, when the tears flowed most freely at the ostensibly dry and formulaic words, “by the power vested in me by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts!” At those personal celebrations, it was the affirmation of public rights that proved to be the moments that most stirred our souls.
As I reflect back on that time and on the decade since, I have to acknowledge another crucial lesson—but this is one I learned from my daughter. On that fall day when we learned of the court decision, I shared my joy with both my daughters, only to have my unimpressed 14 year old roll her eyes and say, “Yeah, big deal—it’s only one state. There are 49 more!” I understood her political naiveté and youthful impatience, but saw this as a giant teachable moment about the slow pace of progress. Ten years and eighteen states (and counting!) later, I see that in fact, she was right. One state was never enough; she was right to expect more, and to refuse a long wait. Yes, fundamental social change occurs most often at a maddeningly slow pace. Except for times like these. I thank my daughter for reminding me to be open to the possibility of miracles—both personal and political.
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2013 is one for the history books. The year has seen unprecedented legal victories for marriage equality. Here’s our breakdown of a year in the fight for marriage equality—mixed with some wisdom and reactions from the Jewish community.
The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) & Proposition 8
On June 26th, Edith Windsor brought down DOMA. Although the verdict didn’t grant marriage equality nationwide, it did serve to end the federal government’s discrimination against legally married LGBT couples. Ariel, a rabbinical student, stood on the steps of the Supreme Court that morning: “A group stood in an interfaith prayer circle. Before the verdict was announced, I led the group in prayer—at that moment I felt what Abraham Joshua Heschel meant when he said that marching for civil rights was praying with his feet.”
The ruling on DOMA was accompanied with another victory—Proposition 8 was overturned.
“Having a wedding had never been something I thought I would have. As my partner and I sat on the couch crying, I realized that we had a lot of work ahead of us,” shared Meryl, a Jew living in California. “That weekend in San Francisco we saw lines outside City Hall for same-sex wedding ceremonies, but we knew we wanted to do something with our friends and family. In many ways we live our married life as we set up our marriage ceremony, a mix of American/Paraguayan, Jewish/Christian, English/Spanish/Hebrew, and always with compromise, learning, and wonder.”
On January 3, legislation to legalize same-sex marriage was introduced in Rhode Island; it passed on May 2nd.
The Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island endorsed the legislation, declaring that “the right of civil marriage should be available to all Rhode Islanders.” In their endorsement, the diverse group of rabbi’s wrote, “lessons from Jewish history provide us with a mandate to work for civil rights.”
A bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Delaware passed on May 7th, making it the 12th state to enact marriage equality. The legislation eliminated civil unions, converting any unions to fully recognized marriages.
Upon hearing the news, National Coalition of Jewish Women released the following statement, “NCJW salutes state lawmakers and the governor for this step forward for civil rights for the people of Delaware.”
In 2012, over half of the voters in Minnesota rejected a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. The Legislature passed a same-sex marriage bill in May, which went into effect on August 1st.
Minnesotan Rafi shared his views on his own upcoming nuptials: “We were anxious to have a wedding in a state where members of our own family wouldn’t be able to do the same. We were relieved when Minnesota became the first Midwestern state to legalize same-sex marriage through legislation, led by Jewish State Representative Simon—with a host of Jewish groups proudly helping hoist the banner of equality.”
As a result of the court case Garden State Equality v. Dow, New Jersey legally recognized same-sex marriage in October. Marsha Shapiro and Louise Walpin were among the first in the state to tie the knot. Just after midnight on October 21st the two wrapped themselves in prayer shawls and broke the glass, telling Haaretz, “When we broke the glass, we were destroying inequality and discrimination in New Jersey.”
As the year marched on, Hawaii became the 15th state to legalize same-sex marriages, cementing it’s place as honeymoon capital of the U.S.
Just before Thanksgiving, the Land of Lincoln gave us something to be thankful for: same-sex marriage was signed into law.
An open letter from Illinois clergy and faith leaders reads, “We dedicate our lives to fostering faith and compassion, and we work daily to promote justice and fairness for all. Standing on these beliefs, we think that it is morally just to grant equal opportunities and responsibilities to loving, committed same-sex couples.”
On December 19th, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in New Mexico.
Following on the heels of New Mexico, Utah legalized same-sex marriage on December 20th. Sarah, a rabbinical student in Boston, summed up her feelings for her home state, “Oh my heck, Utah! What fantastic, amazing, beautiful news! Congrats to my home state for defying my expectation that it would be the last one to get on the equality boat!”
We’ll take it as a good omen that as we say good bye to 2013, 18 states have the freedom to marry for same-sex couples. L’chaim!