Jefferson: Democracy’s success depends upon freedom of belief, expression, and practice

by | Jul 14, 2022 | Featured

Rabbi Roz Mandelberg.

Two hundred forty-five years ago, in October 1776, the first General Assembly of our Commonwealth appointed a five-man Committee of Revisors to review the existing laws and redraft them for an independent Virginia. Much like it goes today, primary responsibility was assumed by the three lawyers on the committee, Thomas Jefferson, George Wythe, and Edmund Pendleton; but of the three, Jefferson assumed responsibility for the greater part of the drafting. In 1779, after Jefferson was elected Governor of Virginia, the committee’s catalog of 126 bills was presented to the General Assembly. Throughout his storied career, including serving as president of the United States of America, he considered Bill #82, which became Jefferson’s Statue for Religious Freedom, calling for the separation of church and state, to be one of the top three achievements of his lifetime.

You see, for Jefferson, an Enlightenment rationalist, reason had to govern in all areas, including religion. Jefferson explained, and I quote, “For the use of… reason…everyone is responsible to the God who has planted it in his breast, as a light for his guidance, and that, by which alone he will be judged.” Elaborating in a declaration to Benjamin Rush, Jefferson added, regarding religious freedom, “I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man;” any government effort to control religious beliefs is “tyranny over the mind of man.”

Politically and practically, Jefferson believed both the Commonwealth and the new nation required complete religious freedom and separation of church and state. Indeed, given the broad diversity of ethnicities and religions in the 13 colonies, he knew that religious freedom was necessary if the union was to be successful. Without them, he feared, “kings, nobles, and priests” threatened to create a dangerous aristocracy.

It wasn’t that Jefferson wasn’t a religious man—he was. But he knew that if our nation imposed one religion’s belief upon others, it would not only be “tyranny over the mind” of those who held other religious beliefs, but also, it would literally destroy everything upon which this melting pot, now salad bowl, nation was established. The very success of our democracy depended upon freedom of belief, expression, and practice.

Fast-forward almost 250 years. Can we even imagine what Governor Thomas Jefferson might have to say to Governor Glenn Younkin about his desire to impose restrictions on a women’s right to choose what is best for her physical and mental health!?! What kind of a conversation would President Jefferson be having with Clarence Thomas, whose Supreme Court not only overturned the 50-year precedent of reproductive freedom in its reversal of Roe v. Wade, but also threatens, in his written opinion, to repeal DOMA, marriage equality, as well as contraception?

And what of the religious beliefs of Jewish women that are being trampled upon? Judaism absolutely mandates the termination of pregnancies that would harm the physical or mental health of the mother. Even in the most conservative Jewish believers, there are situations where abortion is necessary. That is because the life of the existing human being, the woman, always takes precedence over a fetus. In fact, according to Jewish law, a fetus is not a full human life until the baby’s head emerges from the womb and takes its first breath. But I don’t believe this decision is about when life begins, whether at insemination, at conception, or at birth. To me, it is entirely political, a way of controlling women, their beliefs, their aspirations, their very lives.

Does this mean we believe that people should be terminating pregnancies as a form of birth control? Of course not. Does this mean that we don’t suffer the loss of a potential life from a miscarriage or, God forbid, stillbirth? Of course not. We grieve those tragic losses for what could have been, for all the hopes and dreams that potential seed of life meant to us. But for the government to force a woman to bear a child against her will is tyranny at its worst. It is tyranny over her mind. It is tyranny over her body. It is tyranny over her spirit. And, as Jefferson predicted, it threatens to destroy our democracy.

And it is only the beginning. We are already seeing infighting within states and even between and amongst them. Doctors, whose oath is to do no harm and protect the health of their patients, are being threatened with legal action and, in some cases, physical harm.

And these draconian laws will hurt the poor and women of color most of all. Women will die. Children will be born into poverty, with inadequate medical care, food, and shelter. For we know that the irony is that the same people who would force a woman to bring a pregnancy to term, could care less about the lives that emerge, save to guarantee them the right to bear arms.

I have heard from so many of you that you cannot believe in 2022 that our country is being taken back a half century to curtailing freedoms that the Supreme Court already ruled were guaranteed by our constitution’s First Amendment. You are frightened of what comes next. And we are all right to be afraid. Last year alone, 600 anti-abortion laws were introduced in 47 states, the most since Roe.

But there is also reason to hope. We are rallying, speaking out, and organizing.

Also, the Jewish Fund for Abortion Access has been established by the National Abortion Federation, where 100% of the money raised goes to pay for travel costs and abortion care for those who need it. Healthcare providers in states where abortion remains legal have stepped up.

Much, much more work needs to be done and we hope to be able to call upon you as we do it.

Please know, your clergy, Cantor Jen and I, along with hundreds of others, are stating emphatically, “This rabbi and cantor will marry you and support you as you access reproductive care. Full stop. No exceptions.”

I do want to say that, much to my disbelief, there are a few members of our congregation who are anti-choice. For some, the Roe case was bad from a legal standpoint. For others, the fetus is a life and to terminate a pregnancy is murder. While I do honor your right to your opinions, it will not stop us from fighting for what Judaism tells us is our right—to have bodily autonomy; to take care of the health of our minds, bodies, and spirits; and to terminate a pregnancy that is harmful to our mental or physical well-being. And we will fight for that right for others as well because we are commanded to pursue justice, and this is an issue of justice.

To that end, I recently participated in a press conference organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington on Reproductive Health and how it is a Jewish issue. Among the other panelists were former speaker of the House of Delegates Eileen Filler-Corn, the first woman and first Jewish speaker in the 200-plus-year history of the Commonwealth; also Dr. Sara Imershein, an OB/GYN, clinical professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the George Washington University School of Medicine, and expert on abortion and Jewish law, who stated emphatically that access to abortion improves lives and is just good public health policy; my colleague and friend, Rabbi Amy Schwartzman, of Temple Rodef Sholom in Falls Church, Va.; and two JCRC directors, Ron Halber and Guila Franklin Seigel.

I concluded my remarks at the press conference with these words: “The Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade and Governor Youngkin’s push to limit access to safe abortion countermands our faith tradition. Forcing a woman to bear a child, simply contravenes Jewish law and common sense. Every person has the right to hold their view on when life begins—but, when those in power impose their religious values upon others, it is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause that separates church from state. As a woman, a Jew, and a rabbi committed to the pursuit of justice for all God’s children, I dissent.” And so should we all. Amen.

Rabbi Rosalin Mandelberg