From Ev’ry Mountainside, Let RELIGIOUS Freedom Ring

Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, Rosh Hashanah Morning

Aaron and I became parents in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and shortly after Eli was born, one of Aaron’s older congregants told me this story from when he was a young boy growing up:

It was the winter holiday season, and he had been cast as baby Jesus in the upcoming Christmas play. No bigger role than that! Happy and proud, he went home to tell his mother, who declared: “Baby Jesus?? My Jewish son, baby Jesus?? Absolutely not. You will go back to that school and you will tell your teacher that you cannot be in that play!” 

He was devastated, but he did as he was told.

The next day, when he came home from school, “Nu?” his mother asked. “Did you tell your teacher you can’t be in that play? A Jewish boy playing Jesus!” 

“I tried,” he told his mom. “But, instead of letting me quit, she gave me a new role instead. I’m no longer Baby Jesus; now I’m one of the wise men.” And he held his breath to see how his mother would react.

His mother clenched her shawl to her chest, then took her boy’s face in her hands. “My son — a wise man, a chacham??” she declared. “I’ve never been so proud!” And that’s how he came to participate in his Cedar Rapids elementary school Christmas play.

It’s a funny story; I laughed when he told it to me then and it still makes me smile now. But it was also a “welcome” story — welcome to the club of raising a Jewish child in a predominantly non-Jewish world.

We had our own first story five years later.

We were now living in here Charleston, and our son was a kindergarten student at our neighborhood public school. Even though the school cafeteria was our polling place, and I had seen advertisements for the Kindergarten Christmas show every year when we voted in November, I was still caught off-guard when Eli came home preparing for the show himself. At first it seemed like we might be able to just sort of grit our teeth and get through it. In fact, Eli loved the first song they learned, “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth,” since he had recently lost his own.

But then he came home one day with a very serious look and said: “Mom, Dad, something doesn’t feel right. I feel like I’m in church.” 

“Songs about Santa and Jingle Bells aren’t exactly ‘church,’” we told him. 

“No,” he told us. “This is church.” And he showed us the songs they were now working on, which, he was right, were filled with Jesus and Christ and were definitely, if not wholly different, then certainly of a different magnitude.

So we brainstormed options together. We told him it didn’t make him any less Jewish if decided to participate. We told him it didn’t make him any less of a good student, or classmate, or American if he didn’t. But he came up with a third approach — he decided to ask the teacher if, when everyone shouted “Merry Christmas!” at the end of the show, they could add “And Happy New Year!” (This was the year Hanukkah had already taken place over Thanksgiving, so it seemed too late to add in a “Happy Hanukkah,” but this ecumenical note seemed to make him feel better.) So we told him, of course, go for it! And he did — he asked his teacher, who told him that sounded very nice and she would ask the other teachers. And she did — and they told our 5 year old kindergarten student… No. They could not add four extra words to the end of the show. They could not say: “And Happy New Year.”

Amazingly our son was fine with this. “Do you want us to talk with them?” we asked. “You still don’t have to participate if you don’t want to.” But he was OK. 

And I now realize that it was never about those four words, or the “Merry Christmas” with which the show did end, or any other specific song or moment. It was about being made to feel different, and knowing that every student who is made to feel that way has a choice: Are you going to try to ignore the difference or are you going to acknowledge it? Are you going to remain silent or are you going to stand up? Eli knew he had stood up; the end result didn’t really matter. Other students make the equally understandable choice to stay quiet. 

But the point of religious freedom in this country is that we’re not supposed to put our kids in that place to begin with. None of us are supposed to be put in that place.

Religious freedom is a complicated thing. As Linda Wertheimer writes: “How tricky it can be to balance freedom of religion with freedom from religion.” [1] But it’s a balancing act that dates back to the very, very beginning of our nation’s founding, and American Jews have always been at the forefront in navigating religious freedom and protecting it.

August, 1790. The Constitution had recently been ratified; the Bill of Rights was still a year away. To thank Rhode Island, the newest state in the Union, for its endorsement of the Constitution, President George Washington and his entourage made a trip up north to the Ocean State. As part of the pomp and circumstance of his reception, three letters were read to the President — the third by Moses Seixas, lay leader of the Hebrew Congregation in Newport. The opportunity to address the President as a Jewish community was a big deal, and in the letter, Seixas said: 

Deprived as we [the Jewish community] heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens, we now with a deep sense of gratitude to the Almighty disposer of all events behold a Government, erected by the Majesty of the People—a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance—but generously affording to all Liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language equal parts of the great governmental Machine.

President Washington received the letter, clearly reflected upon it, and a few days later, on his return trip home, he penned a response: “Gentlemen,” he wrote — 

The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. 

In other words, not only are the freedoms that have been established in the United States a blessing to this country, they are a light unto other nations, as well. He continued:

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, [that one group would let another group have their freedom,] for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

The Bill of Rights would be ratified in December 1791, codifying the free exercise of religion and preventing any law that would promote or establish one religion above others. But a year and a half before The Bill of Rights, using the exact language penned by the Jewish community of Newport, President George Washington had already defined religious liberty as an “inherent natural right” of every single citizen in the United States of America.

The Jewish community was at the forefront of ensuring religious freedom at the founding of our country. With a slew of new infringements currently threatening to erode this first and most fundamental right, the Jewish community needs to be as active as ever in preserving religious freedom now.

Let’s begin with the places where infringement on religious liberty are about as clearcut as they can be. First and foremost: Reproductive freedom.

The overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the drastic curtailment of the availability of abortion in a number of states in the country in its wake, is predicated on a statement of faith. Belief that life begins at conception is just that — a belief. Legislating that life begins at conception codifies into law the faith statement of a particular religious tradition and makes inaccessible the ethical decision-making of those who follow the tenets of other faiths. It makes inaccessible decision-making based on the tenets of Jewish faith. 

Judaism teaches that until a fetus is born and takes its first breath, it is part of a pregnant person’s body. In all cases — those concerning physical health, mental health, spiritual health — the life and well-being of the pregnant person comes first. This is halacha, Jewish law. And just to be completely clear how much the constriction of reproductive freedom puts religious freedom on the line, if South Carolina law were to ever follow Texas law, where a gag rule all but eliminates the ability to even discuss or counsel about abortion, I could be fined and potentially jailed just for teaching you this part of our Jewish tradition today.

Jewish law puts the health and wellbeing of a person who is pregnant first. So, in Dallas, where a study found women are having to wait “an average of nine days for their conditions to be considered life threatening enough to justify abortion,” and many have “suffered serious health consequences while they waited, including hemorrhaging and sepsis, and one woman had to have a hysterectomy as a result,” there is an infringement on religious freedom.

When “forensic nurses who care for sexual assault victims in the emergency room [have] said they would no longer provide morning-after contraception for fear it would be considered an abortion drug,” there is an infringement on religious freedom.

When “oncologists say they now wait for pregnant women with cancer to get sicker before they treat them, because the standard of care would be to abort the fetus rather than allow treatments that damage it, but a state law allows abortion only ‘at risk of death,’” there is an infringement on religious freedom. [2]

Of course, those for whom their religious tradition or moral conscience lead them to the conclusion that life begins at conception are free to follow the decision-making that flows from that belief. That’s what religious freedom means. But, as the late Yale University law professor Robert Burt explained: “In a society equally owned by everyone, all disputants (no matter how convinced they may be of the superior morality or justice of their positions) must refrain from pursuing complete and conclusive victory over their opponents.” [3] Religious freedom requires us to practice a bit of restraint; have a bit of humility. Or, as Martha Nussbaum, puts it: “We cannot claim the right of religious liberty without granting it on an equal basis to those who do not follow the religion we believe to be correct.” [4]

Reproductive freedom is only one of the places where an inverted understanding of religious freedom is being used to infringe upon the very liberty it is meant to protect, where lawmakers and judges are defining religious freedom as the freedom to impose their religion on others. Our own governor has invoked religious liberty as the reason a taxpayer-funded foster care agency in South Carolina has been allowed to restrict the placement of foster children into exclusively Protestant, heterosexual foster care homes in the Upstate. In our South Carolina legislature, there is a bill in the Senate that would allow doctors to refuse to provide medical care to patients on the basis their own personal religious beliefs; another in the House would make providing crucial medical treatment to trans boys and girls a felony, treatment that allows them to live healthy, confident lives compatible with their gender identity. Facing a potential prison sentence of up to 20 years for treating trans children, doctors are already fearful before the law has even passed, and many families whose children have been receiving treatment, are now desperate, suddenly unable to access essential care for their children here in Charleston and throughout our state. 

It truly is a faulty and warped understanding of “religious liberty” to think that religious freedom means our lawmakers have the right to legislate their own religious ideology for others. And how do we know that this understanding is wrong, that this is precisely the direction our Founding Fathers did not want us to go? They told us. In a letter to the United Baptist Churches in Virginia, none other than George Washington wrote:

If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed in the Convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it; and if I could now conceive that the general government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horror of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.

Dan Eshet and Michael Feldberg, “George Washington and Religion, Washington’s Rebuke to Bigotry, p. 89.

Yet another infringement on religious liberty came in the decision of the Supreme Court in Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, that a high school assistant football coach has a right to pray on the 50-yard-line after his school’s games. This one struck a particular chord in the Jewish community. Following the ruling, I submitted a brief “Letter to the Editor” in the New York Times listing some of the many issues about which I’ve been contacted over the years by congregational and community families with students in our public schools:

Students who get benched because they don’t join in the Christian team prayer before or after a game. Students who don’t get playing time because they won’t go to the Christian varsity (or some other) pizza lunch offered at school. Students who lose their starting spot on the team because they missed a game (or even a practice) for the High Holy Days.

The response to that brief letter was overwhelming. Some commented that they, or their students, have not had these kinds of experiences, which is, of course, wonderful and what one would hope. But the vast majority of those who responded did so with their own stories of religious discrimination — and not just in the South, all over the country. The sharing of the letter, and people’s own experiences of being made to feel different as Jewish students in public schools, went viral. 

I know there’s a tendency to sometimes want to downplay our own experiences. After all, the goal of all of this — the very reason for religious freedom in the first place — is living together in peace and harmony. Conjuring up our own memories of discrimination, especially when they feel distant and past, seems to run counter to that purpose. But to the contrary: Remembering what it has felt like to be an outsider is often the most important thing we can do to help ensure that no one else has to feel like one again.

A little over a decade ago, then-New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was adamant in his support of a Muslim community plan to build Cordoba House, a Muslim community center, near Ground Zero. It was a vastly unpopular position to take, and several of you may in fact have disagreed with it. Most of his own advisors counseled against it. But do you know why Mayor Bloomberg felt so strongly about it?

It turns out that Bloomberg, one of the richest people in America, a man who had won an unprecedented third term to one of the most visible and influential positions in American politics, had a childhood memory of prejudice that still stung. He remembered a time when his family could not purchase a home outright in the Boston suburb of Medford because they were Jewish. They had to ask their lawyer — a Christian — to buy it and sell it back to them. It was a personal thread in the fabric of religious prejudice in America. Some people experience antisemitism and respond, ‘I’m going to help build a world where that never happens to my people again.’ Michael Bloomberg experienced antisemitism and decided, ‘I’m going to help build a world where that never happens to anyone again.’”

Eboo Patel, “The Most American Thing You Can Do,” Washington’s Rebuke to Bigotry, p. 210-11.

There are currently roughly 1,500 religious groups in the United States of America; 75 different kinds of Baptist groups alone [5] — and, as we well know, if there are three Jews, there are probably at least three different groups, as well. This is the heart of our country’s strength, not its weakness — but only when we respect one another, make space for one another, uphold the covenant at the foundation of this nation: to give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance. 

Religious freedom is being threatened in this country, and we need to be its advocates — in classrooms and in City Council, with Congress and our kids. As we were at the very founding of this nation, may the Jewish community continue to be vocal champions of a religious freedom that encompasses all Americans of every faith and every creed. May we remain firm in our defense of a religious liberty that protects the rights of every citizen to live according to their faith, not the ability of public officials to legislate according to theirs. May our own experiences of discrimination in the past lead us to be steadfast in the fight for freedom from discrimination for others. 

When Washington sent his letter to the Jewish community of Newport over two centuries ago, he ended it with his very favorite formulation of blessing, the wish that each of us would “sit in safety under [our] own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make [us] afraid.” That is still our hope, still our prayer, and still the promise of a nation fully committed to the pursuit and protection of religious freedom. May we see the realization of all of our hopes, prayers, and promises in this New Year. And let us say: Amen.

[1] Faith Ed.: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Innocence, p. 30.

[2] Kate Zernike, “Roe’s Reversal Changes Ways Doctors Work,” New York Times, September 11, 2022.

[3] Robert A. Burt, “Between Toleration and Rights: Echoes of the George Washington Letter in Contemporary Legal Debates,” Washington’s Rebuke to Bigotry: Reflections on Our First President’s Famous 1790 Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, Adam Strom, Dan Eshet, and Michael Feldberg (eds.), Facing History and Ourselves (2015), p. 177.

[4] “Madison’s Influence on George Washington’s View of Toleration,” Washington’s Rebuke to Bigotry, p. 189.

[5] Gordon S. Wood, “The Origins of American Religious Liberty,” Washington’s Rebuke to Bigotry, p. 31.