The Meaning of “Enfranchisement”

September 2020   Keeping Connected

Dear Friends,

Many of you know that I am a word geek! I love to think about the origins of a word and on the rare occasions when I think about retirement, I fantasize about how I will get one of those dictionaries that teach about the history of words; finally having an opportunity to feed this esoteric interest. I know you are probably thinking I SHOULD GET A LIFE and fantasize instead about travel, hobbies, sleeping in and all the free time I would have! I assure you that I think about those things as well, BUT, I am interested in the history of words.

With this in mind, I wanted to share that I have been thinking a lot about the word “enfranchisement”. As you have all seen in the press, this past August 18th was the 100th anniversary of the signing of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. As a woman and as a mother of a daughter, I feel hugely grateful for the pioneers and heroines who fought and marched and lobbied to bring about this change in our Constitution. My grandmother Ada became a naturalized citizen of the USA in 1915 and I was recently thinking about what it must have been like for her NOT to have the right to vote. That thought evoked a lot of intense emotion on my part.

This line of thinking then led me to think about the vast amount of time in Jewish history when Jews were denied the right to vote, sparking my thinking about the meaning of “enfranchisement”. As Jews, the inability to vote or to have a voice in our home nation has been more the norm than what we experience and take for granted here in America. Think about how the Nuremberg laws stripped Jews of their citizenship and right to vote? Think about the history of Europe before Napoleon, when Jews were not even considered citizens. In many other countries, throughout history, Jews were not only denied the right to vote and/or citizenship, but they had to pay a special tax to be given the “right” to be free from persecution and serious discrimination. My friend Tamar, whose family made Aliyah to Israel during Operation Magic Carpet explained to me how her father had to pay such a special tax in his home country of Yemen.

“Enfranchisement” therefore is very important to me as a Jew and as a woman. How would you define this term if you worked as a dictionary editor? Take a moment to think about your answer. I decided to look it up and although I, and probably most of us, thought about the connection between “enfranchisement” and voting, a more historical understanding of the word is “to set free; to liberate, as from slavery.”

When I think of this definition I understand the profound reason of why Jews think about enfranchisement as a sacred responsibility and right. The most significant event in Jewish history, I would argue, was the Exodus from Egypt, when we were freed from slavery and given the “right” to be “citizens” in our own landless nation. Sure we wandered for 40 years, but we were able to have the right to self-determination. The Exodus serves as one of the most significant underpinnings for Jewish ethical and cultural beliefs. So many of the teachings in the Torah stem from this very act of liberation. We should remember the slave and orphan, because we were slaves in Egypt. We should feed the poor and help the stranger, because we were slaves in Egypt.  We should help others to have the experience of liberation, because we were once slaves. Knowing how much this understanding of enfranchisement has inculcated Jewish life did not surprise me. I can clearly see how Jews have been at the forefront of helping others in America fight for the right to vote and the safe haven to make that right a reality.

This summer, in which we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the right to vote for women, I have also become more educated about how the right to vote has been and is being limited to other citizens in our nation. I am embarrassed to tell you that it was only THIS summer that I learned that Native Americans did not have the right to vote in the USA until 1962! I am also keenly aware of the effort to disenfranchise voters in recent years. To me this is antithetical to the American tradition that Jews have come to appreciate and that so many of us feel grateful for. In this season of registration and voting, I hope that all of us will hear the text of Torah speak to us. We should help all Americans to vote, because we were slaves in Egypt. We should take the responsibility to vote as a sacred privilege and as a mitzvah.

The Torah teaches us, “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before your life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deuteronomy 30). There is an eternal Jewish value, a mitzvah, that informs us to be active in shaping our future for the good, for a better life  u’vacharta b’chayim, choose life. When faced with options that offer us two or more different paths on which to proceed, we are instructed to choose, to make a selection, to vote.

Our Jewish Sages also share wisdom related to voting. Rabbi Hillel taught, “Al tifrot min hatzibur,” do not separate yourself from the community (Pirke Avot 2:4). Rabbi Yitzhak taught, “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 55a).

It is a mitzvah to vote on Election Day. Voting is certainly a privilege that we should never take for granted.

Rabbi Levi Kellman of Congregation Kol haNeshamah in Jerusalem once explained  to a colleague, Rabbi Ron Symons, that every time he votes in Israeli elections, he recites the shehechiyanu prayer in gratitude for the responsibility to cast his ballot. Perhaps we should do the same.

Warm Regards and L’shanah Tovah,

Rabbi Shoshana M. Perry