June 15, 1215,is one of the most well-known days in Western history. Eight hundred years ago today, in Runnymede, England, King John signed Magna Carta (the Great Charter), a nascent constitution/bill of rights for English nobility. Magna Carta maintains an almost legendary role in history, although only three of its many provisions are currently in use in English law today, and it has been changed and reissued numerous times since 1215.
I first learned about Magna Carta in sixth grade, when my interest in political history and theory was already emerging. I loved the idea that our sense of law and fairness in society – through government and its institutions – could be traced back so many hundreds of years. It was not until I was a freshman in college, and selected my freshman writing seminar on Magna Carta, that I learned about the somewhat fabricated history of this early constitution and how its story is much more complex and convoluted than many textbooks would lead you to believe.
This, however, does not diminish Magna Carta’s importance in history, nor my keen interest and care for it. That Americans look back to this medieval British document of compromise between a king and a frustrated nobility as a charter of rights preceding our Constitution in the history of lawmaking – from the Biblical period, to Hammurabi, to the generation of Washington and Jefferson – is pretty incredible. Some even look at Magna Carta and its clauses on the freedom of the pre-Reformation Church of England as the beginnings of Western constitutional religious freedom rights.
That legacy – of a kind of religious freedom in a theocratic kingdom – is, at least for me, somewhat ambiguous. What is clear, however, is that when other rights are expanded and granted, so is religious freedom. 500 years later, the American Constitution might have the most straightforward, longest lasting Bill of Rights related to freedom of religion, freedom of speech, of press, of assembly, and many more, but understanding the journey from the Middle Ages to today illustrates the importance of keeping history alive.
Living history is a unique facet of Judaism and Jewish life. We have ancient texts and laws; we also have thousands of years of interpretations, writing and debates that have revived and reenvisioned Judaism over the ages. Ultimately, we live in a middle plane of giving life to the values that are derived from the stories and laws that shape our tradition, and living in our modern times always knowing where we come from.
The line between Magna Carta and the American Constitution reflects something familiar, though not exact as between ancient Judaism and the Judaism we live today. We can use this anniversary to think together about much the idea that freedoms must be enshrined in law has progressed. Jewish tradition teaches that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, that we are all created in the image of the Divine; we know that every person deserves to be treated with the same dignity and respect, which includes the right to practice their faith – or not to practice faith – as they choose. While we do not need a constitution to know that eternal truth, the Jewish experience teaches us that we are protected by and we can flourish by the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, as are all people in the United States.
As we think about Magna Carta today, let us keep in mind all the people in the world who do not know the freedoms that this document symbolizes for so many – the freedom to live life as you choose, to be in positive relationship with government, to be free to believe and practice religion as you choose. Until we all know this kind of freedom, our struggle continues on. Eight hundred years from now, I hope that our descendants have been living in a world like this – for many hundreds of years.