Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
– First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States
From January 1973 until June 24th, 2022, the ability to procure a safe medical abortion, requested for any reason, was deemed a right by law across the country. With its repeal, more and more abortion bans are being proposed on the state-level which would make individuals seeking an abortion, also for any reason, illegal. According to documentarian Paula Eiselt (Aftershock), these state-wide bans are being submitted by lawmakers following a very specific perspective, that of Christian religious beliefs in place of secular law. In her short film Under G-d, having its World Premiere at Sundance 2023, Eiselt focuses on several individuals seeking to overturn these bans due to their inherent breach of the First Amendment.
There’s a lot to mull over when considering Eiselt’s documentary. In the execution, it’s a fairly standard documentary with talking head interviews, shots of the interviewees in their homes or on location somewhere, and footage of them taking action in some form or another. Each interviewee, whether a Jewish mother in Indiana whose issues with pregnancy create a scary situation with the ban in place, or a rabbi in Florida ready to take down the establishment, or a lawyer well versed in The Religious Freedom Reform Act (RFRA) who seeks to prevent any restrictions of religious practice, is incredibly passionate about why these bans skew toward a religious perspective that’s undeniably in breach of First Amendment protections as it relates to religion. Eiselt smartly and swiftly demonstrates the severity of the situation with the first interviewee, Elly in Indiana, and their explanation of why their mezuzah is located on an interior door versus the door leading to the outside. With visible concern, she explains how there had been instances of antisemitism in the area when they moved in, immediately creating a sense that even in their home, Elly and her family may not be safe to practice their faith. For those unfamiliar with what a mezuzah is and why members of Judaism have one, it’s a piece of parchment encased in a decorative case as a physical reminder of the Jewish inhabitants’ connection to their faith and it is believed to provide protection from harm. It’s an artifact like a cross for members of the Christian faith, a symbol meant to offer comfort while also signaling to others that they are like you. In Elly’s case, having one on their outer doorframe might invite danger instead of the intended comfort. From Elly, Eiselt introduces the audience to Barry Silver, a rabbi and lawyer living in Florida, who explains how he began preparing to fight Governor DeSantis’s then-upcoming abortion ban. This matters because, unlike Elly, Silver is a religious leader in Judaism, as well as a licensed practitioner of American law. His perspective sets the groundwork of what is later expressed by other interviews, establishing that laws may be supported by a lawmaker’s constituents, but if they flagrantly defy the Constitution, they must not hold.
Though the bulk of Under G-d is told through a Judaic lens, Eiselt makes a point to highlight two things. The first is that Silver is shown working with a Floridian Buddhist leader Maya Malay, a brief sequence that offers evidence that Silver’s protest isn’t his alone. The second is in the form of Americans United for Separation of Church and State President and CEO Rachel Laser. Though Laser is notable as the first Jewish President of the organization, the organization she oversees specifically functions to lobby in support of a secular government. This solidifies the idea that any law proposed and ratified that goes against any faith protected by the First Amendment should be repealed.
Eiselt doesn’t just make her point about the severity of the issue at the heart of Under G-d by showing the interfaith movement against state-level bans, it’s in the title itself and is part of the reason why her short will speak to the Jewish community at large. Let’s break this down piece by piece. The first is the obviousness that the title is a two-word passage from the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. There’s some ambiguity over who actually wrote the Pledge as no copyright was created, but we know for sure that it was published September 8th, 1892. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, it was published on the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America, a recitation to encourage the values of our flag and, thus, our country. It wasn’t until President Eisenhower in 1954 that the phrase “Under God” would be added to the Pledge. The addition of the phrase was to unify the country via the Pledge against the concerns of Communism. Amusingly, only nine years prior had West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette occurred in which it was determined that forcing students to recite the Pledge violated their First Amendment rights by way of compelled speech. Eiselt’s documentary doesn’t mention this, but it’s important regarding what follows: the specificity in the title itself. For those outside Judaism, the inclusion of the dash may seem strange, but to Jews, it’s a marker, a signal that Eiselt (either personally or just having done her research) understands the community that she’s representing. Growing up within the Reform community, I can speak to the tradition of not destroying anything that has the name of G-d written upon it (old prayer books are buried, for instance, rather than recycled or destroyed) and we’re taught not to write the name either. In our faith, letters and numbers hold power, so the reproduction of the name of G-d would be written thusly as a workaround. The title of the short doc replicates this, instantly recognizable to anyone within the Jewish community who sees it and immediately conveying a respect for the people who are the primary subjects within it. The documentary doesn’t specifically explore this, yet I couldn’t help addressing it as it colors the way the short film is viewed and certainly, by me, received. There’s visible respect paid to the individuals within from the start to the finish. The fact that each of the experts in Jewish law (except those providing anecdotal experiences) reference either the fluidity of Judaism to review, revise, and reexamine our laws, but also the consistency within the faith of the right of the mother over the child and how, by our faith, life does not begin at conception, together with the details and execution of the documentary, one cannot help but feel moved and angered by the decisions of the anti-abortion lawmakers. More importantly, the documentary lays out a clear case of a breach in the Constitution by way of basing these new laws in Christian beliefs.
If there’s anything about Under G-d that may bristle the viewers, it’s the use of a pejorative to describe DeSantis by one of the interviewees. As a former Public Speaking instructor, one of the key tenets to maintain respect, whether arguing in the strictest of definitions or the colloquial, is to not insult the opposition. Unfortunately, one of the many issues brought to bear thanks to the Trump Administration is the use of abusive nicknames to describe members of any political party. They may be great when it comes to mud-flinging, but it makes the speaker dirty in the process. That the speaker is a rabbi, a representative of my faith, garners additional frustration. Can’t blame Eiselt for including the rabbi’s own words, but I do take issue with the use at all.
In little more than 20 minutes, Eiselt establishes the people, sets the stakes, and explains everything that both ignorant and knowledgeable audiences need to know about the interfaith fight to stop these state-wide abortion bans. Having seen the powerful documentary Aftershock, nominated for several awards in 2022 and streaming on Hulu now, Under G-d takes all of Eiselt’s established insight and strength as a storyteller and delicately places it into a much smaller package. Perhaps this short film is only the beginning of a larger project, something I would run to watch, as the fight for religious equality is not over.
Screening during Sundance Film Festival 2023.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.