Remembering Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Jewish life

One year ago,  Justice  Ruth Bader Ginsburg sat and listened to opening arguments about whether the 1964 Civil Rights Act applied to discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

As she took her seat, her neck was adorned with a jabot, or lacy collar, the likes of which have become synonymous with RBG’s legendary image. On this particular collar, embroidered in delicate silver thread, were the Hebrew letters Tsade, Dalet, Qof. Together, these letters spell the Hebrew word Tzedek: Justice.

One year later, Justice Ginsburg lies in state at the Capitol Building, one of the USA’s highest honours, the first woman and first Jewish person to do so in all of American history.

Presiding over her funeral is  Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, a friend of Ginsburg’s late husband,  Marty. Rabbi Holtzblatt said of Ginsburg,   “She was our prophet, our North Star, our strength for so very long. Now she must be permitted to rest.”

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The time of her death was also extremely significant.  In the Jewish tradition, people who die just before or on the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year), are particularly righteous. Called Tzadikim, people who pass away around Rosh Hashanah are the ones that God held back until the last moment as they were the most needed.

For many left-leaning politicians and citizens alike, Ginsburg’s death seems to be another in a long line of tragic events that may lead to the end of American democracy. For many Jewish citizens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an example of how to lead a truly righteous Jewish life in the pursuit of Tzedek.

Born in Brooklyn, New York to observant Jewish parents, Ginsburg regularly participated in holidays and activities at her local synagogue. According to Jane Sherron De Hart, Ginsburg biographer and professor of history at University of California at Santa Barbara, “Both parents were very eager that Ruth learn what it meant to be a good Jew and a good American.”

This was typical of Jewish parents of the time, who wished their children to assimilate with American culture, but also retain their faith and understand the tenets of Jewish philosophy.

One of these tenets was the pursuit of education and knowledge. When she was old enough, she pursued higher education, cementing herself forever as a woman of the book.

Despite the gender-based discrimination that she faced in various institutions, notably being asked by the dean of Rutgers University to accept a lower salary due to her husband’s job and the threat of termination due to her second pregnancy, Ginsburg continued to rise in the ranks of the country’s judicial system.

Following another tenet of Jewish philosophy, Ginsburg dedicated the rest of her life to the pursuit of justice.

According to Jane Eisner, editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, Ginsburg believed entirely in the institution of government and incremental change, “That’s an outgrowth of her experience as a Jew. The law protected minorities — not all, and not equally — but there was a great reverence among the Jews of that generation in the power of government to protect them.”

In 1980, Ginsburg was nominated to a seat on the US Court of Appeals by President Jimmy Carter. She served 13 years on the court, during which she pushed for the court system to be more hospitable to Jews.

She pushed for the courts not to hear cases on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of Atonement, a practice that continues to this day. She also pushed for official court documents to use more religiously neutral language.

Ginsburg was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton in 1993, where she continued to follow the Jewish teaching of Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof: Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue.
Justice Ginsburg’s stint on the Supreme Court was marked almost entirely by a dedication to helping minorities within the United States, which Eisner says, is a direct result of her Jewish upbringing.

Ginsburg herself said something similar: “It [being Jewish] makes you more empathetic to other people who are not insiders, who are outsiders.”

Among Ginsburg’s achievements on the court were advancements in gender equality, reproductive rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and protections against gratuitous search and seizure.

This is not to say that Ginsburg was perfect in the eyes of the public. One of her most regrettable decisions on the court, according to Ginsburg herself, was that of the City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York.

In this case, she ruled with the majority that the Oneida Nation could not claim sovereignty over its ancient lands. Lower courts cited this case to extinguish Native American land claims.

However, less than a year later, Ginsburg ruled in a decidedly different direction in Wagnon v. Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, although she was the dissenting opinion.

This year, she also joined the ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma that affirmed indigenous jurisdiction over reservations in much of Oklahoma. This would be one of the most important tenets of Judaism – that of atonement.

According to rabbinical writings, when one makes a mistake, when they miss the mark, it is up to them to make amends and to do better in the future.

Judaism, unlike many religions, does not believe in a clear afterlife, but rather believes in doing good on this earth while we are alive. Although she missed the mark, Justice Ginsburg tried her best to make amends and to do better in the future.

As this Yom Kippur approaches, and as we mourn the death of Justice Ginsburg, a phrase comes to mind. This phrase is said of those who have departed by those of us of the Jewish faith: May their memory be for a blessing.

Justice Ginsburg was many things: a scholar, a justice, a woman, and a Jew. She was as contradictory and imperfect as any of us, and we must remember her as such.

So may her memory be, not only for a blessing, but for a teacher, for a guide, for a mirror, and hope for a better future.

Image: Eve Miller