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Ruth Bader Ginsburg (KN 5781)

When people heard the news of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing, it left them in shock, it took one’s breath away. Such a physically small woman who made such a huge impact on American life. She literally transformed life in America for millions of people. Like the energizer bunny, she kept coming back from every illness and setback, but alas no more. She is truly and finally gone. But in many ways, she is not gone at all – she leaves behind a legacy in written decisions and equally important, the legacy of a life well lived, lived fully and completely until the very end.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was no stranger to adversity, her mother died when she was only a teen, on the day before her high school graduation. Being told that she could not say Kaddish for her mother because she was girl did not sit well with this young feminist and turned her away from Judaism for many years.  She managed Harvard Law school as a young mother, receiving no concessions and asking for none.  She faced sexism and anti-Semitism when trying to enter the workforce. However, every obstacle was confronted and overcome. Nothing was going to stand in the way of this tenacious legal mind who ultimately ended up where she belonged on the US Supreme Count as a Justice.

In spite of her run in with organized religion, her Jewish education was solid and Jewish values were the bedrock upon which she built her worldview. She proudly had a mezuzah on the door to her chambers and the maintenance staff knew not to put a wreath on her door in December. She famously had artwork on the wall of her chamber with the biblical verse, Tzedek tzedek tirdof/Justice, justice shall you pursue. (Deuteronomy 16:20). That is what RBG spent her career doing, she pursed justice. Win or lose, she articulated her positions clearly for all to see.

There has been much discussion of late about the tradition that one who dies during the Aseret Yimay Teshuvah/the Ten Days of Repentance is a tzadik, a righteous individual. The idea is that if God determines who will live and who will die in the coming year and you are slated to die, but manage to live the entire year, it is because you are a tzadik.  To Hebrew speakers it is clear that the words tzadik and tzedek come from the same root for justice, a righteous individual is one who strives for justice in the world. And that was very much what Justice Ginsburg did in life. One of my children pointed that Rosh Hashanah is called by the rabbis Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgement, since according to the prayer Unetaneh Tokef, that we recite on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur – that on Rosh Hashanah we are judged and on Yom Kippur that decision is sealed. But Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah – Repentance, Prayer and Doing Justice have the power to transform a harsh decree.  How appropriate that this woman who devoted her life to the justice system would die as we began the Day of Judgment.

I have been asked by many if it was a violation of Jewish law for her body to lie in state rather than being buried as soon as possible like we usually do. The answer is that it is not a violation of Jewish law. We bury as quickly as possible based upon a biblical verse telling us that someone who had the death penalty imposed upon them was not to be left overnight. The rabbis of the Talmud taught that if we should so respect the body of a condemned man all the more so we should do so for everyone as a sign of respect. And that is the key phrase, out of respect; when an Israeli Head of State dies, the body lies in state prior to burial as a sign of respect, allowing other Heads of States to arrive for the funeral. So too, this delay in burial has been out of respect for Justice Ginsburg; respect shown first by the court and now by the country – the first woman and the first Jew ever to lie in state at the US Capitol.

Justice Ginsburg spent her career first as a lawyer, then as a judge, and finally as a justice fighting for equal rights under the Constitution for all Americans. She understood it as a living document that could be reinterpreted by each generation, much as liberal Judaism understands the Torah. She recognized that when she wrote minority opinions, she was laying the groundwork for future generations, again much the way the Talmud recounts minority and rejected rabbinic opinions acknowledging that they too are an attempt to understand the will of God; that both are sacred.  She did not change things all at once, but rather worked for decades to achieve her goals, bit by bit. She is a reminder to us all that change need not be sweeping, rather small steps over time can take us a very long way.  

Much has been made of her friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia, their views of the law and the Constitution were as different as could be and yet it did not stop them from being friends. It is reminiscent of a story in the Talmud. Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish were study partners who disagreed on everything. After the death of Resh Lakish, Rabbi Yochanan’s new study partner, constantly agreed with him. Rabbi Yochanan complained, “when I stated a law, Resh Lakish would raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law.” We want people who will challenge us, who force us to be our best. When Scalia sent his dissent to Ginsburg on the 1996 case, US vs Virginia, which allowed women to attend the Virginia Military Institute, Ginsburg was quoted as saying, “He absolutely ruined my weekend, but my opinion is every so much better because of his stinging dissent.”

We need to reclaim the ability to disagree civilly and to understand that differences don’t have to be bad.  We used to make a society that made people feel guilty for bad things that they did, we have unfortunately transformed into a society that instead shames people. Guilt and shame are not the same.  Guilt is something you feel when you know you have done something wrong. It is what leads us to repent, reform, to change.  Shame when the person and the act are merged, it is not that we have done something bad, it is that we are bad. When people are publicly shamed, they are demeaned, not their actions. Shame leads to withdrawal, guilt can lead to better behavior, the goal of this time of the year.

Let the life that Ruth Bader Ginsburg live inspire us.  She showed us that perseverance can pay off, too often we give up when we feel that life is weighing us down and that we just cannot succeed – but she demonstrated to us that we can overcome our obstacles.  We have lost a great American, but one who can be an inspiration. I want to end with a poem by the noted Jewish poet Alden Solovy.  


The Dissenter’s Hope: In Memoriam, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, z”l

Never surrender the fight for today,
And never give up the dream of a better tomorrow.
For this is the dissenter’s hope,
That one day,
Some enlightened day in the future,
When truth is given full voice,
Justice will win the majority,
And the bell of freedom will ring
With new clarity.
For nations and societies are ever-threatened
By oppressors and would-be despots,
New pharaohs with old designs
For power and dominion.
Never surrender the fight for today,
And never give up the vision of a better tomorrow.
For the work of liberty can be slow,
The ongoing pursuit of equality and love of humankind.
This is the dissenter’s hope,
That some enlightened day in the future,
Every call for justice will win the majority,
And the light of freedom will shine
With perfect clarity.

וּבְכֵן צַדִּיקִים יִרְאוּ וְיִשְׂמָֽחוּ וִישָׁרִים יַעֲלֹֽזוּ וַחֲסִידִים בְּרִנָּה יָגִֽילוּ וְעוֹלָֽתָה תִּקְפָּץ פִּֽיהָ. וְכָל הָרִשְׁעָה כֻּלָּהּ כְּעָשָׁן תִּכְלֶה כִּי תַעֲבִיר מֶמְשֶֽׁלֶת זָדוֹן מִן הָאָֽרֶץ
Uvchein tzadikim yiru v’yismachu, visharim yaalozu, vachasidim b’rinah yagilu, v’olatah tikpotz-piha, v’chol harishah kulah k’ashan tichleh, ki taavir memshelet zadon min ha-aretz.

And then the righteous will see and rejoice, and the upright will exult, and the pious will rejoice with song; injustice will have nothing more to say, and wickedness will vanish like smoke, when You sweep the rule of evil from the earth.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah/May You be Written and Sealed in the Book of Life for a Good Year!


Wed, September 22 2021 16 Tishrei 5782