March was officially National Women’s History month, which afforded an opportunity to consider the legacy of an extraordinary Jewish woman who passed away in 2020. There are hardly words enough to express our lingering sense of loss at the death of Civil Rights icon, gender equality champion and distinguished Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I used to refer to her as “the greatest living American.”
Even now, the consequences of her death haunt the national zeitgeist.
Though she lived to 87, anytime RBG was bound leave us was an “untimely demise.” Her contribution to American culture in the 20th and 21st century was vast and indelible. On her death, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts said, “Our nation has lost a justice of historic stature… Today we mourn, but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her, a tireless and resolute champion of justice.”
It’s worthwhile to examine how Justice Ginsburg’s work was informed by her Judaism, and to evaluate her impact on the Jurists who will follow. She was only the second woman named to the Supreme Court, and only the sixth Jew. Elevated to the Court in 1993, she was the first Jewish appointee since 1969, and the first female Jewish Justice in history. Ironically, at this very moment the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee is taking up the confirmation of the first Black female appointee to the Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Justice Ginsburg’s personal motto was excerpted from Deuteronomy 16.18-21, “Justice, justice, shall you pursue.” She decorated her chambers with an artist’s rendering of the phrase in Hebrew, “Zedek, zedek, tirdof,” as a reminder of her Jewish heritage and professional responsibility. It’s also the title she chose for her posthumously published 2020 biography. She was explicit about how her religious heritage informed her role as a Jurist.
In remarks to a gathering of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in 1995, she noted, “There’s an age-old connection between Judaism and law. For centuries, Rabbis and other Jewish scholars have studied, restudied, and ceaselessly interpreted the Talmud. These studies have produced a vast corpus of juridical writing. Jews have been called ‘the people of the book,’ reflecting their placement of learning first among cultural values.
“The Jewish tradition prized the scholarship of judges and lawyers… In the United States, law became a bulwark against the kind of oppression Jews had endured in many lands and for countless generations. Jews in large numbers became lawyers, some eventually became judges, and the best of those jurists used the law to secure justice for others,” she continued.
We take special note of the phrase, “…the best of those jurists used the law to secure justice for others.” The clear implication is that not all Justices hold that objective in as similar high regard as Justice Ginsburg did. It’s uncharacteristic of her, and so it’s a sad commentary on the struggle for justice that remains in America, even today. But for us as Jews, it also helps crystallize and reaffirm Tikkun Olam, our unwavering ethical commitment to “Repair the World.”
It’s an understatement to say we live in politically polarized times. There’s staunch political opposition to Ketanji Jackson’s appointment. She attended Harvard Law School, as did Justice Ginsburg for a time before she transferred to Columbia. Judge Jackson was once an assistant public defender, and her undergraduate thesis is worth noting: “The Hand of Oppression: Plea Bargaining Processes and the Coercion of Criminal Defendants.” If affirmed, she will be the first former public defender in history to serve on the Court. Judge Jackson wrote over 600 opinions as a district court judge; she was reversed on appeal only 12 times (2%).
Our point is not to advocate for Judge Jackson. Our sole intent is to reveal a singularly Jewish philosophical ethos common to both Justice Ginsburg and the non-Jewish Jackson. In an interview in the Boston Globe, first circuit court of appeals Judge Bruce M. Selya, for whom Jackson clerked, said, “I see some of the same qualities in Ketanji that I saw in Ruth. Some people have the capacity to inspire by example and the force of their reason.”
As a child of a Russian-Jewish immigrants, Ginsburg witnessed anti-Semitism first-hand. From childhood, she carried a painful memory of seeing a sign at a Pennsylvania hotel that read “No dogs or Jews allowed.” Yet hers was not an angry defiance of the inequities of the World. It was, instead, a more measured, even Talmudic approach. To RBG, dissent was an art form. In summing up the lessons to be gleaned from her career, Ginsburg advised, “Fight for the things that you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
Compare that with a description of Judge Jackson, who grew up in the South, in a recent Washington Post profile: “’She was always the person trying to find the middle ground,’ a college roommate said. As other Black students at Harvard took to the streets to confront college officials about issues of race and equality, Jackson counseled moderation. ‘They’re not going to listen to us if we’re screaming at them,’ she’d say, “She was always asking, “What are the facts we can use to persuade?’” The similarity in judicial temperament is striking.
Her greatest legacy might be the two-word phrase for which she became iconic: “I dissent.” As the leader of the minority, liberal wing of the party she was often associated with the losing side of major decisions, and they are the stuff of which her legend is made, (i.e., The Notorious RBG). Ginsburg’s raison d’etre seemed to be fighting an often-uphill battle for the disenfranchised.
Her moral leadership on the Court is sorely missed, but her influence on the next generation is clear from the quotes above. Her legacy is replete with a palpable Jewishness that is to be both venerated and emulated. It was reflected in her unwavering ethics, lifelong pursuit of Tikkun Olam and proud acknowledgment of her roots and their influence on her approach to adjudicating the Laws of the Land. Above all else for us as Jews, it remains justice for all, not politics, that trump all other considerations.
David P. Drimer, Executive Director