Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Tzaddika 

Mia Levine, Apprentice

I was with friends preparing to have a customary Rosh Hashana feast when the news about Ruth Bader Ginsburg dropped. NPR posted a breaking tweet that officially stating her death. Someone messaged our group chat about the tweet and, in that moment, you could hear a pin drop. My friends frantically searched for other news accounts to confirm her passing and came up plentiful. Dinner that night was lovely as we celebrated the Jewish New Year. Although it was a happy holiday, it was hard not to feel a little solemn, a feeling that quickly spread throughout the entire table.  

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a Justice nominated on June 14, 1993 under President Bill Clinton. She became the second woman and the first Jewish woman to serve on the Supreme Court. During her Senate confirmation, Ginsburg spoke of her personal experiences with anti- Semitism and her grandparents fleeing European pogroms to come to the United States in the second World War. During her time on the Supreme Court, she was not known for her ritual observance, though she was very involved in the secular part of Judaism. She spoke frequently on Jewish causes, Jewish values and was active with Jewish organizations. She found Judaism to be a piece of her identity and a guiding light, however, less of a practice. In her chambers, she was the only Justice with a mezuzah affixed to her door post. She hung the words ““tzedek, tzedek tirdof” on her wall: a quote from the Torah translated to “justice, justice, shall you pursue.” In 2019, she wore a collar with that same quote on the opening day of the Supreme Court. 

In 1996, she wrote an essay for the American Jewish Committee (AJC) saying, “I am a judge born, raised, and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of the Jewish tradition…I hope, in my years on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, I will have the strength and courage to remain constant in the service of that demand.” She attributed her political perspective to her Jewish roots and often pointed to heritage as a base for her perspective on the bench.  In the same essay she states, “Laws as protectors of the oppressed, the poor, the loner, is evident in the work of my Jewish predecessors on the Supreme Court…The Biblical command: ‘Justice, justice shalt thou pursue’ is a strand that ties them together”. 

She passed away on September 18, the eve of Rosh Hashana. In Jewish tradition, one who dies on Rosh Hashana is a tzaddik: a person of great righteousness. A Jewish teaching says those who die in this short time frame are the ones God has held back until the last moment because they were most needed. In addition to her passing away on a holy day, she passed away during the night of the 18th. In Judaism, letters carry numerical value. The Hebrew word for life – Chai – calculates to 18, making it a very holy number. After the news dropped, hundreds of people came to the Supreme Court building to pay their respects. It is common in Jewish tradition to have a burial within 24 hours of death. However, since it was a Jewish holiday, it was forbidden to have a burial that quickly. Her family delayed the burial and had three days of ceremonial mourning. After those three days, she became the first woman to lie in state in the United States Capitol and first American to have a traditional Jewish funeral in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court. In accordance with Jewish tradition, her casket stayed closed and had all the familiar components of a Jewish funeral. For the actual burial service, her casket was transported to Arlington National Ceremony which explicitly forbids some traditional Jewish rituals.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an unlikely figure of justice. She was idolized for all the work she had done which is somewhat ironic as, in Judaism, idolizing anyone other than god is expressly forbidden. The passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg hit minorities the hardest, and in turn, we are still mourning. Right after she passed, as mentioned previously, there was an outdoor memorial service for her. I, in Massachusetts, was unable to go, but echoed the sentiments of those there. There were other factors other than not being there that personally hit my soul deeply about this service. In the service, flowers were brought and Amazing Grace – a Christian hymn – was sung. These people who were there loved her but could not take a few moments to look up Jewish traditions or a Jewish song. Flowers are never brought to a Jewish burial site or Jewish memoriam, rather one is to bring rocks. Rocks are to show we remember the dead and, during the ancient times of the Temple, Jews marked graves with rocks. I understand that the news came suddenly and people wanted to mourn her in familiar ways. I am happy people wanted to commemorate her, but how is it respecting her legacy if you are erasing part of her identity.  Another thing that happened after her passing was an explosion of posts on social media. When someone dies, people usually say may they rest in peace. In Jewish tradition, one says may their memory be for a blessing or may their memory be a revolution. A common phrase stated is zikhronah livrakha (z”l) which translates to “of a blessed memory”.

The erasing of her Jewish identity was unplanned and unintentional, but still occurred. In the United States, many aspects of Jewish tradition are being painted over and forgotten. If RBG, a Supreme Court Justice, could not be properly commemorated during her time of respect, how are Jews, who are trying to make change while maintaining their Jewish identity, supposed to believe they will find respect? Jews are being persecuted and are being forced to hide their identities. Jews are constantly belittled in the media and are a common target of hate. On May 20th, the Anti- Defamation League reported the highest number of hate crimes against Jews in 2019.

RBG was among the first few to step up against injustices. Even though she was the most liberal, she was against many progressive decisions and did not have the most progressive voting record. However, she created a platform to step off of. Her death further polarized an already toxic political climate..  If the current political system did not get you riled up, I hope this radicalizes you. The fact that one woman was holding up our democracy is downright scary and now she is gone. It has been our fight and now, more than ever, we have to push. We have to fight back. We cannot let our democracy be extinguished. 

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, thank you for your bravery and for everything you did. It is now our turn to commemorate your memory and to continue fighting the hard fight.