The iconic Justice’s death is an occasion for national Jewish mourning.
The evening Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, on Sept. 18, 2020, was Erev Rosh Hashanah. As the sorrowful news trickled out to the world, thousands of mourners in Washington, D.C., convened on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, the institution Ginsburg changed forever in the 27 years she served on its bench. There, among a vibrant display of flowers and candles, this group of liberals and conservatives, Jews and gentiles alike, recited the Mourner’s Kaddish.
Some Detroit-area congregations, at the start of virtual or socially distanced Rosh Hashanah worship the following morning, also offered prayers and condolences for her passing. A fitting act for one of the most influential Jewish leaders of our time.
According to Jewish tradition, one who dies on Rosh Hashanah is considered a tzaddik, a person of great righteousness. And there should be no doubt, even among the most politically conservative members of our Jewish community, that Justice Ginsburg was uniquely righteous. Her appointment to the high court in 1993 was certainly historic in and of itself — she was the first Jewish woman and only the second woman ever to become a justice. But she put in the work, too, successfully arguing to overturn gender discrimination across many facets of American life.
In word and deed, in her jurisprudence and home life, Justice Ginsburg was more than just “a liberal Justice.” She was committed to core Jewish values of equality, egalitarianism, charity and lovingkindness. Multiple generations of women in America have grown up admiring “The Notorious RBG” and her persuasive court arguments; tireless work ethic; refusal to be shaped or turned away by men who believed she didn’t belong; hard-won friendships even with those, like the late Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom she bitterly disagreed; mentorships of young female lawyers; and noteworthy (for the time) insistence on dividing up childcare duties with her adoring husband Marty. Knowing that Ginsburg did all this while proudly displaying her Jewish identity makes that journey all the sweeter.
Here in Detroit, Robert Sedler, a distinguished professor of constitutional law at Wayne State University and member of Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park, has years of history with Ginsburg. “She was a pioneer — I cannot emphasize that enough — a pioneer in developing the constitutional doctrine of gender equality,” Sedler said.
In 1971, Sedler was litigating civil rights cases out of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Kentucky chapter the same year Ginsburg litigated Reed v. Reed, a landmark Supreme Court ruling that determined the 14th Amendment forbids sex and gender discrimination. Sedler was in contact with Ginsburg, who had successfully argued the case under the ACLU’s then-new Women’s Rights Project, regarding how the ruling could be applied to his own arguments. He was able to use her precedent to win multiple Kentucky gender discrimination cases, including one overturning a state law mandating that a learner’s permit for a beginning driver must be signed by the driver’s father.
Nearly four decades later, Sedler was able to interview Justice Ginsburg at the 2010 national convention of the Tau Epsilon Rho Law Society, a historically Jewish law fraternity. Ginsburg was being presented with the Benjamin Cardozo Award, named after another influential Jewish Supreme Court justice.
At dinner before the ceremony, Sedler recalled that Ginsburg was “so gracious at the table. We talked about family, grandchildren and all those things.” Flanked by three U.S. marshals, Ginsburg used the occasion of the conference to take her grandchildren to the zoo — wearing a big hat so that no one would recognize her.
I also believe RBG’s work over the years has almost certainly helped me become a better Jew. With Yom Kippur only days away, I have been thinking through my actions over the past year and trying to atone for my own sins against others. Those sins include things I said or actions I took to belittle, dismiss or otherwise cause pain to women and other marginalized people. These are things that modern society can recognize as sins in large part because of Ginsburg’s work over the decades demonstrating they are indeed unjust.
The road ahead without Ginsburg will be dark and difficult. The Supreme Court vacancy created by her death has opened up the potential for yet another bitter, partisan battle at the tail end of a historically polarizing election year. But before we allow ourselves to be caught up in that, we should remember the human values, and the Jewish values, Justice Ginsburg stood for. She devoted her life to making this great country fairer and more equitable for all, and she did it by changing hearts and minds, while working within the fairly established rules and protocols of the American legal system.
How and why did she do this for so long? Many have reacted in stunned disbelief that so much of our nation’s political and judicial landscape — indeed, our national character — could have been resting on the shoulders of an 87-year-old bubbie. But this is maybe not so surprising to us Jews. We know just how determined our bubbies can be. May her memory be a blessing.