RBG: How Jewish Was She?
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RGB), the phenomenal Justice of the US Supreme Court, passed away Friday evening, September 18, 2020, on Erev Rosh Hashanah. Hilary Helstein of The LA Jewish Film Festival organized an hour-long interview with Julie Cohen, producer of the documentary film RBG. I participated in her reminiscences of meetings with RGB and then rewatched the movie.
The following morning, I read Melanie Phillips’ recent post, RBG: An American Jewish justice warrior highlighting Ginsburg’s Jewish identity and how intertwined that was with her life. Melanie points out that while few commented on her Jewish background, the Guardian newspaper did mention her Jewish identity. However, Melanie writes, the paper got it all wrong.
In the Guardian, Godfrey Hodgson wrote: “Ruth was brought up in a Conservative Jewish tradition and learned Hebrew as a child, but abandoned her religion because she was not allowed to join a minyan (a group of men) to mourn her mother’s death when she was 17., [In 1993, President Bill] Clinton was anxious to make the Supreme Court more diverse, so Ginsburg’s Jewish religion, which she had given up 46 years earlier, may have counted for more than a lifetime of commitment.”
These comments astonished people who knew that Ginsburg’s Jewish identity was never abandoned; rather, it was threaded throughout her life and work.
After complaints, the Guardian changed the text to read, “Ginsburg moved away from strict religious observance after she was not allowed to join a minyan (a group of men) to mourn her mother’s death when she was 17. Indignant at that exclusion, she, nevertheless, remained deeply committed to her Jewish identity.”
What was that quintessential Jewish characteristic that any learned Jewish person would have recognized in RBG?
Ruth Bader Ginsburg embodied that unique Jewish characteristic that began with Abraham, who sparred, even with G-d, when justice was involved.
“Shall the G-d of all the world not practice justice!” (Genesis 18:25)
This central awareness of seeking justice for all characterized Justice Ginsburg’s life from the beginning of her career to the very end: Even if she lost her cases, her dissenting opinions were seen to reverberate throughout the broader community.
According to the US constitution, the Supreme Court of the United States is the final arbiter for justice. However, the very idea of a human court structure with judges who refuse bribes derives from the Torah, the Jewish Bible.
In the Hebrew Bible, “Moses and the Israelites were commanded by God to establish courts of judges who received full authority over the people of Israel, who were commanded by God through Moses to obey the judgments made by the courts.” (Exodus 18:21–22, Numbers 11:16–17, 11:24–25; Deuteronomy 1:15–18, 17:9–12)
The Talmud’s Tractate Sanhedrin identifies two classes of rabbinical courts called Sanhedrin, a Great Sanhedrin (בית דין הגדול) and a Lesser Sanhedrin (בית דין הקטן). Each city could have its lesser Sanhedrin consisting of 23 judges. However, there was only one Great Sanhedrin comprised of 71 judges. Among its other roles, it acted as the Supreme Court, taking appeals from cases decided by lesser courts. The uneven numbers of judges eliminated the possibility of a tie. The last to cast his vote was the head of the court.
The Torah also mandated the courts’ impartiality and severely prohibited the taking of bribes.
“You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.” (Deuteronomy 16:19)
Modern workplaces and societies are no less susceptible to bribery, corruption, and bias than ancient Israel was. According to the United Nations, the most significant impediment to economic growth in less developed countries are lapses in the rule of law: In places where corruption is endemic, the consequences are severe: It may be impossible to make a living, travel across town, or live peacefully. (1) The UN statute recognizes that those who have the power to demand bribery are more at fault than those who pay them, for the prohibition is against accepting bribes, not against paying them. (2)
In this sense, Ruth Bader Ginsburg followed in the footsteps of Abraham and Moses – biblical heroes who took no bribes and followed their vision, even arguing with G-d on justice-related issues.
Ginsburg’s Jewish values were equally evident in her private life. RGB was devoted to her parents, especially her mother, who had been ill and passed away a day before Ruth graduated from High School. She was also committed to her husband, who fell ill shortly after they were married. She took care of his medical needs and kept up with his classes and her own throughout his illness while also caring for their infant daughter. RGB was devoted to keeping her word, pursuing truth, and following through on her personal and professional commitments.
Jeffrey Rosen (3) and Dahlia Lithwick (4), who knew her professionally and personally over many years, recorded an interview for the Jewish Book Council shortly after her passing; throughout the interview, they reminisced about her life, teasing out these extraordinary aspects of her character, her intense capacity to care about others, to remain focused on her goal, to not give in to useless anger and to treat everyone, even her opponents, with respect and courtesy.
Rosen and Lithwick speculate to what extent RBD’s Jewishness and outsider immigrant status may have contributed to her remarkable vision. They also note her efforts in sharing her ideas with the next generation and how generous she was in this regard with her time and energy.
It is perhaps a divine irony that Justice Ginsburg passed away on the eve of Rosh Hashanah when according to Jewish thought, all the world – every individual and every community – is judged by the Supreme Judge – the Divine One. Dying on a Jewish Holiday is regarded as dying by the Kiss of the Almighty, a death reserved for the righteous – the “tzadik” that she certainly was.
(1) United Nations Development Programme, Issue Brief: Rule of Law and Development (New York: United Nations, 2013), 3.
(2) Bribery and Corruption (Deuteronomy 16:18-20) Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
(3) Jeffrey Rosen recently published his book Conversations with RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life, Love, Liberty, and Law, providing a unique glimpse of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and career.
(4) Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate and hosts the podcast Amicus.