RBG: How Jewish Was She

Today is Friday before Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat that arrives during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is the Shabbat that Rabbis traditionally give a sermon to their community. Since many will not be in synagogue this year, Rabbi Whitman, Rabbi Freundlich and Rabbi Poupko gave the sermons last night on zoom.

Following the sermon, I tuned in a live interview by Hilary Helstein of filmmaker Julie Cohen, producer of the documentary RBG, about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Judge Ginsburg was appointed to the US Supreme Court by Clinton with a 97% approval rating by both house and senate. If you are interested in learning more about Ginsburg’s extraordinary career, you can rent or buy the full documentary on Youtube. A second film, “On the Basis of Sex” is a 2018 American biographical drama based on Ginsburg’s early life and cases.

The following morning, I read Melanie Philips’s recent post, RBG: An American Jewish justice warrior highlighting Ginsburg’s Jewish identity and how intertwined that is with her life. Melanie points out that the Guardian did mention her Jewish identity; however, 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.” He also wrote: “[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 statements produced astonishment among people who knew that Ginsburg’s Jewish identity was threaded through her life and work.

Phillips further explains why non-Jews get so much about Jews and Israel wrong.

“This failure to understand the complexities of Judaism and Jewish identity also fuels hostility to Israel. Many non-Jews, assuming that Judaism is merely a religion, cannot understand why a faith group should be entitled to a state.

They have absolutely no awareness that the Jews are, in fact, a historical nation, bound by their own system of law and a common language, history, institutions and culture, and that they are the only people for whom the land of Israel was ever their national kingdom.”

After complaints, the Guardian changed the text to say that 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.”

The Clinton passage was also changed to say, “Ginsburg’s Jewish identity may have counted for more than a lifetime of commitment to women’s equality before the law.”

What was that quintessential Jewish characteristic that any Jewish person could recognize in RBG?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg embodied that unique Jewish characteristic that began with Abraham, sparring, even with G-d, when justice was the issue. 

“Shall the G-d of all the world not practice justice!”

(Genesis 18:25)

This is how Abraham confronts G-d when he learns that G-d is planning to wipe out all the people of Sodom and Gomorrah because the city is corrupt.

Justice and mercy are central to Jewish faith and central to the principal idea of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when all the world, every individual and every community, comes before the Supreme Judge – G-ds Gaze – to be judged with justice and mercy.

It was also this central awareness of seeking justice for all that characterized Justice Ginsburg’s life from the beginning of her career to the very end, both when she won and lost her cases. By expressing her mordant dissenting opinions, which then reverberated for relief and action in the wider society.

She presents a shining example of what it means to be a Supreme Court Justice in the United States – the final arbiter of justice according to the USA’s constitution and warns of how and why those who are elected to that position must be of the highest moral character.

Watching these movies would be excellent preparation for carrying out our responsibilities as citizens in the coming challenging months of electing a new Supreme Court Justice and making thoughtful choices as we elect our important democratic leaders.

This Yom Kippur may we all go on to glorious heights of justice and mercy together.


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