Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG), the remarkable Justice of the US Supreme Court, departed on the evening of September 18, 2020, just as the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, began.
Numerous tributes commemorated her remarkable life. Among these, Melanie Phillips penned “RBG: An American Jewish Justice Warrior,” shedding light on Ginsburg’s Jewish heritage and its profound influence on her journey. While many overlooked her Jewish background, Phillips highlights that the Guardian newspaper did acknowledge it, albeit inaccurately.
“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 to mourn her mother’s death when she was 17… and in 1993, President 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.” – The Guardian
These remarks left many incredulous, as those familiar with Ginsburg’s life knew that her Jewish identity remained an enduring thread woven into her existence and professional endeavours.
Following complaints, The Guardian modified the text to state:
“Ginsburg shifted away from strict religious observance after being denied participation in a minyan for mourning her mother’s death at 17. However, fueled by indignation at this exclusion, she harboured a profound commitment to her Jewish identity.”
What key Jewish characteristic would any observant Jewish person recognize in RBG?
Ruth Bader Ginsburg embodied a unique Jewish characteristic rooted in the tradition of figures like Abraham, who even argued with G-d when justice was at stake.
“Shall the G-d of all the world not practice justice!” (Genesis 18:25) This was Abraham’s impassioned plea to G-d, questioning the fairness of destroying Sodom if there were even ten innocent people.
This core value of seeking justice for all defined Justice Ginsburg’s entire career—from its inception to its conclusion. Even when she didn’t win cases, her dissenting opinions had a lasting impact, shaping future legal discussions.
While the United States Constitution designates the Supreme Court as the ultimate arbiter of American justice, the concept of a Supreme Court with impartial judges who reject bribery and assess cases based on moral merits finds its roots in 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 describes two types of rabbinical courts: the Great Sanhedrin (בית דין הגדול) and the Lesser Sanhedrin (בית דין הקטן). A city could have a Lesser Sanhedrin with 23 judges, while there was only one Great Sanhedrin with 71 judges, which served as the Supreme Court and heard appeals from the lesser courts. The odd number of judges in the Great Sanhedrin prevented tie votes, and the head of the court had the decisive vote.
The Torah further mandated the courts’ impartiality and vehemently forbade the acceptance 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 still face issues like bribery, corruption, and bias, similar to the challenges of ancient Israel. The United Nations points out that shortcomings in the rule of law are a significant obstacle to economic growth in less developed countries. It highlights that widespread corruption can have serious consequences, such as hindering livelihoods, limiting travel, and disrupting peace. According to the UN statute, greater responsibility is placed on those in power who demand bribes, focusing on prohibiting acceptance rather than payment.
In aligning with the principles of Abraham and Moses, Ruth Bader Ginsburg showcased a timeless commitment to justice. Her Jewish values extended beyond public life to her private sphere. She exhibited resilience by caring for her ailing parents, particularly her mother while managing academic duties at the hospital. Similarly, her unwavering dedication to her ailing husband, balancing her education and caring for their infant daughter, highlighted her extraordinary strength.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s integrity exceeded her relationships, showing a strong commitment to keeping promises and meeting personal and professional duties. In an interview with Jeffrey Rosen and Dahlia Lithwick, who knew her personally and professionally, her outstanding character shone through. They highlighted her compassion, steadfast dedication to goals, avoidance of needless anger, and consistent, respectful treatment of everyone, including those with differing views.
Rosen and Lithwick speculated on the potential influence of Ginsburg’s Jewishness and outsider immigrant status on her remarkable vision. They also acknowledged her generous efforts in imparting ideas to the next generation, underscoring her willingness to invest time and energy in such pursuits.
An ironic twist of fate surrounds Justice Ginsburg’s passing on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, a day when, according to Jewish thought, every individual and community faces judgment by the Supreme Divine Judge. Dying on a Jewish holiday is regarded as passing under the “Kiss of the Almighty,” a fate reserved for the righteous, a title befitting Ginsburg’s legacy as a “tzadik.”
- United Nations Development Programme, “Issue Brief: Rule of Law and Development” (New York: United Nations, 2013).
- Bribery and Corruption, Bible Commentary on Deuteronomy 16:18-20, Produced by TOW Project.
- Jeffrey Rosen, “Conversations with RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life, Love, Liberty, and Law,” a recent publication offering a unique glimpse into Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and career.
- Dahlia Lithwick is a writer covering the courts and law for Slate and the host of the podcast Amicus.