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High Holiday lessons from Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Our Torah reading for Rosh HaShanah relates the story of Sarah and Abraham sending Hagar and Ishmael out of their home. As you’ll remember, this first Jewish couple was initially unable to conceive. Hagar serves as a surrogate, giving birth to Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn son.

Years later, God fulfills the promise made long ago to Abraham and Sarah. As the first line of today’s portion makes clear:

וַֽיהוָ֛ה פָּקַ֥ד אֶת־שָׂרָ֖ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמָ֑ר

“God remembered Sarah as God had promised…”

Sarah conceives – miraculously, she’s 90 years old – and gives birth to Isaac. Sometime later, she sees Isaac and Ishmael playing together and for some reason — not made entirely clear by the Torah — she asks her husband Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away which, though troubled about, he does. Abraham gives them some bread and water and sends them off into the wilderness – the desert known as the Negev. They soon run out of the water, but through God’s grace, they find a well and survive the ordeal. Ishmael, as God has promised, grows up to be a great nation.

I was thinking about this story, about Hagar’s bravery, about everything she went through and how I might relate it to our own journeys when my daughter Isa phoned me on Friday afternoon to tell me about the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

I will say more about Hagar in a bit but first I want us to pause to remember Justice Ginsburg.

Born in the old country – Brooklyn, New York – on March 15, 1933, Joan Ruth Bader, she went by her middle name, understood in personal ways a little bit about the type of patriarchy that Hagar and Sarah were both born into.

She, however, thankfully for our nation, was able not just to navigate those norms but transcend them – and not just for herself, but for others as well. For all of us.

Ruth was an exceptionally bright student from a middle-class Jewish family. She earned a full scholarship to Cornell and there she met Martin Ginsburg, who would become the love of her life. She famously said that “what made Marty so overwhelmingly attractive to me was that he cared that I had a brain.”

After Marty and Ruth graduated from college, they relocated to Oklahoma for Marty’s army service. Despite her considerable intellect, at that time this brilliant future Supreme Court Justice could only find work as a typist. When she got pregnant with their first child, Jane, she lost her job.

After Marty’s army service, they moved to Massachusetts where her husband began his studies at Harvard Law School. Ruth was admitted the next year – one of only 9 students in her class of over 500. According to Ginsburg, the dean of the law school once asked her and the other 8 women how they could justify taking spots at Harvard that otherwise would have gone to men.

She was an outstanding student, becoming the first woman on the Harvard Law Review. She transferred to Columbia and finished her studies there. And even though she graduated at the top of her class, she had trouble finding a job – in 1959, law firms weren’t hiring women and clerkships for females were almost unheard of.

She finally got a job with U.S. District Court Judge Edmund Palmieri as his clerk. This led to Ginsburg becoming one of America’s first female law professors at Rutgers University and then at Columbia where she became the University’s first tenured female law professor.

Already at Rutgers, she began her work to extend the principle of equal protection under the law to include gender. During a three year period in the early 1970s, Ginsburg argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, winning five of them. In her first appearance, she famously quoted the 19th century women’s rights activist Sarah Grimke who said: “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

Ginsburg was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton and confirmed by a vote of 96 to 3.

Justice Ginsburg served our country for 27 years on the Supreme Court, arguing for equal rights both from the majority and in dissent.

She of course has become a cultural icon in recent years known by fans as the “Notorious R.B.G.” There are RBG coffee mugs, T-shirts, Halloween costumes and documentaries. She has been lampooned famously for her fitness and strength-training regimen. She’s also known for her quick wit. Once she was asked how many women on the Supreme Court would be enough. Quickly she replied: “Nine.”

There are so many lessons she taught us that are particularly relevant for us today.

  • Never give up – never quit toiling for what’s right. She fought so hard for so long through tremendous health and personal challenges for the principles she believed in. Uncomplaining, strong, resilient, always hopeful. And she did it – ultimately – for all of us.

  • If you really want to make a change, and the odds seem stacked against you, you’ll need allies to help. Justice Ginsburg was particularly adept at this. Part of the reason she was so successful in her arguments about gender equality was her ability to convince others, particularly men, to see their own self-interest in the case she was making. She knew that she needed others to be her partner in making change happen.

  • And this relates to the next lesson: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg rejected the “cancel culture” which is so prevalent today. This was perhaps most powerfully demonstrated in her long-time friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia. We find ourselves today in a time when some people can’t imagine how she could be friends with her ideological foe. Her answer? “We made each other laugh.” They shared common interests, particularly their love of opera. They were both from New York, about the same age. Their spouses got along, too. Why wouldn’t they be friends? But now we live increasingly in a time when, if you’re ideological foes, you can’t be friends, you can’t even talk to each other or recognize one another’s humanity. RBG showed us that this doesn’t have to be the case.

  • And finally, for us as Jews, Justice Ginsburg’s life reminds us of just how extraordinary the American Jewish experience has been and can be. Ginsburg was the first female Jewish justice of the court. Justice Kagan was the second. There have been six male Jewish justices including Justice Stephen Breyer. Because of her example and work, there will be many more female Jewish justices in the future and, someday, soon even, a female Jewish President.

She was a shining example for us all. Her years of toil and health struggles are now over.

It’s easy and comforting to imagine the welcome she is surely now receiving in what our Sages described as the Heavenly Court. Perhaps wearing a white robe with one of her trademark collars, taking a seat of honor next to God.

Before I conclude, I want to share – as I promised – a few more words about Hagar whose story, tragic as it seems at first, is actually quite worse. We first meet her as Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant. The Midrash imagines that Hagar was actually the Pharaoh’s daughter, given to Sarah as a type of compensation for what the Egyptian ruler had done. This isn’t the Pharaoh who enslaves our people, this is one of his ancestors.

You might remember that, during a time of famine, Sarah and Abraham go to Egypt for sustenance. Upon their arrival, Abraham asked Sarah to tell those she met in Egypt that she was Abraham’s sister. Why? Because, the Torah explains, of Sarah’s great beauty. In the ancient near east, a beautiful wife could bring danger. The husband might be killed by another more powerful man who covets her for himself. And so, Abraham, for his own protection, wants people to believe that Sarah is unmarried. Word gets to Pharaoh of Sarah’s beauty. He sends for her and she is taken to Pharaoh’s palace. And the Torah tells us that because of this, וּלְאַבְרָ֥ם הֵיטִ֖יב בַּעֲבוּרָ֑הּ

Things went well for Abraham.

But then, God causes a plague on Pharaoh’s house. Pharaoh discovers that Sarah is actually Abraham’s wife and then says to Abraham: מַה־זֹּ֖את עָשִׂ֣יתָ לִּ֑י לָ֚מָּה לֹא־הִגַּ֣דְתָּ לִּ֔י כִּ֥י אִשְׁתְּךָ֖ הִֽוא׃

“What is this you have done to me! Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her as my wife? Now, here is your wife; take her and begone!”

The implication is rather clear – and very disturbing. In this patriarchal tale, our Father Abraham puts Sarah in an incredibly compromising and humiliating position. And then, according to the midrash, Pharaoh gives his own daughter – Hagar – to Sarah as recompense.

The midrash doesn’t tell us what Hagar thinks of this arrangement. I can’t imagine she’d be happy about it but, that doesn’t seem to bother the Midrash. She’s just a woman after all.

Sarah later gives Hagar to Abraham as a concubine when she herself is unable to bear children. The Torah doesn’t tell us if Hagar consents to this – it doesn’t much matter. She’s just a woman, and a foreigner to boot. And so Hagar – daughter of a king – concubine to Abraham, gives birth to Ishmael.

Years later, on Sarah’s whim and with Abraham’s consent, Hagar is tossed away, again. Left to die in the desert.

She only survives through a miracle.

Here’s what I’m grateful about: because of heroes like Sarah Moore Gimke and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the lives of women in our country and more broadly, around the world, count much more today than they once did.

There’s still much work to be done, to be sure. Human trafficking, pay inequality, discrimination in the work-place, casual sexism that humiliates and stings – these are all still real, around the world and in our own country, too, of course.

But we’ve come so far and on this Rosh Hashanah, I can’t help but think about how different Hagar’s story might have been for the work of Joan Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

May she rest in peace and may her memory forever be for a blessing.

Yoshi Zweiback is senior rabbi at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles.

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