holtzblatt by the Forward

Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt spoke at the Capitol as Ruth Bader Ginsburg lay in state Friday

Image by Molly Boigon

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s rabbi spoke on Friday at the Capitol building as the body of Supreme Court justice, feminist icon and Jew arrived for the high honor of lying in state for two days.

She spoke about a framed piece of art in Justice Ginsburg’s chambers that said tzedek, tzedek tirdof, “Justice, justice you must pursue.”

“The rabbinic tradition assigns meaning to every single word in the Torah, so there must be a reason why tzedek, ‘justice,’ is written twice,” Holtzblatt said. “The repetition here teaches even Ezrah, a medieval rabbi, that time and time again, all of the days of your life you must pursue justice.”

Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. already gave an acclaimed eulogy for Bader Ginsburg — her Hebrew name was Yita Ruchel bat Tzirel — on Wednesday at the Supreme Court, where the justice, who died at 87 of complications from pancreatic cancer, was lying in repose.

Holtzblatt has served as one of the most explicitly Jewish elements in these days of official mourning. The Ginsburg family made several departures from Jewish tradition to accommodate the honors accorded her. They delayed the traditional speedy burial, for example.

And Holtzblatt’s service at the Capitol reminded viewers that Ginsburg “makes history again as the first woman and the first Jewish woman to lie in state.”

(Rosa Parks was the first woman to lie in honor.)

Psalm 118 sung in Hebrew and talk of tzedek echoed throughout Statutory Hall as the justice rested on the same catafalque built for Abraham Lincoln.

Before the justice’s journey to the capital, Ginsburg’s former clerks joined together to perform a Supreme Court tradition that has echoes of Jewish ritual.

Abbe Gluck, a former clerk, spoke Thursday during a Facebook Live hosted by Jewish Women International about how former law clerks and a member of the Supreme Court honor guard stand by the casket until its departure from the court.

“We stood there through the night,” she said. It was “very moving and very special, and did remind me a lot of the same kind of witnessing vigils that we did for my mother and my grandmother when they passed.”

“It really was like those moments you get during yizkor services and all the times of reflection that we have in the Jewish tradition,” she added. “It really felt that way to me.”



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Thursday was the last night the clerks will stand silently in 20-minute shifts in the hallowed marble halls of the Supreme Court. Justice Ginsburg’s casket arrived at the Capitol Friday morning, and after a ceremony including speeches by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rabbi Holtzblatt, as well as two separate musical selections by opera singer Denyce Graves, the casket will depart the Capitol and the public eye.

Ginsburg frequently attended operas, reportedly leaving the chambers to go to the theater and returning to work at the court after the performances ended, reading and writing late into the night.

Graves sang “Deep River Song” first, an African-American spiritual. She wrapped up the service with a rendition of “American Anthem” by Norah Jones.

“What shall be our legacy? What will our children say? Let them say of me: I was one who believed in sharing the blessings I received,” sang Graves.

The Supreme Court, the Ginsburg family and Adas Israel Congregation leadership have not responded to inquiries about shiva (the gathering of mourners around the bereaved) or chevra kadisha (the practice of preparing the body for burial.)

Some Jewish Twitter users have questioned why some politicians, including former Vice President Joe Biden, crossed themselves when paying their respects.

Ginsburg was raised in a synagogue, the East Midwood Jewish Center. She wrote a letter at age 13 in the synagogue bulletin, about World War II, which foreshadowed her determined pursuit of justice as an adult.

“No one can feel free from danger and destruction until the many torn threads of civilization are bound together again,” she wrote. “We cannot feel safer until every nation, regardless of weapons or power, will meet together in good faith, the people worthy of mutual association.”

On Wednesday, Holtzblatt also used the language of liturgy in her remarks: “Justice Ginsburg, l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation.” She also sang Psalm 23 in Hebrew and ended with El Malei Rachamim, a prayer traditionally said for the deceased.

She has personal ties to the justice — the two teamed up to write a feminist Passover Seder supplement in 2015, and Holtzblatt’s husband, Ari, was a clerk to Justice Ginsburg in 2014.

“Retelling the heroic stories of Yocheved, Shifra, Puah, Miriam and Batya reminds our daughters that with vision and the courage to act, they can carry forward the tradition those intrepid women launched,” said the essay.

Holtzblatt also became emotional as she shared the news of Ginsburg’s passing with her congregation last Friday night, the start of Rosh Hashanah, recalling fond memories of the justice’s interactions with her children.

The Supreme Court has kept the date of the burial quiet, saying in a press release that it will happen next week.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs is also holding a virtual memorial service for Ginsburg Friday, this one featuring speeches from leaders at Moment Magazine, the National Council of Jewish Women, Jewish Federations of North America and other Jewish organizations.

At Friday’s service in the Capitol, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s trainer Bryant Johnson did push-ups in front of her casket.

Molly Boigon is an investigative reporter at the Forward. Contact her at boigon@forward.com or follow her on Twitter @MollyBoigon.

Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt speaks at Capitol for RBG

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Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt spoke at the Capitol as Ruth Bader Ginsburg lay in state Friday

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