Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Jewish American pioneer who embraced both worlds
On Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, we pause to remember those who passed in the prior year. Over the span of 5780, we lost so many giants and icons – Chadwick Boseman, Kobe Bryant, Rep. John Conyers, Rep. Elijah Cummings, Kirk Douglas, Katherine Johnson, Larry Kramer, Jim Lehrer, Rep. John Lewis, Phyllis Lyon, Rev. Joseph Lowery, Carl Reiner, and CT Vivian, among others. There’s no shortage of lives to remember and heroes to eulogize.
But there is one name that truly stands out for American Jews as we consider those we lost – Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Superlatives are in short supply when we look back over her lifetime of accomplishments. The first female Jewish Supreme Court justice made an indelible mark on our democracy.
RBG had an inimitable impact because she fought so skillfully and achieved so much in the realm of equality and justice. Americans across the political spectrum admired her for her intelligence and tenacity. And yet her life resonated on a deeper level with so many — women, minorities, but particularly Jews.
What made RBG such a powerful and symbolic role model for the Jewish community? First, as the daughter of a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant father and a Jewish mother whose parents fled pre-war Poland, she epitomized American Jewish exceptionalism – the ascendance from modest origins to professional success thanks to hard work and sheer determination. And, despite facing the antisemitism and sexism that were so pervasive in the 20th century, RBG was not daunted. Indeed, she overcame obstacles and pioneered a path to the highest court in the land.
Second, as she shattered those glass ceilings, RBG leaned into her Jewishness. Justice Ginsburg was a proud Jew from Brooklyn, a member of a Conservative shul, a former Jewish camp counselor and a woman who never apologized for her Zionism nor denied her Jewish heritage. And yet, as she retained these beliefs throughout her life, RBG never shied away from working for what was best for all Americans. Her ability to balance faith and personal identity with patriotism and public service dispels some of the most tired tropes of antisemitism.
In the past 120 years, some of the most consequential decisions on the Supreme Court were bookended by RBG and another remarkable Jewish jurist: Louis D. Brandeis, her predecessor and the first American Jew to attain a position on the high court. Like Ginsburg, Brandeis was an unabashed Zionist who viewed Zionism as a natural extension of his Americanism. “I began gradually to realize,” he once said, “that these 20th-century ideas of America – of democracy, of social justice, of longing for righteousness – were ancient Jewish ideals … that that which I was striving for was a thing essentially American, as the ideals for our country were the Jewish ideals of thousands of years.”
It’s worth noting that RBG had an impact on our legal system, first as a trailblazing litigator who argued numerous cases successfully before the Supreme Court. Then, from the other side of the bench, as a justice who authored many important decisions for the majority. But she also left a mark because some of her most powerful opinions were dissents.
RBG wrote passionately in defense of such issues as gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and the separation of church and state. In one of her most impactful dissents, in a case involving pay equity for women, she wrote, “the Court does not comprehend or is indifferent to the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination” and called on Congress to act where the Court had not. Her dissent served as a catalyst for the landmark Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 that righted this historic wrong.
On voting rights, Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 case in which the Court majority gutted a key provision of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, is one for the ages. Asserting that the majority had been shortsighted in concluding that a key provision of the law was no longer needed, she wrote, “[I]t is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” That line came in a voting rights case, but it speaks volumes about how Justice Ginsburg saw the world, and how much she thought and cared about other people.
We live in an era of hyper-polarization as the fringes dominate the debate and politics seems to be more about combat than compromise. We see some on the radical left who talk about defunding the police and tearing down institutions rather than reforming them. We have some on the extreme right trying to turn back the clock and to marginalize minorities including immigrants, LGBTQ+ and others. RBG’s achievements are a powerful rebuke to the radicalism and racism of these positions.
Even for those who talk of tearing down the establishment, it is impossible to argue with RBG’s transformative track record. She was an institutionalist who demonstrated that you can change the system by working within it, then turning it inside out. Indeed, America is a more fair society because she repaired its laws, not ripped them apart.
And for those who seek to rule through demagoguery and fear, this diminutive woman was a giant who never buckled in the face of such bullies. RBG’s amazing trajectory as a woman and a Jew literally embodied the kind of progress that some seek to slow. And to those who demonize the other side, RBG proved one can advocate zealously for a position even while understanding and respecting the views of others with whom you might disagree – as exemplified by her close friendship with Antonin Scalia, her ideological opposite in every sense.
The passing of a person of historical significance is never a small thing. But losing RBG on erev Rosh Hashanah, as we entered the days of awe, was particularly painful and striking. We found ourselves embarking upon a new year without one of the leading guardians of our democracy who had guided our community and our country for well over half a century.
And yet I think this timing was no accident.
In her last act, RBG didn’t leave us; she actually lifted us. She metaphorically handed us her gavel, implicitly communicating that now we must learn from her example and lead ourselves.
As we mourn her passing and prepare for the day of repentance this weekend, may her memory be, not only for a blessing, but also for an inspiration, to catalyze justice and fair treatment in the year ahead and long into the future.
Jonathan A. Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League.