Along with Louis Brandeis, Ruth Bader Ginsburg shares the distinction of being one of the two most important Jews in American history. While Brandeis was the first Jew appointed to the court, was the leading champion of Progressivism and led the American Zionist movement, Ginsburg was the judicial pioneer for women’s rights in America and the first Jewish woman to serve on the court. Her untimely death just weeks before a Presidential election will make the fight for her successor a historic debate without precedent and could potentially lead to the tipping of the court for another generation. Small in stature, Ginsburg like Brandeis, will forever remain a giant in the history of American jurisprudence.
The first Jew considered for service on the high court was Judah P. Benjamin who declined the offer and went on to serve as the Secretary of State of the Confederacy. Brandeis served the court from 1916 to 1939. Brandeis helped develope a broader approach to argumentation in the court and was a relentless foe both of big business and of big government. Benjamin Cardozo served the court briefly from 1932 to 1938. A Democrat, he was nominated by a Republican President, Herbert Hoover, and was unanimously confirmed by the Senate. The third Jew to serve on the court was Felix Frankfurter who replaced Cardozo. He was known for his philosophy of judicial restraint. His term extended from 1939 to 1962.
The other Jewish justices include Arthur Goldberg (1962-1965), Abe Fortas (1965-1969) and two current justices, Stephen Breyer (1994-) and Elena Kagan (2010-). Interestingly, despite the predominance of Protestantism in American religious life, the Supreme Court in recent years has been served by Jews and Catholics.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born in Brooklyn on March 15, 1933. She first attended Harvard Law School but later graduated from Columbia to meet the needs of her growing family. Unable to find a position in a major law firm, Ginsburg became a Professor of Law and volunteered for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In both areas, she pioneered research into “gender and law” and emerged as the leading advocate for women’s rights among legal scholars in America. In 1980, Ginsburg was appointed to the US Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. by President Jimmy Carter and 13 years later was successfully nominated to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton. Ginsburg viewed herself a judicial moderate, “a rational minimalist, and a jurist who seeks to build cautiously on precedent rather than pushing the Constitution towards her own vision.” During her term, the Supreme Court generally shifted to the right. By simply holding her ground, Ginsburg is generally perceived as having shifted to the left during her years on the court and, in fact, it may be true in some instances.
Ginsburg, known as RBG and even ‘the notorious RBG” was an immensely popular figure in American society among women, liberals, pro-choice activists and American Jews. Her extraordinary, egalitarian marriage to Martin Ginsburg, a tax attorney, her lifelong love of opera, unprecedented friendship with fellow jurist Anthony Scalia and her sustained efforts to remain fit and healthy made her a hero among heroes for tens of millions of Americans. Locally, she was honored by the National Museum of American Jewish History. In recent years, she was the subject both of documentaries and a full-length motion picture. She is the first woman to lie in state in the US Capitol. Her final resting place will be in Arlington National Cemetery.
Ultimately, in my opinion, the best way to remember and honor Justice Ginsburg is to let her speak for herself. She was a precise wordsmith, unhurried in her delivery of words, honest and animated by a healthy mix of seriousness and humor. First, in her own words, Justice Ginsburg believed that the Jewish ideal of justice was essential both to her ancestral faith and personal identity. “I am a judge born,” she wrote, “raised, and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of the Jewish tradition. I hope, in my years on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, I will have the strength and the courage to remain constant in the service of that demand.”
Justice for Justice Ginsburg was both a universal and specific concern. Her lasting legacy will be her work on law and gender. “Women’s rights,” she argued, “are an essential part of the overall human rights agenda, trained on the equal dignity and ability to live in freedom all people should enjoy.” Finally, did she have any regrets? My sense is she lived and died with a clear conscience. However, “If there was one decision I would overrule,” she once reflected, “it would be Citizens United. I think the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be.”
During this period of mourning for RBG, let us take a moment to remember her and her tremendous contribution to the American pursuit of redefining and expanding the meaning of “Equal justice under law,” the essence of American democracy. Justice Ginsburg’s life was a blessing to her nation. May we continue to work in her footsteps and secure the blessings of liberty and protection of law to all our citizens.
Shabbat Shalom and an Easy Fast!
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.