A 13-year-old girl wrote an essay, entitled “One People,” in the East Midwood Jewish Center synagogue bulletin on June 2, 1946. It included the following wisdom:
The war has left a bloody trail and many deep wounds not too easily healed. Many people have been left with scars that take a long time to pass away. We must never forget the horrors which our brethren were subjected to in Bergen-Belsen and other Nazi concentration camps. Then, too, we must try hard to understand that for righteous people hate and prejudice are neither good occupations nor fit companions. Rabbi Alfred Bettleheim once said: “Prejudice saves us a painful trouble, the trouble of thinking.” …
There can be a happy world and there will be once again, when men create a strong bond towards one another, a bond unbreakable by a studied prejudice or a passing circumstance.”
At only 13, Ruth Bader was already inspiring the Jewish people, though at the time it was just the Jewish people of Midwood, Brooklyn. 74 years later, as we now mourn Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, American Jewish hero to so many for so many reasons, we hear her calls for social justice even as a young girl. It has been extraordinary to hear her distinguished on the news for being the first woman to ever lie in state in the U.S. Capitol. It feels equally meaningful that she is the first Jewish American to lie in state. Her family chose to infuse Jewish traditions into America’s most distinguished rituals of mourning.
Justice Ginsburg belonged to the conservative synagogue, Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. Her rabbi, Lauren Holtzblatt, officiated at the formal eulogizing and ceremonial rituals which took place in both the United States Supreme Court as well as within the US Capitol. El Male Rachamim was chanted, in a woman’s voice, for the entire nation to hear. This was also incredibly significant. It must have all meant so much to the spirit of 13-year-old Ruth Bader.
In her early fight for gender equality, Ruth watched all of her male classmates become B’nai Mitzvah at her Orthodox synagogue, and she didn’t understand why she was not allowed to become a Bat Mitzvah. So, she proudly became the first Bat Mitzvah her synagogue ever celebrated. Then, when she attended Jewish summer camp, she easily slipped into the role of lay rabbi for the community. However, when her mother, Celia, passed away just a few days before Ruth graduated from High School, she was devastated to be told that she was not allowed to recite Kaddish for her own mother. I can only imagine what deep feelings of injustice this must have planted within her.
She met her beloved husband, Marty, while at Cornell University, and they often had non-traditional gender roles in their household, such as Marty cooking and caring for the children, while Ruth worked, which must have been so scandalous at the time (and still are all too often today). This would even come up in one of Justice Ginsburg’s most famous cases, in which she fought for male widowers to receive social security benefits of their deceased wives.
Ruth began Harvard Law School in 1956 as one of 9 women in the class…surrounded by 500 men. She went in, she felt, with three strikes against her: she was Jewish, a woman, and at that point, already a mother. She recounted,
When I attended Harvard Law School, there was no space in the dormitories for women; women were not admitted to faculty club dining tables; one could invite one’s father, but not one’s wife or mother, to the Law Review banquet; the old periodical room at Lamont Library was closed to women; law firms could use the school’s placement facilities though they would engage no women; and Harvard Business School enrolled only men.
She followed her husband, Marty, to New York for his job and transferred to Columbia, where she earned her degree and graduated first in her class. One would think that New York City Law Firms would be clamoring to hire her. Instead – crickets. Each of these life experiences fortified her strength, grit, and an appreciation for those who are so easily excluded or marginalized. Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt recounted a story that Justice Ginsburg told NPR’s Nina Totenberg:
“I get out of law school with top grades, no law firm in the city of New York will hire me. I end up teaching. That gave me time to devote to the movement of even-ing out the rights of women and men. I was nominated to a vacancy on the D.C Circuit. Justice O’Connor once said to me, “suppose we had come of age in a time when women lawyers were welcome at the bar. You know what, today we would have been retired partners from some large law firm. But because it was not open for us, we had to find another way and both end up on the United States Supreme Court.’”
For those who had the privilege to visit Justice Ginsburg’s office, journalist Dahlia Lithwick points out that your eyes were drawn immediately to a painting of the Torah’s words, “Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof.” “Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue.” And Justice Ginsburg knew that pursuing justice was not easy. In fact, she exemplified this pursuit frequently in her DISSENTS. She wrote her dissenting opinions with an eye towards the future, as she said,
“Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.”
I don’t think this will surprise you, but dissenting is a very Jewish thing. We’ve been debating, disagreeing, arguing – respectfully most of the time – for millennia. And so much of it is recorded in our sacred texts for us to study and enjoy. In Mishnah Eduyot 1:5, there is a really fascinating discussion where the rabbis ask themselves, why are we recording the majority opinion AND the minority? They answer that it is important to record no matter whether the law is ultimately based on majority opinion or the wisdom of the answer – majority rule alone does not define truth. Plus, the rabbis were humble enough to recognize that ideas of truth or what is “right” might change in the future – just like what Justice Ginsburg said about her Dissenting Opinions – and so it is important to record the minority opinion for the future.
Likewise, Maimonides, in the Mishneh Torah, warned against Unanimous decisions in court cases. He believed that unanimity revealed a blind, herd mentality in the court, which he felt could not be trusted. According to Maimonides, dissent of at least one judge was required for a decision to be real and valid. And dissent need not be meanspirited – we know how close her friendship was with Justice Scalia. But dissent, disagreement, and protest are nonetheless critical, and the bedrock of our country’s democracy. We all must speak up when we disagree with something going on within our government at any level. We are so fortunate to live in a country which is built with values such as these in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights.
As the First Amendment Reads, word for word,
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Justice Ginsburg is a reminder of the power that we all hold to bring about repair, fairness, equity, and redemption. She embodied, in her little body, the courage to hold our country accountable to its promise of “liberty and justice for all.” She gave us the permission to dissent, and to keep dissenting, until that dissent becomes the dominant view of the future. So, let’s carry on her legacy!!
We will live out her dream, as well as our highest Jewish ideals, in her memory and in her honor. Therefore, I stand on this bimah and declare:
We must mobilize voters and combat voter suppression across the country. Please contact Jo-Ann Price if you’d like to be a part of CBSRZ’s Non-Partisan Civic Engagement Campaign.
Black Lives Matter – your CBSRZ Holiday Tote had a special pin for you to wear to declare your support for Racial Justice.
Judaism has supported Reproductive Rights since the Torah. We must maintain women’s rights to choose what happens with their bodies and when.
The Reform Movement strongly affirms equal rights for all LGBTQ+ individuals. It is up to every single person to determine their own gender identity and whom they love.
We will fight the rise of anti-Semitism and hate crimes. We’ve seen this hatred before and we’ve declared – NEVER AGAIN.
We will advocate for the rights of the immigrants because WE have been those immigrants dozens of times in our history.
Indeed, there are so many issues, I may not have mentioned one important to you. I remind you of the words of Pirkei Avot: We do not have to finish the work, but neither are we free to ignore it.
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof.
Let us hear one last time the voice of Justice Ginsburg, and a prayer for our precious America.
Our God and God of our forbearers, we ask your blessings for our country, for its government, for its leaders, advisors, judges, and all who exercise just and rightful authority.
Teach them insights from your Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom, may forever abide in our midst.
Creator of all flesh, bless all the inhabitants of our country with Your spirit. May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond in true harmony, to banish hatred and bigotry, and to safeguard the ideals and free institutions that are the pride and glory of our country.
May this land, under Your providence, be an influence for good throughout the world, promoting among all nations and people – peace and freedom – helping them to fulfill the vision of Your prophet: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they experience war any more.” And let us say: Amen.
 In a webinar offered to CCAR Rabbis on Thursday, September 24.
 “And why do they record the opinion of a single person among the many, when the halakhah must be according to the opinion of the many? So that if a court prefers the opinion of the single person it may depend on him. For no court may set aside the decision of another court unless it is greater than it in wisdom and in number. If it was greater than it in wisdom but not in number, in number but not in wisdom, it may not set aside its decision, unless it is greater than it in wisdom and in number.”
 Mishneh Torah Sanhedrin 11:3 (Moshe Halbertal cited 9:1)