Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — who passed away Friday on Erev Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish High Holy Day commemorating the beginning of the new year — was a trailblazer, role model, force for the rule of law, truth teller, believer in democracy, and warrior for gender equality. By any standard, hers was a remarkable life.
Many accounts of Justice Ginsburg’s passing noted that, according to Jewish tradition, one who dies on Rosh Hashanah is a tzaddik, a person of great righteousness.* That seems so right when applied to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Supreme Court justices can be the most isolated and aloof members of our governing elite. But it was not that way with Justice Ginsburg. Her humanness was on display in many ways and in different places, not just in her majority opinions and in those famous dissents for the court. Stories abound of interactions with her, large and small, that had profound impacts on those in her presence. She became “a feminist icon in her octogenarian years for millions of little girls around the world,” a truly remarkable achievement. I was never fortunate enough to meet Justice Ginsburg in person, yet I do recognize how she touched and blessed my life — and the lives of every American — over the years.
There are wonderful tributes in the media and on the internet, and I encourage you to learn more about this remarkable person who helped change the world. If you have the time, stream both the documentary R.B.G. and the biopic On the Basis of Sex. Both films, for me, capture much of why her life matters so much to so many people and to the country at this point in time.
In fighting for gender equality, Justice Ginsburg believed that men as well as women benefited when equal protection under the law applied equally to all Americans. Having been the beneficiary of the work, support, collaboration, and guidance of many women who were able to rise to embrace their talents and make the world a better place in part because of Ginsburg’s landmark legal efforts for gender equality, I recognize and am extremely grateful for that often unrecognized part of her legacy.
Of course, not every man sees it this way, and I’m thinking of two in particular. But men like the top leaders of the Republican party are not interested in gender equality, they are interested in power and patriarchy. So arguments are created by men that attempt to keep women in special roles, to dilute their power and ability to effect change. As two of her former law clerks wrote in the New York Times, “equality did not mean special — she would say “pedestal” — treatment for women. Equality meant the same treatment for women and men.”
“She often used male instead of female plaintiffs to show sex discrimination prevents all people from realizing their full potential. Why shouldn’t a man, for example, receive the same Social Security benefits a woman would receive, so he could stay home to care for his child after his spouse died? She successfully brought that question to the court in the 1975 case Weinberger v. Weisenfeld. She has said in interviews: ‘The aim was to break down the stereotypical view of men’s roles and women’s roles.’”
Ginsburg’s remarkable life and legacy didn’t happen because she was the loudest voice in the room or through cynicism about the world. As her clerks noted, that legacy was shaped “through a remarkable legal intellect, an incomparable work ethic and a powerful vision of what justice and equal treatment for men and women mean in reality.” Her legal impact touched every part of life while she lived her vision of equality “through every aspect of her personal life, too.”
Those of us who believe in equality for all have much work left to do. She showed all of us important ways to achieve those goals. As Steve Schmidt, one of the co-founders of The Lincoln Project, has written in a remarkably frank tribute to a person whose ideas his party battled for many years, “A great champion of freedom has arrived in heaven. Her work is done. Her burden is now ours. Let us honor her legacy by doing our duty.”
Rest in peace, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. May we all be willing to follow the example of your remarkable life and leadership to fulfill the American “dream that the dreamers dreamed.”**
More to come…
*A reader and friend who is Jewish sent me a couple of suggestions to ensure that my first two paragraphs were correct. I appreciated the education and thought I’d pass along the information to all my readers..
First, when I originally noted that RBG died on the Eve of Rosh Hashanah, he suggested it would appropriate to name that time as “Erev Rosh Hashanah.” An explanation that he supplied from the internet noted that Erev means evening in Hebrew. Days in the Jewish calendar begin as the daylight leaves — as opposed to other calendar systems where a day begins at midnight or sunrise (as it becomes light).
“Because of the intent to make sure some things are done or not done on certain days, there are various ways of measuring or defining when evening has arrived: sunset or the visibility of three stars in the night sky. So, if you want to make sure you do not do something on a certain day, like work on Shabbat, you should stop doing those things as the sun sets. But if you want to make sure the day has arrived, you should wait for three stars.
Erev also has a meaning that is less common these days. In this older meaning it refers to the time before the holiday has actually begun. During this time, one can still do the things that are forbidden or need to be done before the holiday in preparation. In this meaning, it can refer to the day before the holiday or event.“
Second, he noted that while my use of the term “tzaddik” was correct in referring to a person of great righteousness, if I was referring specifically to RBG the correct term would be “tzaddika” or “tzaddikah” because nouns in Hebrew are typically either masculine or feminine depending on the reference. In this case, my reference was more general, so I left it as I had it originally, but appreciated the information.
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