Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Jewish Icon
I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has. — Ruth Bader Ginsburg
In an era of Jewish complacency — when many have lost their way and are clouded about the very essence of being Jewish — they can look to Ruth Bader Ginsburg as an iconic, modern-day role model. Her accomplishments (and there are many) that benefited humanity were deeply grounded in her core Jewish values.
In Jewish tradition, it is said that those who pass away on erev Rosh Hashanah, the evening of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) are sacred. Indeed, Bader Ginsburg’s legacy as an accomplished women’s rights advocate, even before she became a Supreme Court Justice, is demonstrative of a higher calling and a purpose to advance humanity. The public display of sympathy on her passing and memorialization of her accomplishments by the American public and media is demonstrative of her unique place in history.
And that unique place in American history is a source of pride for the Jewish world. Bader Ginsburg is a role model for everyone and anyone who believes in advancing human dignity. For the young aspiring Jewish child, however, she is doubly empowering — because her very drive for gender equality and social justice was grounded in Judaism itself.
In a 2004 speech at the Washington Holocaust Museum, she admitted:
My heritage as a Jew and my occupation as a judge fit together symmetrically. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition. I take pride in and draw strength from my heritage, as signs in my chambers attest: a large silver mezuzah on my door post, [a] gift from the Shulamith School for Girls in Brooklyn; on three walls, in artists’ renditions of Hebrew letters, the command from Deuteronomy: “Zedek, zedek, tirdof” — “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Those words are ever-present reminders of what judges must do that they “may thrive.”
She knew that our obligation, according to scripture and the ethics of our ancestors, is to pursue social justice. Our pursuit is not always perfect, but our intent and morality to find a way to “make the world a better place” or to advocate for what we call “tikkun olam” — repair of the world — is.
Ginsburg fought to ensure the lessons of the Holocaust are preserved, noting that it was critical “to learn of and from that era of inhumanity, to renew our efforts to repair the world’s tears.”
Her beliefs were likely stamped by her understanding of our people’s plight. In her concluding remarks and in thinking about the Holocaust, she said, “May that memory strengthen our resolve to aid those at home and abroad who suffer from injustice born of ignorance and intolerance, to combat crimes that stem from racism and prejudice.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was in a league of her own, and her values themselves were likely firmly grounded in Judaism. She will be missed, but the values she espoused to protect and advance equality and human rights will remain a source of strength and conviction in the Jewish world and beyond. May her memory be a blessing.
Avi Benlolo is a Canadian human rights activist and the former president and CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center.