Ruth Bader Ginsburg on ‘Being Jewish’
In 2003, when my wife, Ruth, and I were editing the book I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl (Jewish Light Publishing, 2004), we asked more than 300 prominent Jewish personalities to contribute an essay, a note, or a paragraph on what the words “I am Jewish” meant to them.
Some responded with outright rejection, saying that in a world heading toward globalization, there is no point dwelling on ethnic distinctions. Some apologized for not being able to treat such complex question in less than two or three volumes. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not hesitate for a moment, and sent us a 300-word piece we knew right away will strengthen the spines of Jewish youngsters for generations to come.
We assured her that she would be remembered by that piece, especially by the millions who will forever associate Jewishness with the Biblical command “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof” (Justice, justice, you shall pursue … — Deuteronomy 16:20).
Now that Ginsburg no longer is with us, it is time for us to fulfill our promise and make her essay available to the general public.
The following is the essay Ginsburg wrote for I Am Jewish, a book inspired by the last words of our son, Danny, before his murder by terrorists in 2002 in Pakistan:
Former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg once said, “My concern for justice, for peace, for enlightenment stems from my heritage.” Justice Stephen Breyer and I are fortunate to be linked to that heritage, and to live in the U.S.A. at a time when Jews residing here face few closed doors and do not fear letting the world know who they are.
For example, I say who I am in certain visible signs. The command from Deuteronomy appears in artworks, in Hebrew letters, on three walls and a table in my chambers. “Zedek, Zedek tirdof,” “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue,” these art works proclaim; they are ever present reminders to me of what judges must do “that they may thrive.” There is also a large silver mezuzah mounted on my doorpost. It is a gift from the super bright teenage students at the Shulamith School for Girls in Brooklyn, N.Y. the school one of my dearest law clerks attended in her growing-up years.
A question stated in various ways is indicative of what I would like to convey. What is the difference between a New York City garment district bookkeeper and a Supreme Court Justice? One generation. My life bears witness, the difference between opportunities open to my mother, a bookkeeper, and those open to me.
I am a judge, born, raised and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of the Jewish history and Jewish tradition. I hope, in all the years I have the good fortune to serve on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, I will have the strength and courage to remain steadfast in the service of that demand.
As I reread this essay in 2020, there is one sentence that strikes me as somewhat ironic: “[We] are fortunate to … live at a time when Jews residing here face few closed doors and do not fear letting the world know who they are.”
Having been involved in a few campus incidents lately, I can’t help but imagine RBG’s disappointment upon finding out her grandchildren are becoming increasingly hesitant to let the world know who they are. Had they applied to UCLA or USC, for example, they might well be deemed unfit to serve in student government by virtue of being Jewish, highly suspect of Zionist affiliation, beliefs, or aspirations. And Zionism, so university administrators tell us, is not a word their lawyers would permit them to spell, let alone respect or protect in public.
May history remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the ideas she affirmed, the values she pursued, and, not the least, her understanding of the power of heritage in shaping values and ideas.