Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87, died on the eve of Rosh HaShanah, as Jews worldwide ushered in the High Holidays. She was a scholar, cultural icon, and trailblazer – certainly the only member of the Supreme Court to merit her own comic book and action figure. She wore her Jewish heritage openly and spoke of it with pride.
“I am a judge born, raised, and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of the Jewish tradition,” she said in a 1995 speech to the American Jewish Committee. “I hope, in my years on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, I will have the strength and courage to remain constant in the service of that demand.”
Ginsburg was born in 1933 to Celia and Nathan Bader, a hardworking family striving to give their children a better life. They attended a Conservative synagogue and her first job was as a counselor in an upstate Jewish camp. Her mother encouraged her to pursue an education and a career, not to be dependent on a man’s income for sustenance. Celia died when Ruth was 17, but her words inspired her rise to the highest bench in the country.
Her husband Martin was also her steadfast supporter, and they both attended Harvard Law School. She was one of nine women in a class of 500. At the time, she was a mother, and Martin was diagnosed with cancer. She raised her daughter, prepared dinner, studied for her classes, and took notes for him when he could not attend class. He proudly spoke of her publication in the school’s Law Review, and she noted that he married her for her intellect.
Ginsburg graduated from Columbia Law School and then took on cases involving gender equality – a widower applying for his wife’s benefits being her first high-profile case. She then founded the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU and continued to argue in cases where men and women were not treated equally, such as survivor’s benefits, drinking age, and jury duty.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, and she won Senate approval by a 96-3 vote, near unanimity for a judge that is today regarded as a liberal icon. At the time, Jewish news publications noted her dissents, which often received as much attention, if not more, than the decisions rendered.
One such example was in 1984, when Air Force officer S. Simcha Goldman sued Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger for his right to wear the kipah on duty. Ginsburg was a Court of Appeals judge at the time. “A military commander has now declared intolerable the yarmulke Dr. Goldman has worn without incident throughout his several years of military service.”
Three years later, she sided with Weinberger in rejecting convicted spy Jonathan Pollard’s appeal of his life sentence. That case remains a source of division among American Jews, with many Orthodox organizations arguing that his punishment was disproportional and overly harsh.
Ginsburg’s opinions on the Supreme Court concerning abortion, gay rights, voting rights, and gender discrimination encouraged political liberals. The pasuk “Justice, justice, you shall pursue,” which appeared on her desk, inspired Jews whose religious identity focused on social justice. When Ginsburg was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, many liberal commentators shared her Hebrew name in tweets for her r’fuah sh’leimah. She became their wise and activist bubby, whose image appeared on costumes, posters, and decorations.
She was a partisan icon, but was cordial with her conservative colleagues, in particular Justice Antonin Scalia. The two justices and their spouses often attended opera shows and ate dinner together.
“They were both New Yorkers, close in age, and liked a lot of the same things: the law, teaching, travel, music, and a meal with family and friends,” his son Eugene Scalia wrote. “They had a bond, I think, in that they both grew up as outsiders – to different degrees – to the elites who had ruled the country: she as a Jew and woman, he as a Catholic and Italian American.”
Then there was the 2003 trip to Washington by the Bais Yaakov of Queens, whose seventh-grade class had the opportunity to meet Ginsburg. “I want these kids to be open-minded and to examine their biases,” secular studies principal Sarah Bergman told Newsday. At the time, the court was reviewing Virginia v. Black, on the right to burn a cross on private property. The girls took opposing positions in the case in expectation of the decision, which held in favor of cross burning, in which Ginsburg was a dissenter.
The meeting demonstrated that Ginsburg’s reputation rises above her legal opinions, focusing on her groundbreaking career, which opened the doors to countless women in the legal profession.
“How fortunate I was to be alive and a lawyer,” Ginsburg wrote in the preface to her essay collection “My Own Words,” published in 2016, “For the first time in US history, it became possible to urge, successfully, before legislatures and courts, the equal-citizenship stature of women and men as a fundamental constitutional principle.”
The late justice will make history Friday as the first woman – and first Jew – to lie in state at the US Capitol, an honor granted since 1852 to America’s “most distinguished citizens.”