Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Jewishness, in Her Own Words
The late Supreme Court justice's career as a trailblazing jurist was inextricable from her Jewish identity, though you wouldn't know it from some of the odder obituaries
As I’m sure you know by now, U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away on Friday at the age of 87. Like many, in the days after the news broke, I read an array of obituaries recounting her remarkable life. And then I read this one, published in The Guardian:
Born in Brooklyn, New York, she was the younger daughter of Jewish parents, Celia (nee Amster) and Nathan Bader, a furrier, and grew up in the Flatbush neighbourhood. She was originally called Joan, but her mother preferred her middle name, Ruth, as there were so many Joans at her high school, James Madison. Ruth was brought up in a Conservative Jewish tradition and learned Hebrew as a child, but abandoned her religion…
Needless to say, this is not true, as anyone who knows anything about Ginsburg or American Jewry is aware. Yet the obituary repeats this claim, folding it into an offensive passage that suggests—without evidence, because none exists—that Ginsburg was selected for the Supreme Court not for her trailblazing feminist litigation and jurisprudence, but as a token Jew:
Clinton was anxious to make the supreme court more diverse, so Ginsburg’s Jewish religion, which she had given up 46 years earlier, may have counted for more than a lifetime of commitment to women’s equality before the law.
My first reaction upon reading these passages was that this is just what happens at a major newspaper when all of their Jewish editors and writers are out of the office for Rosh Hashana. My second, more serious reaction was that this bizarre misportrayal utterly erases how fundamental Ginsburg’s Jewish identity was to her self-understanding and legal career.
Now, there’s a phenomenon in the Jewish journalism profession called “Jewspotting,” where reporters latch on to a Jewish angle for the story of the day, no matter how tenuous its relationship to the actual news. You know the type: “Scientist who discovered asteroid about to obliterate the Earth also once had space-themed Bar Mitzvah.” RBG’s Jewish identity is not like that. It’s worth understanding why.
Rather than rebut The Guardian’s bizarre misreporting, though, I thought it would be better to let Ginsburg do it in her own words. So here, in full, are several discourses that she delivered on her Jewish commitments, spanning from 1946 to 2018. I hope that by putting them together in one place, this page can serve as a resource for those who wish to learn from her example.
Yehi zikhra barukh. May her memory be a blessing.
Genesis Prize Acceptance Speech (July 4, 2018)
In 2018, Ginsburg traveled to Israel to receive the Genesis Prize’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and delivered the following address about Judaism, justice, and Zionism.
Isaac Bashevis Singer had a remembrance that bears retelling on an occasion like this. Singer's grandfather was a renowned Orthodox rabbi who in a sermon put this question to his congregation: "Why is the Almighty so eager for praise? Three times a day we pray to Him, saying how great he is, how wonderful. Why should the creator of all the stars and all the planets be so eager for praise? The sage rabbis answer: the Almighty knows from divine experience that when people stop praising him they begin to praise one another." This thing, as grandfather said, is what the Almighty does not like, but small people that we are, Singer added, we enjoy sometimes some praise especially when it comes from the mouths of good people. Just so I am enjoying this event and my revisit to Israel.
It is fitting on this occasion to speak of two Jewish women raised in the USA whose humanity and bravery inspired me in my growing up years. First, Emma Lazarus, elder cousin to the great jurist Benjamin Nathan Cardozo. Emma Lazarus was a Zionist before that word came into vogue. Her love for humankind and especially for her people is evident in all her writings. She wrote constantly, from her first volume of poetry, published in 1866 at age 17, until her death from cancer far too soon at age 38. Her poem "The New Colossus," etched on the base of the Statue of Liberty, has welcomed legions of immigrants including my father and grandparents, people seeking in the USA shelter from fear, and longing for freedom from intolerance.
My next inspirer: Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold. Born in 1860, 11 years after Emma Lazarus, Szold lived until 1945. My mother spoke of her glowingly, also of Henry Street Settlement House founder Lillian Wald, who lived from 1867 until 1940. Szold knew how to say no better than any other person whose words I have read. Szold had seven sisters but no brother. When her mother died, a man well known for his community spirit endeavors, Haim Peretz, offered to say the Kaddish, the mourner's prayer that ancient custom instructed could be recited only by men. Szold responded to that caring offer in a letter dated September 16, 1916. You can read it in full in "Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality" and in the "Jewish Women's Archive Curriculum: Making Our Wilderness Bloom." I will read the key passages.
"It is impossible for me to find words in which to tell you how deeply I was touched by your offer to say Kaddish after my mother. The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly manifests his intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community which his parents had, so that the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation, each adding its own link. You can do that for the generations of your family. I must do that for the generations of my family. My mother had eight daughters and no son, yet never did I hear a word of regret pass the lips of either my mother or my father that one of us was not a son. When my father died, my mother would not permit others to take her daughters' place and say the Kaddish, and so I am sure I am acting in her spirit when I am moved to decline your offer. But beautiful your offer remains, and I repeat, I know full well it is much more in harmony with the generally accepted Jewish tradition than is my family's conception. You understand me, don't you?"
Szold's plea for celebration of our common heritage while tolerating, indeed appreciating, the differences among us concerning religious practice, is captivating. I recall her words even to this day when a colleague's words portray a certain lack of understanding.
When I became active in the movement to open doors to women, enabling them to enter occupations once closed to them—lawyering and judging, bartending, policing, firefighting, for a few examples—I was heartened by the words of a girl of my generation. She wrote:
"One of the many questions that has often bothered me is why women have been and still are thought to be so inferior to men. It's easy to say it's unfair, but that's not enough for me. I'd really like to know the reason for this great injustice. Men presumably dominated women from the very beginning because of their greater physical strength. It's men who earn a living, beget children, and do as they please. Until recently, women silently went along with this, which was stupid since the longer it's kept up the more deeply entrenched it becomes. Fortunately, education, work, and progress have opened women's eyes. In many countries, they've been granted equal rights. Many people—mainly women but also men—now realize how wrong it was to tolerate this state of affairs for so long.
Anne M. Frank"
This insightful comment was one of the last entered in her diary. Anne Frank, people in this audience know, was born in the Netherlands in July 1929. She died in 1945 while imprisoned at Bergen-Belsen, three months short of her 16th birthday.
I was asked some years ago by the American Jewish Committee to supply a statement on how my heritage as a Jew and my occupation as a judge fit together. I responded this way:
"I am a judge, born, raised, and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice, for peace, for enlightenment, runs through the entirety of the Jewish history and the Jewish tradition. I hope that in all the years I have the good fortune to continue serving on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, I will have the strength and courage to remain steadfast in service of that demand."
With thanks for your patient audience, and once again deepest appreciation to Aharon Barak and to the Genesis Foundation, may I say to all gathered here, "Shalom v'toda raba." [Farewell, and thank you.]
Holocaust Remembrance Day Speech (April 22, 2004)
In 2004, Ginsburg spoke at the national ceremony commemorating the Holocaust, recounting her own Jewish story and its inseparability from her life and work as a judge.
I am pleased to join hands with all in attendance at this ceremony of remembrance. May I first express abiding appreciation to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for its vigilant assurance that we will never forget the victims of the Nazi madness, the six million Jews, killed simply because they were Jews, and the millions of people of other faiths and diverse affiliations swept into the unnatural maelstrom.
I had the good fortune to be a Jew born and raised in the U. S. A. My father left Odessa bound for the New World in 1909, at age 13; my mother was first in her large family to be born here, in 1903, just a few months after her parents and older siblings landed in New York. What is the difference between a bookkeeper in New York's garment district and a Supreme Court Justice? Just one generation, my mother's life and mine bear witness. Where else but America could that happen?
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, 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."
But today, here in the Capitol, the lawmaking heart of our nation, in close proximity to the Supreme Court, we remember in sorrow that Hitler's Europe, his Holocaust Kingdom, was not lawless. Indeed, it was a kingdom full of laws, laws deployed by highly educated people-teachers, lawyers, and judges-to facilitate oppression, slavery, and mass murder. We convene to say "Never again," not only to Western history's most unjust regime, but also to a world in which good men and women, abroad and even in the U. S. A., witnessed or knew of the Holocaust Kingdom's crimes against humanity, and let them happen.
The world's failure to stop the atrocities of the Third Reich was perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Hungary, where the Holocaust descended late in the war. But when it came, it advanced with brutal speed. Hungary was the first country in Europe to adopt an anti-Jewish law after World War I, a short-lived measure that restricted the admission of Jews to institutions of higher learning. In the main, however, that nation's 800,000 Jews lived free from terror until 1944. Although 63,000 Hungarian Jews lost their lives before the German occupation - most of them during forced service, under dreadful conditions, in labor battalions - Hungary's leaders staved off German demands to carry out the Final Solution until March 19, 1944, when Hitler's troops occupied the country.
Then, overnight, everything changed. Within three and a half months of the occupation, 437,000 Hungarian Jews were deported. Four trains a day, each transporting up to 3,000 people packed together like freight, left Hungary for Auschwitz, where most of the passengers were methodically murdered. This horrendous time is chronicled unforgettably by Hungarian Holocaust survivors and Nobel Prize winners Elie Wiesel, today's lead speaker, and Imre Kertész, in their captivating works, Night and Fateless.
What happened to Hungary's Jews is a tragedy beyond reckoning. For, unlike earlier deportations, the deportations in Hungary began and relentlessly continued after the tide had turned against the Axis, and after the Nazis' crimes against humanity had been exposed. Less than a week after the German occupation of Hungary, President Roosevelt delivered a speech reporting that "the wholesale systematic murder of the Jews of Europe goes on unabated every hour" and that Hungarian Jews were now among those "threatened with annihilation." Yet, the world, for the most part, did not rise up to stop the killing.
I say for the most part because, as swiftly as the Hungarian Holocaust happened, heroes emerged. Raoul Wallenberg, a member of Sweden's most prominent banking family, arrived in Budapest in July 1944, and worked with the War Refugee Board-established by President Roosevelt just six months earlier-to protect tens of thousands of Jews from deportation. Wallenberg distributed Swedish protective passports; he purchased or leased buildings, draped them with Swedish flags as diplomatically immune territory, and used them as safe havens for Jews. Through these devices, he was directly responsible for saving 20,000 people. Wallenberg carried food and medical supplies to Jews on forced marches from Budapest to Austria; he sometimes succeeded in removing Jews from the marches by insisting they were protected Swedish citizens. He has been credited with saving some 100,000 Jews in the Budapest ghetto by forestalling attacks on that population by Hungary's anti-Semitic Arrow Cross party. In January 1945, Wallenberg met with Soviet officials to gain relief for the Budapest Jews. He did not return from that journey.
Wallenberg and the War Refugee Board are perhaps the best-known rescuers of Jews trapped in the Hungarian Holocaust. In fact, many others, Jews and Gentiles alike, also rose to the occasion. Some remain unknown for their individual deeds of heroism; others, including Carl Lutz of Switzerland, saved Jews on a larger scale. All the life savers were grand humans. But most of the world stood by in silence. Knowing what a few courageous souls accomplished in Hungary in short time, one can but ask: How many could have been saved throughout Europe had legions of others, both individuals and nations, the United States among them, intervened earlier?
I was fortunate to be a child, a Jewish child, safely in America during the Holocaust. Our nation learned from Hitler's racism and, in time, embarked on a mission to end law-sanctioned discrimination in our own country. In the aftermath of World War II, in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, in the burgeoning Women's Rights movement of the 1970s, "We the People" expanded to include all of humankind, to embrace all the people of this great nation. Our motto, E Pluribus Unum, of many one, signals our appreciation that we are the richer for the religious, ethnic, and racial diversity of our citizens.
I am proud to live in a country where Jews are not afraid to say who we are, the second country after Israel to have set aside a day each year, this day, to remember the Holocaust, to learn of and from that era of inhumanity, to renew our efforts to repair the world's tears. I feel the more secure because this Capital City includes a museum dedicated to educating the world, so that all may know, through proof beyond doubt, that the unimaginable in fact happened.
It is fitting, I hope you agree, as I conclude these remarks, to recite another line from Deuteronomy: U'vacharta b'chaim. It means: Choose life. As did the survivors who somehow managed to stay alive, to carry on, and to tell their stories; as did Jews and Christians, in ghettos and in camps, who gave their lives endeavoring to save the lives of others; as did Budapest itself, where the city's Great Synagogue still opens its doors, the second largest synagogue in the world, the shul in which Theodore Herzl was bar mitzvahed, a structure so impressive visitors from my home state might recognize it as the model for Central Synagogue in New York City.
We gather here today, little more than a week after Passover, the holiday when Jews recount their journey from slavery to freedom. We re-tell the Passover, just as we commemorate the Holocaust, to educate our children, to remember those who died striving for a better world, and to rejoice in the resistance of the Jewish people to evil fortune, armed with the courage and faith that has enabled them to survive through centuries of exiles, plunderings, and persecutions.
The Passover story we re-tell is replete with miracles. But unlike our ancestors in their Exodus from Egypt, our way is unlikely to be advanced by miraculous occurrences. In striving to drain dry the waters of prejudice and oppression, we must rely on measures of our own creation-upon the wisdom of our laws and the decency of our institutions, upon our reasoning minds and our feeling hearts. And as a constant spark to carry on, upon our vivid memories of the evils we wish to banish from our world. In our long struggle for a more just world, our memories are among our most powerful resources.
May the memory of those who perished remain vibrant to all who dwell in this fair land, people of every color and creed. 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, and to remain ever engaged in the quest for democracy and respect for the human dignity of all the world's people.
Reading of George Washington’s Letter to the Touro Synagogue (August 22, 2004)
In 2004, to mark 350 years of Jewish life in America, the historic Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI, held a public reading and celebration of President Washington’s letter to their community, which promised that Jews would be welcome in the country. The keynote speaker for the event was Justice Ginsburg, who offered a capsule history of her fellow Jewish jurists on the Supreme Court. Her entire speech can be read here, but these sections are worth highlighting:
[Supreme Court Justice Louis] Brandeis was not a participant in religious ceremonies or services, but he was an ardent Zionist, and he encouraged the next two Jewish Justices - Benjamin Cardozo and Felix Frankfurter - to become members of the Zionist Organization of America. Brandeis scholar Melvin Urofsky commented that Brandeis brought three gifts to American Zionism: organizational talent; an ability to set goals and to lead men and women to achieve them; and above all, an idealism that recast Zionist thought in a way that captivated Jews comfortably situated in the United States.
Jews abroad who needed to flee from anti-Semitism, Brandeis urged, would have a home in the land of Israel, a place to build a new society, a fair and open one, he hoped, free from the prejudices and economic disparities that marked much of Europe, a state where the prophetic teachings of justice, charity, and lovingkindness could be made real. Jews well established in the United States, he counseled would have a complementary mission, an obligation to help their kinsmen build that new land. Brandeis' very stature attracted legions of others. Jews here could say, if it was all right for Brandeis to be a Zionist, then it was OK for them as well.
Some years ago, I came upon a story [Supreme Court Justice Arthur] Goldberg once told the congregation of Temple Emanu-El in Honolulu in the early 1960s. The Justice was in Chicago visiting his mother, who had become active in several Jewish organizations. He was sleeping late one morning when the telephone rang for him. His mother answered the phone and asked, "Who's this?" The caller replied, "This is the President." Goldberg, barely awake, heard his mother inquire, "Nu, president from which shul?"
Law as protector of the oppressed, the poor, the minority, the loner, is evident in the life body of work of Justices Brandeis, Cardozo, Frankfurter, Goldberg, and Fortas. Frankfurter, once distressed when the Court rejected his view in a case, reminded his brethren, defensively, that he "belong[ed] to the most vilified and persecuted minority in history." I prefer Arthur Goldberg's affirmative comment: "My concern for justice, for peace, for enlightenment," Goldberg said, "stem[s] from my heritage." The other Jewish Justices could have reached the same judgment. Justice Breyer and I are fortunate to be linked to that heritage.
“One People” - East Midwood Jewish Center Bulletin (June 1, 1946)
Ginsburg wrote this essay for her synagogue bulletin after the Holocaust, when she was just 13 years old.
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. As Rabbi Alfred Bettleheim once said: "Prejudice saves us a painful trouble, the trouble of thinking."
In our beloved land families were not scattered, communities not erased nor our nation destroyed by the ravages of the World War. Yet, dare we be at ease? We are part of a world whose unity has been almost completely shattered. No one can feel free from danger and destruction until the many torn threads of civilization are bound together again. We cannot feel safe until every nation, regardless of weapons or power, will meet together in good faith, the people worthy of mutual association. There can be a happy world and there will be once again, when men and women create a strong bond towards one another, a bond unbreakable by a studied prejudice or a passing circumstance.
Then and only then shall we have a world whose structure is the Brotherhood and Sisterhood of men and women.
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