Three years ago Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a surprise special guest at Rosh Hashannah services at Temple Emanu-El in Washington D.C.. She did a short set, speaking specifically to the many ways her work in the courts had been guided by her Jewish values and experiences. “If you are a member of a minority group, particularly a minority group that has been picked on, you have empathy for others who are similarly situated,” she told congregants. “The Jewish religion is an ethical religion. That is, we are taught to do right, to love mercy, do justice, not because there’s gonna be any reward in heaven or punishment in hell. We live righteously because that’s how people should live and not anticipating any award in the hereafter.”
This Rosh Hashannah, at the age of 87, Ginsburg left us for whatever the hereafter turns out to be and if it does turn out that they’re giving out awards there, I think she’ll snag whatever the biggest award is there. The Nobel Peace Prize of the afterlife.
This Rosh Hashannah, in the year 2020, we texted our friends and family Shana Tova! (meaning “Happy New Year” in Hebrew), which felt a bit performative considering the realistic prognosis for this upcoming year, and then 20 minutes later we texted those same friends and famiy: fuckkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk.
Today we mourn the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and we take stock of our fear around what her death means for the future of the Supreme Court. We are holding both of those feelings at once, somehow slippery and sticky at the same time.
We are honoring her legacy, noting her influence, celebrating her achievements. Ginsburg was born in 1933 in Brooklyn, New York; studied at Cornell and Harvard and graduated at the top of her class from Columbia Law School. 33 years after her application to be a Supreme Court Clerk was rejected “on the basis of sex,” she became the second-ever woman justice to join the U.S. Supreme Court, appointed by President Bill Clinton. Her record of achievements is extensive and well-known. Her passionate dissents are legendary. She paved the way for gender justice and equality through her example and also through her unquantifiable influential work. She was a champion for LGBTQ equality, joining majority opinion on landmark cases including Romer v. Evans in 1996, Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, Windsor v. U.S. in 2013 and Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. She was the first Supreme Court justice to conduct a same-sex wedding.
She was a mother, a grandmother, a friend. Her husband, lawyer and professor Martin David Ginsburg, died in 2010. Her daughter Jane is an attorney. Her son James is a music producer.
She was one of the most consequential human beings to ever set their feet upon this wretched planet and she fought so hard to stay alive to protect the work that has protected so many of us. Barack Obama wrote a brief tribute to Ginsburg on medium, ending with his recollection of the Republicans blocking the appointment of his nominee, Merrick Garland, inventing the principle that an open seat on the Supreme Court shouldn’t be filled prior to the swearing in of a new President. “A basic principle of the law — and of everyday fairness — is that we apply rules with consistency, and not based on what’s convenient or advantageous in the moment,” he added.
A few days before her death, she dictated her last words to her granddaughter: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new President is installed.” On Rosh Hashannah, you tell God that it’d be great if it could be His Will for this to be “a good and sweet year for us.” I think in most respects, the “good and sweet year” train has already left the station, but I do hope that this one woman’s wish comes true. She did all of the things, after all. She did right, she loved mercy, she did justice. She lived, righteously.