RBG: An American Jewish justice warrior
Her life exemplified the unique complexities of Jewish identity
Ruth Bader Ginsburg accepting supreme court nomination from President Bill Clinton, June 1993
The obituary in Britain’s Guardian newspaper of the iconic liberal US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last weekend, provoked outrage among a number of Jews.
In the piece, Godfrey Hodgson wrote: “Ruth was brought up in a Conservative Jewish tradition and learned Hebrew as a child, but abandoned her religion because she was not allowed to join a minyan (a group of men) to mourn her mother’s death when she was 17.”
He also wrote: [In 1993, President Bill] 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.”
This produced astonishment among people who knew that Ginsburg’s Jewish identity was threaded through her life and work.
After complaints, the Guardian changed the text to say that Ginsburg “ … moved away from strict religious observance after she was not allowed to join a minyan (a group of men) to mourn her mother’s death when she was 17. Indignant at that exclusion, she nevertheless remained deeply committed to her Jewish identity.”
And the Clinton passage was also changed to say “… so Ginsburg’s Jewish identity may have counted for more than a lifetime of commitment to women’s equality before the law.”
The episode tells us some important things about attitudes towards Jews in the non-Jewish world, as well as towards religion on the left.
Ginsburg embodied a particular ambivalence in Jewish life that is found in no other faith community.
In acknowledgment of her stellar status as a jurist, she became this week the first woman to lie in state in the US Supreme Court and the first Jewish woman to lie in state at the US Capitol building before being buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
The fact that she was not buried immediately in accordance with Jewish tradition and will not lie with her people in a Jewish cemetery may grate upon religiously observant Jews.
But many American Jews, in particular, will recognise in Ginsburg’s life a reflection of their own sense of Jewish identity: distance from religious ritual, but an intense identification with Jewish culture and heritage.
Ginsburg’s husband, Martin, described the family as “not wildly observant,” although he said they went to a traditional Passover seder with relatives. Five years ago, Ginsburg co-authored a feminist reinterpretation of the Passover story with Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt.
She and Martin sent their children to Hebrew school when they lived in the New York area, but Martin said they didn’t join a synagogue when they moved to Washington because the children had grown up.
Despite this lack of observance, there’s no doubt that, as Ginsburg herself has said, she drew upon Jewish values for her inspiration.
She had a mezuzah fixed to her office door. A poster on the wall read “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof”—the Torah injunction meaning “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
In 2004, in a speech at a Holocaust Remembrance Day event held in the Capitol, she declared that “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.”
Hodgson’s error was due to more than careless use of language or ignorance of Ginsburg’s life. As is made particularly clear in the original Clinton passage, he assumed that Jewish identity was synonymous with the Jewish religion.
So Ginsburg’s “Jewish religion” had apparently made her “diverse” to Clinton, even though she’d “given it up.” But, of course, it wasn’t her religious observance that made her diverse in Clinton’s eyes, but the fact that she was a Jew (and a woman). And being a Jew was something she certainly did not give up; nor could she have done so even had she wanted to.
Hodgson is hardly alone in this confused thinking about Judaism. Many if not most in the west, including secular folk, think about religion through the prism of Christianity. That’s a confessional faith shaped by a theological creed. If you abandon that creed, you abandon the religion. You are no longer a member of the church; you have become an ex-Christian.
Many think Judaism works in the same way, and so if you abandon Jewish religious practice, then you abandon Judaism. They don’t understand that, unlike Christianity, Judaism is a unique combination of religious laws, ethnic identity and a culture of historic peoplehood.
A Jew can pay no or scant attention to Jewish religious laws or observances, and yet still identify passionately with Jewish culture and peoplehood.
So to suggest that Ginsburg had “abandoned” or “given up” her Judaism was totally wrong.
This failure to understand the complexities of Judaism and Jewish identity also fuels hostility to Israel. Many non-Jews, assuming that Judaism is merely a religion, cannot understand why a faith group should be entitled to a state.
That’s partly why they think it’s outrageous that the Jews have “colonised” land that they assume belongs to Arabs, who they think do have a genuine national claim. They think it’s a category error.
They have absolutely no awareness that the Jews are, in fact, a historic nation, bound by their own system of law and a common language, history, institutions and culture, and that they are the only people for whom the land of Israel was ever their national kingdom.
These westerners may be aware that in the Bible the land was promised to the Jews alone. But in godless Britain, at least, that only deepens their hostility because they believe the Bible is a fairy tale. They have no idea that it operates on different levels, one of which is a historical record of the creation of the Jewish people.
Western secular progressives dismiss the Bible because they hate religion. They believe that it stands in the way of the liberal causes they hold dear to them. Ginsburg was a secular heroine because of her promotion of those liberal causes. So they can’t process the fact that she drew on that same biblical text for her moral values.
Orthodox Jews, along with those from different religions and none who believe that today’s progressive causes have repudiated the core moral tenets of the Hebrew Bible, may regard Ginsburg instead as the standard-bearer of American Jews who have regrettably made liberalism their religion under the mistaken assumption that it represents authentic Jewish values.
Justice and compassion — the core principles of the Hebrew Bible that are extolled by liberals — are, however, parts of a broader moral and ethical package. When detached from the Bible’s other precepts, such as individual duty, responsibility and accountability for one’s actions, they may be transformed into their diametric opposite and become instead the weapons of liberal “social justice” power politics.
One may be appalled by that and worry about the future of American Jewry as a consequence. One may regret Ginsburg’s rejection of Jewish religious observance, just as one may regret its rejection by the majority of the American Jewish community and the moral confusion that has caused.
But no-one can be in any doubt that this is an argument, however bitter and anguished, among Jews. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg died as she had lived—a rightly garlanded tribune of the incomparably disputatious, morally driven and law-bound Jewish people.
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