September 22, 2020
“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” — “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”
These words are among the most famous in the Torah.They are also woven into the silk jabot, or collar, that the Jewish artist Marcy Epstein created for Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the start of what would sadly, be her last session on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The news of RBG’s death on Friday afternoon hit me with a force I’ve not often felt. That it marked the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year 5781, made her passing that much more poignant, as I was preparing to celebrate the high holiday that eve. And yet, despite the lament of losing such a towering civil rights figure, and for the waves of dread at what her loss might mean for our precarious democracy, I was also inspired. For those not familiar with Jewish tradition, a person who dies on Rosh Hashanah is considered to be a tzaddik —a person of great righteousness. What could be more righteous than the ways that RBG impacted society?
- She fundamentally changed the way the law views gender, arguing successfully that gender discrimination reflected paternalistic notions of female frailty.
- She broke education and employment barriers for everyone that came after her, myself included.
- She expanded “unjustified inequality” beyond her own experience as a woman, to make the court recognize same-sex couples’ fundamental right to marry.
- She was also the first justice to officiate a same-sex marriage.
- She shaped the court’s eventual ruling that anti-LGBTQ discrimination is a form of sex discrimination.
- She fought for and won the ruling on equal pay.
- When five of her male colleagues on the bench reasoned that the government may need to protect women from obtaining an abortion they may later regret, she castigated them for “depriving women of the right to make an autonomous choice, even at the expense of their safety,” relying upon, “ancient notions about women’s place in the family and under the Constitution” that have “long since been discredited.”
- Despite countless obstacles, she never wavered in standing with “the outsider in society,” insisting they have a place in our legal system, because the Constitution and the laws protect all the American people, not simply the powerful.
- Despite profound hardship, not the least of which was numerous health crises, she always looked forward, never allowing herself to be paralyzed by victimhood.
We can never stop the fight for civil rights and the pursuit of justice for all our communities. As the pillars of justice that RBG was integral in rooting in our society teeter beneath current governing groups, this fight has never been so important.
In a matter of a month, we have said goodbye to two great fighters for equality: John Lewis, whose bold resounding voice bellowed for the ages, “Never be afraid to make some noise and get in trouble, necessary trouble.” And RBG, the pint-sized powerhouse, whose own “noise” came in the form of understated, strategic, fearless, and relentless active-dissent. “Real change, enduring change,” she said, “happens one step at a time ... fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
On Rosh Hashanah, Jews also “make some noise” by blowing the shofar, a musical instrument made from an animal horn. The act is meant as a wake-up call for Teshuvah, a time to examine who we are, who we want to be, what we’ve done wrong and can do better, and how we are putting ourselves to use in the world for good—in other words, our own righteousness.
With RBG’s passing, and what is likely to be the most important election of our lifetime, with so much hard-won justice on the line, perhaps we might all make some noise in our own lives, to wake us from the slumber of despair, worry, frustration, and outrage that we may be feeling and reconsider ways that we can do something about it.
When asked how she would like to be remembered, RBG said, as “Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.”
Whatever each of our talents and abilities are, let us use them now more than ever in the spirit of RBG to ensure that her work stays true and her legacy continues.