We should be proud of the very Jewish RBG

Is it legitimate for Jews to take pride in the achievements of other Jews, achievements in which we played no part?

September 23, 2020 12:41

Among the pictures of the spontaneous vigil that popped up following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one image caught my eye. Many of the homemade signs that mourners had brought to the Supreme Court late Saturday night were striking, testament to the way the judge had, in her final decade, become a pop culture icon. “We won’t let you down, RBG” read one. “She brought us this far, now it’s our turn,” read another, held by one of the countless young women who were among Ginsburg’s most devoted supporters.  

But the one I noticed was subtly different, with two small images painted into the corner of the placard. One was the circle-with-a-plus sign of womanhood and the other was a Star of David. 

It gave me a small pulse of pride and an instant sense of connection with the sign-bearer. She clearly felt her own pride in a judge who had risen to the highest court in the land — and the best-known court in the world — and had done so as a woman and a Jew. 

The more I read about RBG, the more I felt it: pride that a woman of such legal brilliance, of such devotion to the principle of equality before the law, of such defiant courage in confronting sexism, and of such indefatigable professionalism, was a fellow Jew. It was as if the glow around Ginsburg was one that all Jews could bask in. 

But I’ve found myself wondering, in this season of introspection and self-examination, whether that’s OK. Is it legitimate for Jews to take pride in the achievements of other Jews, achievements in which we played no part?

A memory came back, related to the family memoir I wrote some 15 years ago. In one section of Jacob’s Gift, while making an argument about the perennial Jewish attraction to revolutionary causes, I rattled off the names of eminent Jewish radicals throughout history and across the world, from Karl Marx to Betty Friedan. One well-known writer told me afterwards that, much as he liked the book, that passage had irritated him. It reminded him, he said, of the way Kingsley Amis would sit watching the end credits of TV programmes, barking out “There’s another one,” every time he spotted a Jewish name (a habit we know of thanks to Kingsley’s son, Martin). Something nasty in noticing who is and who isn’t Jewish, my writer friend thought. 

But what if one’s motivation is wholly benign, merely taking pride in the contribution Jews have made? My friend was unimpressed, as if such an impulse could only ever be irrational or worse.

A part of me understood what he meant. There was a time when this very newspaper was prone to claiming all kinds of people — movie stars, politicians, the occasional archbishop — as Jewish, often on grounds that can only be described as tenuous. Perhaps that “Jewspotting” habit cannot be easily defended. More challengingly, if we want to glory in the good deeds of some Jews, does that not also oblige us to atone for the sins committed by others? If we want to feel pride in Ruth Bader Ginsburg, must we also feel shame over Harvey Weinstein?

I think there may be an answer. If someone just happens to be Jewish, if their Jewishness has no relation to either their accomplishment or their ignominy, then we should resist the urge either to puff out our chest in pride or beat it in embarrassment. But if Jewishness is somehow central to that person’s story, if it made them who they are, then we might be entitled to a different reaction. 

The case of RBG is pretty clear, not least because she set it out herself. “My heritage as a Jew and my occupation as a judge fit together symmetrically,” she said in a 2004 speech at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. “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, [a] 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.”

Angered by the rules that barred her, as a woman, from saying Kaddish for her mother when she was 17, Ginsburg nevertheless, and throughout her life, approached the world as a Jew. “It makes you more empathetic to other people who are not insiders, who are outsiders,” she told an audience at Washington’s Adas Israel synagogue in 2018. At the Supreme Court, she pushed — successfully — for cases not to be heard on Yom Kippur. She even had the words “In the Year of Our Lord”, with their implicit reference to Jesus, removed from formal court papers. 

Being Jewish helped make Ruth Bader Ginsburg who she was. For other Jews to draw strength from that fact is not only legitimate, it is necessary —  for it might inspire us to follow her lead in ceaselessly pursuing justice. As one other placard at that Washington vigil put it, “May her memory be a blessing, may we become a credit to her name.” 
Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for The Guardian


September 23, 2020 12:41

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