The outsider who became the ultimate insider

American Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last week, deployed her Jewish background to change America for the better


Early in her tenure on the United States Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — then the only Jew serving on the nation’s highest court — was told of a very Jewish problem. Every year, the court issued membership to lawyers, to enable them to argue cases before it. And every year, a few Orthodox Jews complained that the membership certificate said “In the Year of Our Lord,” referring to Jesus Christ.

Ginsburg took up the issue with her new colleagues. One of them objected and responded by listing the Jewish justices who preceded her: “In the Year of Our Lord was good enough for [Lous] Brandeis, it was good enough for [Benjamin] Cardozo, it was good enough for [Felix] Frankfurter….” And before he got much further, she cut him off. “It’s not good enough for Ginsburg!”

She won the argument. Of course she did. Now, the certificate can refer to Our Lord, or not. “You have your choice,” she told me in a wide-ranging interview in February 2018. “It’s the way it should be.”

This anecdote encapsulates the kind of Jew Ruth Bader Ginsburg was during her extraordinary and consequential life: dedicated to her people, inclusive of others, guided by a strong moral campus and willing to challenge a wrong when it could be righted. Her death at age 87, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, has left American Jews utterly bereft. There is good reason why she will be remembered as one of the most significant and influential Jews this country has ever known.

Ginsburg represented the apogee of Jewish achievement. As unique as she was, she also was an archetype, the epitome of what America had to offer a wandering, battered people. Born in 1933, as fascism began its brutal march across Europe and as the Depression still blanketed the world economy, she also faced adversity at home. Her sister, who was her only sibling, died when Ruth was very young. Her mother suffered from cancer throughout Ruth’s high school years and died two days before her graduation.

Women with brains and drive were excluded from power, legally considered second-class citizens, rarely allowed to even glimpse their own potential.

But she would have none of it. Quietly but firmly, she pushed back against barriers by working harder than anyone else, supported by an amazing husband, and fortunate to come of age when being Jewish was no longer the hindrance it had been. The antisemitism that had plagued the US after the war gradually gave way in the 1950s, as advocates used the law to break down discrimination against Jews. Ginsburg worked the same levers, doggedly seeking to turn over a host of laws that discriminated on the basis of sex.

During my interview, in a cavernous synagogue sanctuary in Washington DC, Ginsburg spoke of how growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust shaped her judicial philosophy.

“The sense of being an outsider — of being one of the people who had suffered oppression for… no sensible reason … it’s the sense of being part of a minority. It makes you more empathetic to other people who are not insiders, who are outsiders.”

She retained that memory of being an outsider even when, as a Supreme Court justice — only the second woman appointed to the high court — she became the ultimate insider.

Ginsburg was not a revolutionary. She worked within the system to change the system, to make it more fair and just, to extend protections to those who needed government the most.

This was the quintessential Jewish aspect of her character. Yes, she was raised a Jew, married a Jew, went to shul on Yom Kippur, supported Jewish causes in the United States and Israel. But more than that, Ginsburg epitomized the liberal intellectual ideal that characterizes so many modern American Jews — grounded in the belief that US institutions will bend toward justice if presented with unassailable rational arguments, and that they can best be led in that direction from within.

She believed that of the practice of Judaism, too. From an early age, she bristled when she could not have a barmitzvah like the boys and when she was not allowed to say the mourner’s kaddish for her mother. But she did not reject the faith; nor did she rail against it. Instead, she sought out quiet ways to include women in the Jewish narrative. In 2015, when asked by the American Jewish World Service to write an insert into the Passover Haggadah, she focused on the essential roles played by Miriam, Pharoah’s daughter, and the midwives Shifra and Puah in the Exodus story.

As frail as she appeared toward the end of her life, her tiny frame stooped with age and bouts of cancer, Ginsburg was no pushover. When I followed her on stage that evening — where she was greeted by rapturous applause — she brought along a small, canvas tote bag. At one point in our interview, she interrupted my question and pulled out a piece of paper, which she insisted on reading. It was a letter by a young woman who just turned 15 and it opened with these words: “One of the many questions I have that has so 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 good enough for me. I’d like to know the reason for this great injustice.”

The letter writer, Ginsburg revealed with a flourish, was Anne Frank. “Isn’t that amazing that a child would write that?” the justice asked. And isn’t it amazing that a woman of Ginsburg’s power and prestige, a cultural icon who championed equal rights and democratized US society, would highlight the words of a Jewish girl forced to hide in an attic while the world around her was destroyed?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg never forgot who she was. That is one of many legacies she bequeaths us.

Jane Eisner is director of academic affairs at the Columbia School of Journalism

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