Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a Tzadik

After Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, 11-year-old Micah Blay made a pilgrimage to the U.S. Supreme Court and blew the shofar for the hundreds of people gathered there. In keeping with Jewish custom, they laid small stones on the steps of the building as if the building itself were RBG’s headstone. Throughout the Jewish world, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was brought to mind as the shofar sounded at Rosh Hashanah services across the country.

Perhaps no one deserves the title “Justice” more than Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The word for Justice in Hebrew is Tzedek. Tzedek is the word not only for the concept of  justice, but also for righteousness, and for helping those who are less fortunate. One word is for all three because Tzedek must contain all of these elements to be whole.  

One who graces us with extraordinary deeds and teachings is called a Tzadik. A righteous one.  There is a Jewish folk tradition that if one dies right before Rosh Hashanah, it is because they were a Tzadik and therefore not in need of the 10 days of repentance that are the High Holy Days.

In this article about Justice Ginsburg, I am tempted to write nothing of my own but let her teach us in her own words. (These quotes come from Ynet and The Jewish Standard.)

“The demand for justice, peace, and enlightenment runs through Jewish history and tradition,” she said…describing how she is reminded of this fact every day when she enters her judicial chambers and is confronted with a poster proclaiming the biblical verse “Justice, justice thou shalt pursue.” [tzedek, tzedek tirdof]

“My room has the only mezuzah in the U.S. Supreme Court,” she said, noting that “growing up Jewish, the concept of Tikkun Olam, repairing tears in the community and making things better for people less fortunate, was part of my heritage. The Jews are the people of the book and learning is prized above all else. I am lucky to have that heritage.”

“I am a judge, born, raised, and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice, for peace, and for enlightenment runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition. I hope, in all the years I have the good fortune to continue serving on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, I will have the strength and courage to remain steadfast in the service of that demand.”

“The Jewish religion is an ethical religion. That is, we are taught to do right, to love mercy, do justice, not because there’s going to 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.”

The concept of Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world, is one of the fundamental practices in Jewish culture. It is based on a presumption–the world is in need of repair because the world is broken.  Nowhere is that more obvious than today.  The world is broken and each of us is present in this world because there is a repair that only we can make.  This teaching is from the Slonimer Rebbe. The difficulty, he says, is that we do not know exactly what the repair is that we must do. We are given the circumstances, easy, or difficult, that will enable us to make this repair. RBG suffered through cancer treatments, hospitalizations, recuperations, never stopping, never ceasing to be a Justice, a Tzadik.

I believe RBG made the repair that her particular soul was “deployed” to make.  We all feel the power and the spiritual reverberations of her righteous deeds and her will to do good.  I am saddened by her death, her having to stop short of the goal so clear in her mind, to pass the mantle to another one who would be and do Justice. For such a time, I hope RBG felt comfort in the Talmud saying: “Yours is not to finish the task, neither are you free to desist from beginning it.”

In the  High Holy Day liturgy we declare “Ha Yom harat olam,”  which usually gets translated “today is the birthday of the world.”  But Rabbi Angela Wornick Buchdahl translates the phrase differently. Harat also means pregnant. Today the world is pregnant. RBG did her best to be a righteous midwife. But the world is still pregnant, the new year begins; the midwife is needed.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg leaves behind a Call, a demand that only a Tzadik can make. The world needs righteous midwives–us. Like her, ours is not to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from beginning it.

Rhonda Shapiro-Rieser is the CRSL Jewish Student Adviser.

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