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The Torah of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The Torah of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Parshat Ha'azinu, 5781
Saturday, September 26, 2020

פרשת האזינו, תשפ״א

Parshat Ha'azinu, 5781

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, September 26th, 2020

The Torah of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The court chambers of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg proudly displayed a painting of the Deuteronomic command, Tzedek tzedek tirdof - justice, justice you shall pursue! (16:18). Justice Ginsburg, the notorious RBG, relentlessly pursued justice, taking case after case to the Supreme Court in the 1970s, backing decisions she knew to be just on the United States Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court from the 80s through the new millenium, and dissenting with no holds barred in more recent years. Justice Ginsburg won five out of the six gender discrimination cases she brought before the Supreme court in her initial role as general counsel for the ACLU, broadening the standards for the Court’s interpretations of the 14th amendment. As a member of the Supreme Court, even when Justice Ginsburg dissented, her clearly written statements set precedent for language in future decisions and for laws such as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. Just as the Torah defines justice in terms of choosing competent judges and making decisions with an eye towards equal protection under the law, Justice Ginsburg used the American legal system as her weapon of choice in her tireless chase towards the legal system she knew to be right. And just as our ancestor Abraham demanded justice from God in the moments before the destruction of Sodom and Gemorah, knowing that his dissent would not qualify to save both cities entirely, Justice Ginsburg embraced dissent as a way to take gradual steps towards the world she envisioned.

Beyond that embodiment of justice, the Torah of Ruth Bader Ginsburg can be taught from the ways in which she went about her life and work. In interviews with friends, family, and colleagues, it is clear that Justice Ginsburg refused to waste words. At first impression, she was often seen as quiet, as she would wait to speak until she knew exactly what she wanted to say. She refused to engage in small talk, and she refused to speak out of anger. Her mother had taught her that every moment of frustration with another person can be transformed into a teaching moment. ֵEverything she wrote and edited was as concise as possible; she knew that every written word could mean something significant in her fight for justice. Rabbi Akiva seems to speak directly to her in Pirkei Avot: סיג לחכמה שתיקה - Silence is a hedge protecting wisdom (Avot 3:13). Justice Ginsburg knew how to use silence as a shield to reserve her truth for the exact right words and moments.

Just as the Justice reveled in dissent on the Court, she embraced dissent in friendship, as well. In her well-known friendship with Supreme Court adversary Antonin Scalia, she celebrated a similar dynamic as the Talmudic Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish. When Reish Lakish dies, and Rabbi Yohanan is overcome with grief, Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat tries to console him by acting as his new study partner. With every matter Rabbi Yohanan would say, Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat would offer a piece of text in support. Rabbi Yohanan became furious: 

In my discussions with Resh Lakish, when I would state a matter, he would state twenty-four difficulties against me, and I would answer him with twenty-four answers, and the halakhah would be broadened and clarified! And yet, you say to me, there is a ruling that supports your opinion. Do I not know what I say is good?!

In the Yeshiva world, Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish are often used as examples for an ideal relationship between study partners, two figures from completely different backgrounds, with completely different ideas of the world, who cherished their friendship and working relationship as sacred. Like Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish, Justices Ginsburg and Scalia were able to sharpen their own arguments by understanding each other’s background. They were able to decide not just for the merit of those who saw the country like themselves, but for the merit of those on the other side of the aisle. And I would imagine that they were both able to enjoy life just a little bit more, simply by taking that initial leap to get to know one another.

The Torah of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is not only one of justice, but of righteous dissent. It is not just about the precision in words, but also, about meaningful relationships with those with whom we might disagree. By looking over Justice Ginsburg’s life, we are inspired towards fighting for our values within our established social systems. Through voting, communication with our representatives, donations to causes we support, and refusing to support businesses or politicians who practice against our better judgment, we, too, can pursue justice. As we’ll learn in a D’var Torah on Monday, Justice Ginsburg inspires us to take a breath to think before we speak. She inspires us to not only say what we think, but to enact our values in the ways in which we use language. And she inspires us to look for friendship in the most unexpected places. Just as Justice Ginsburg found an opera partner in Justice Scalia, I can dive deeper into my friendship with the dog-loving neighbor who has a different yard sign or bumper sticker than mine.

Because of the intricacy and power of Ginsburg’s work, quite a few of us in this room are protected from violence in ways we never were before the 1970s. Quite a few of us are being compensated for the work we do without fear of termination or pay cuts because of our gender or our family’s plans for the future. And all of us in this room live in a country whose legal system is based in language that is much more inclusive than we or our parents could have dreamed just decades ago. While Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not leave us a flawless country, she certainly left us the tools and inspiration to work towards that vision. It’s our turn, now, to take up the chase, to pursue justice and equity with both support of our nation, and when needed, with passionate dissent. Zikhronah livrakhah - May the memory of Yita Ruchel bat Tzirel Leah be for a blessing.

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784