Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death has been mourned far and wide, but perhaps nowhere more so than among American Jews. Ginsburg was a Jewish icon, and Jewish organizations have put out statements celebrating her life while merchandise and Internet memes emblazoned with Ginsburg’s likeness and the biblical phrase tzedek tzedek tirdof (justice, justice shall you pursue) are everywhere one turns. Ginsburg is adored by many Jews not only because she was Jewish, but because she was seen as embodying Jewish values of social justice and equality. But beyond this, there is something else that makes Ginsburg perhaps the ultimate embodiment of American Judaism, which is that the source of her fame, reverence, and adoration has little to do with her Jewish heritage.
Ginsburg unquestionably valued her Jewish heritage, even though she consciously rejected traditional Jewish observance due to viewing it as incongruent with gender equality after not being able to say kaddish for her mother in a minyan. When asked about how her Jewishness impacted her work as a judge, she explicitly connected her Judaism to seeking justice and equality for all. “Perhaps I should start by saying, I grew up in the shadow of World War II. And we came to know more and more what was happening to the Jews in Europe. The sense of being an outsider — of being one of the people who had suffered oppression for no … 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.” Growing up Jewish and experiencing firsthand the challenges of being a minority in a larger culture and society dominated by others impacted the way Ginsburg related to minorities in general and shaped her views on discrimination.
It was not only a function of her personal experiences growing up Jewish in America that shaped Ginsburg’s conception of the role of law in correcting inequities and ensuring equality. It was also her knowledge of Jewish precepts themselves. In her 2018 Genesis Prize acceptance speech, she recounted responding to an American Jewish Committee question about the connection between her Jewishness and her occupation as a judge as follows: “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.” For Ginsburg, Jewish wisdom and learning were not an interesting aside. She viewed Jewish teaching on ethics and morality as a building block of her judicial philosophy.
Even Ginsburg’s recent acclaim for her dissents, one that she tacitly acknowledged with her widely celebrated “dissent collar” that she wore over her robes when reading one from the bench, has a Jewish tinge. The idea of taking a losing public stand on principle is deeply ingrained in Jewish history and thought. There is something immediately recognizable to Jews of arguing particularly in dissent, of holding the minority or unpopular opinion that later wins in the marketplace of ideas and dominates, of writing the Ledbetter dissent in 2007 and then watching the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act become the first bill signed into law by President Obama in 2009. Whether it be monotheism, communism, or resurrecting a dead language and reestablishing sovereignty after two thousand years, Jews are often the vanguard of ideas – both good and bad – that seem outlandish to many until they don’t.
All of this on its own makes Ginsburg an American Jewish legend. But it is not what makes her a uniquely representative figure of American Judaism. What is fascinating about Ginsburg and her career is that she was obviously and proudly Jewish, but that is neither the source of her fame nor the focus of her legacy. Ginsburg is one of the most important figures in American history on the issues of gender equality and the concept of equal protection under the law, and she also just happens to be Jewish. Her Judaism was not incidental to her career, but it certainly was incidental to her renown, and not what drove it. She was indeed a trailblazer who overcame overt discrimination and spent the rest of her life fighting to make sure that others were not subject to the same, but it was not discrimination based on her status as a Jew; it was gender-based discrimination that had nothing to do with her being Jewish.
What makes American Judaism historically unique is the level of acceptance that Jews have found in the United States. Antisemitism indisputably exists, but American Jews are more integrated and accepted into our country than any other Jewish Diaspora community in history. It is no longer remarkable to have a Jewish public official in any capacity, even if there are still some important firsts to be had, and contemporary famous and influential American Jews are famous and influential not because of their Judaism or because of their particular attention to Jewish issues unless that happens to be their professional pursuit. Many towering American Jewish historical figures are famous for being Jewish firsts, such as Ginsburg’s predecessor Louis Brandeis who was the first Jewish Supreme Court justice. Others may be famous for other reasons but are intimately associated with Jewish causes, such as Albert Einstein’s championing of Zionism and Israel. Ginsburg does not fall into this category, and it speaks volumes about the place of Jews in this country.
To put it another way, to the casual lay observer who has heard of Brandeis, the only thing he or she likely knows is that Brandeis is the answer to a trivia question. To the same casual observer, Ginsburg is famous for her unwavering defense of gender equality. In 2020, Ginsburg is the symbol of American Jewish historical exceptionalism, because she is identifiably and unhesitatingly Jewish and to most people that has nothing to do with her legacy. She is not a token Jew, the barriers that were in her way did not have to do with her heritage, and her Judaism is critical to understanding her but is not why she will be remembered. This is what makes American Judaism so special, the absence of a trade-off between being American and being Jewish and the lack of a necessary competition between these two core identities.
Ginsburg is an American Jewish hero in so many ways. As we celebrate her life and accomplishments, let us also celebrate that she encapsulates the special American Jewish journey of the past century. Her Judaism is both important and unremarkable, and it is that combination that signals more than anything the status that American Jews have achieved.