Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Last Friday, September 18, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away at the age of 87. Her death occurred on Erev Rosh Hashanah or Rosh Hashanah Eve. Remember, in Judaism a day is counted from sunset on Friday (for example) until sunset on Saturday.
Justice Ginsburg was Jewish and that is the focus of this editorial. You can love her or loathe her, as you wish, but it the Jewishness of her life and passing that catches my interest right now.
The correct thing to say about her passing is "May her memory be for blessing." And I hope that is true. At least, it will be true for some.
As I have mentioned before, Jewish tradition including the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, does not speak of an afterlife. Modern Judaism has developed differing thoughts on what happens when people pass. Some of those possibilities look a bit like reincarnation and some of look like time to reevaluate our actions and relationships on earth. Then what? I don’t know.
When Jews speak of righteousness, it is never with the idea of an eternal reward. We work to be good humans to others and ourselves because justice and peace are their own rewards. We don't know what happens next, but we know what happens here, and that is enough.
The pursuit of justice is one of the highest callings of Judaism and it should never be viewed as vengeance or punishment. This is why most Modern Jewish thought is completely against capital punishment. “The ideas of justice and sustainability are inextricably linked in Judaism,” writes a Rabbi friend of mine. “A system that is unjust cannot sustain and a system that is unsustainable cannot be just.” Think of Gandhi’s statement, “An eye for an eye soon leads to a blind world.”
Judaism believes that a person who passes on Rosh Hashanah is a Tzedek/Tzaddeket, a righteous person. When we look at the word tzedakah, it is often translated as "charity" but it is more accurate to say righteousness. Tzedakah takes many forms but it is important to note that tzedakah is not a benevolent contribution given to be kind or nice to those who need it; it is to be viewed as a balancing of the scales, an active working towards justice. To use a simple example, one should donate to the local food bank not to gain favor with God or to be nice to those with less than ourselves. Rather, the giving is because it is unjust for anyone to go without food, especially while others have plenty. Correcting injustice, balancing the scales, evaluating the distribution of power and creating equity is tzedakah, the work of righteousness.
Moses Maimonides wrote in the 12th Century of eight levels of Tzedakah, the top level results in self-sufficiency or, rather, an act that creates a sustainable form of equality and justice. It is the idea that, while charity is good, eliminating the need for charity is better.
The second highest form is where both the giver and the receiver are unknown to each other. This allows both for the dignity of the recipient, as well for the giver to be free from personal motivation and reward. We should help create a more just world for the benefit of people we don't know, without the expectation of praise, gratitude, or reward, in this life or, if you’re Jewish, in the next.
When we say that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a tzaddeket, it is not simply that she was a nice person. Instead, she was a thoughtful person who worked tirelessly to create a more just and righteous world. A world that would create equality and access, one that wasn't reliant on charity, one that was better for people she did not know, without the expectation of praise or fame. THAT is a Tzaddeket, and it is difficult to imagine anyone who better embodies the pursuit of justice.
Again, my Rabbi friend writes, “When we say ‘May her memory be for blessing,’ the blessing we speak of is not ‘may we remember her fondly’ or ‘may her memory be a blessing to us’ the blessing implied is this: May you be like Ruth. Jewish thought teaches us that when a person dies, it is up to those who bear her memory to keep her goodness alive. We do this by remembering her, we do this by speaking her name, we do this by carrying on her legacy. We do this by continuing to pursue justice, righteousness, sustainability.
“So, when you hear us say ‘May her memory be for blessing,’ don't hear ‘It's nice to remember her’—hear ‘It's up to us to carry on her legacy.’ When you hear us say, ‘She was a Tzaddeket,’ don't hear ‘She was a nice person’—hear ‘She was a worker of justice.’”
The thing I loved most was that she was diametrically opposed to Justice Antonin Scalia is almost all the cases that came before the court. With that, she and Justice Scalia still enjoyed dinners together and long talks about opera which they both adored. They could have dissenting opinions without rancor. That’s what I hope for in this country—to disagree but never lose sight of what we mean to each other and how we need each other.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg wasn’t just righteous. She was revolutionary. Maybe that’s what made her righteous.
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