Yael Aronoff is the director of The Michael and Elaine Serling Institute for Jewish Studies and Modern Israel, Serling Chair in Israel Studies and associate professor of international relations in the James Madison College and the Serling Institute.
My family and I were attending a virtual Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) service when our son texted us that Ruth Bader Ginsburg — or RBG, as he and all his young generation knew her — had just passed away. Minutes later, the rabbi, clearly shaken by the news, gave a heartfelt tribute to Ginsburg. My heart dropped at hearing this tragic news, made more painful for occurring right on the start of the new year 5781, which all of us were hoping and praying would be better than last year.
Millions of people across the country are mourning Ginsburg’s death, and honoring her life, and the transformative impact she has had on our country. Her work has impacted everyone, paving the way for greater equality and social justice. While she impacted all and inspired millions, she was especially inspiring to many women and girls across the country, and to many Jewish Americans. Her status as a pioneer is underscored by the fact that she is the first woman and the first Jewish American to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol.
Ginsburg was instrumental in creating the world we live in today with regard to gender equality under the law. Although equity for all gender identities is still a distant dream, Ginsburg brought us closer to that dream.
Ginsburg, through a brilliant and effective case-by-case strategy, worked tirelessly through the 60s and 70s to knock down key laws that discriminated against women (and men) on the basis of antiquated ideas of gender. These cases firmly established the 14th Amendment as guaranteeing equal justice for all regardless of sex. She continued that work as a Supreme Court Justice. Throughout her work, she brought her awareness of the intersectionality of gender, racial and class discrimination to her work on the Court.
RGB herself faced systemic discrimination and sexism. When entering Harvard Law, she and her fellow eight women law students were asked by the dean to justify why they were taking a man’s place. After graduating first in her class from Columbia University Law School, she could not get a job in New York City because the top law firms would not hire women. She also faced antisemitism.
In interviews, she recalled that during her first year at Cornell, she and other Jewish women were segregated into one corridor of a dormitory so that, she felt, “we wouldn’t contaminate” other students. She is an inspiration to all who fight continued sexism, antisemitism, racism and discrimination of all kinds.
RBG has said that her Jewish values strongly motivated her throughout her career.
When she was asked how she wanted to be remembered, she said, “Just as someone who did whatever she could, with whatever limited talent she had, to move society along in the direction I would like it to be for my children and grandchildren.” This humble account of the life well lived is informed by the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, that each of us should do what we can to “repair the world.”
On her office wall was a poster with a Hebrew quote from the Torah: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (“Justice, justice shall you pursue”). “I am a judge born, raised and proud of being a Jew,” she wrote in an essay for the American Jewish Committee in 1996. “The demand for justice runs through the entirety of the Jewish tradition. I hope, in my years on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, I will have the strength and courage to remain constant in the service of that demand.”
She also participated in conferences in Israel throughout her life, thinking through and commenting on issues of gender, religion and law; she was honored in the Israeli Knesset in 2000.
RBG is an inspiration to us all, in her dedication to scholarship and service, and her commitment to equality and to justice. She persevered in the face of sexism and antisemitism and used those experiences to advocate for and make progress towards equality for all. Justice Ginsburg, we are all indebted to you, and recommit ourselves to do all we can to repair the world.