Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Privilege of Reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish


I write this essay for the incomparable Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during a week of aninut—the time between death and burial. It is the disorienting time between shock and grief. The week of aninut for Justice Ginsburg was exceptional, taking place in the hallowed halls of the Supreme Court and the Capitol. The sorrowful words of El Maleh Rahamim—words that are chanted at Jewish funerals—rang out in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court. Two days later, her casket was brought to the Capitol building, where she was the first woman and the first Jew to lie in state.

Amid those honors, Ginsburg—or “The Notorious RBG” as she is affectionately known the world over—is uniquely mourned as a feminist icon and a bridge-builder among the generations. She was the woman who won legal cases that accorded women and men so many of the rights they have today. In the 1970s, Ginsburg argued some of the most important women’s rights cases of her generation before the Supreme Court. She put her gentle manner and inherent shyness on pause to win the majority of those cases. As Ginsburg’s rabbi, Lauren Holtzblatt, eulogized, “Justice did not arrive like a lightning bolt, but rather through dogged persistence all the days of her life.”

Among the many incidental RBG facts that I love is the one about the unique jabots she wore. Shortly before her death, Ginsburg donated a white lace collar to the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv with a signed copy of her autobiography, “My Own Words.” Ginsburg’s various lace collars, artful and feminine, often signaled her position on a case before she uttered a word. The collars also reflected her status as a role model. In 2009, she told NBC News: “You know, the standard robe is made for a man because it has a place for the shirt to show and the tie. So, Sandra Day O’Connor and I thought it would be appropriate if we included [a lace collar] as part of our robe, something typical of a woman. So, I have many, many collars.”

The lace jabot distinctly announced Ginsburg’s presence in the Court’s historically male environment, but the first male bastion from which she was barred was her synagogue minyan. Her mother, Celia Bader, died of cancer the day before Ginsburg’s high school graduation, and a devastated Ruth was not allowed to say Kaddish for her. Celia profoundly influenced her daughter—famously imparting wisdom such as keeping one’s temper in check while diligently forging ahead. Celia worked as a bookkeeper, and Ginsburg liked to say the difference between a Brooklyn bookkeeper and a Supreme Court Justice was just one generation.

Much to Ginsburg’s amusement, a cottage industry sprung up over the years around her RBG moniker. In addition to being known as “The Notorious RBG,” she was also called “Super Diva,” the nickname famously proclaimed on one of the sweatshirts she wore to her workouts. Ginsburg will also forever be associated with the words, “I dissent.” When she broke the record for dissents from the bench, another million memes were born. Memes aside, Ginsburg had a brilliant legal mind and was a proud Jew who lived by the Hebrew words framed and hanging in her chambers: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Justice, justice shall you pursue.

In her essay for the Jewish Women’s Archive 2005 online exhibit, “Feminist Revolution,” Ginsburg wrote:

“I am a judge, born, raised and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition. I hope that 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.”

In that same essay, Ginsburg cited two Jewish women as her inspiration: Emma Lazarus, whose poem “The New Colossus” is etched at the base of the Statue of Liberty, and Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah. Ginsburg lauded both women for their “humanity and bravery.” Lazarus’s work moved Ginsburg, and Szold’s determination to say the Kaddish for her mother in 1916 drew Ginsburg’s admiration. I have also turned to Szold’s words, grateful for the privilege of saying the Kaddish as a Jewish woman as an equal in various minyans around the world.

As Ginsburg observed, Szold was one of eight sisters and refused a male riend’s offer to say the Kaddish on her behalf. She quoted from a letter Szold wrote to her friend about his generous offer:

“You will wonder then, that I cannot accept your offer…I know well, and appreciate what you say about, the Jewish custom [that only male children recite the prayer, and if there are no male survivors a male stranger may act as a substitute]; and Jewish custom is very dear and sacred to me. And yet I cannot ask you to say Kaddish after my mother. The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly manifests his intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community, which his parent had, so that the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation, each adding its own link. You can do that for the generations of your family. I must do that for the generations of my family.”

Ginsburg went on to comment: “Szold’s plea for celebration of our common heritage while tolerating, indeed appreciating, the differences among us concerning religious practice is captivating. I recall her words even to this day when a colleague’s position betrays a certain lack of understanding.”

The loss of Justice Ginsburg brings out a very personal kind of grief in me and in women across the country. I worry about who will be her replacement, as if she can ever be replaced. With her gone, I am more upset than ever about our teetering democracy, the looming election, the undoing of my rights and my children’s rights—rights which Ginsburg so assiduously won for us.

I think back to Ginsburg as the 17-year-old girl who wanted nothing more than to assuage her grief by publicly saying the Kaddish for her mother. I thank God I am counted in a minyan to say the Kaddish for my father. I don’t think it’s a stretch to acknowledge Ruth Bader Ginsburg for that privilege. She delivered much of the agency American women now have over their lives.

Rest in peace and power and revolution, Justice Ginsburg. And in the parting words of the Kaddish, to which I’ve added pronouns to honor her legacy:

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

He/She/They who creates peace in His/Her/Their celestial heights, may He/She/They create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

This essay was originally published on JewishBoston.com https://www.jewishboston.com/and-then-justice-ruth-bader-ginsburg-and-the-privilege-of-reciting-the-mourners-kaddish/

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