The Jewish community and our country as a whole lost a great figure on the eve of Rosh Hashanah last week. The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one final blow in a year full of trauma and loss. Justice Ginsburg was a strong, creative force for change who helped ensure that the law would be applied equally to everyone and she has been praised by people across the political and cultural spectrum.
The near universal mourning for Ginsburg, however, creates some odd situations. While she was a public figure and an icon, the Notorious RBG was also a Jewish woman, and sometimes that is difficult for non-Jews to understand in a predominately Christian country.
First there was the idea that floated out into the Internet that in Jewish tradition someone who dies right before Rosh Hashanah is considered a tzadik, or righteous person. I had never heard this notion, and it seems that many other rabbis had not either. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Union for Reform Judaism, suggests that the idea may be a reading of a passage in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b).
That text suggests that the completely righteous (tzadikim) are immediately sealed for life on Rosh Hashanah and don’t need the Ten Days of Repentance to receive a good judgement on Yom Kippur. Jacobs generously proposes that someone read this passage to mean that Ginsburg, last year on Rosh Hashanah, was given a whole year of life because of her righteousness. Such a creative reading, Jacobs notes, not only strains the plain meaning of the text; it is also theologically problematic.
While the nation was learning about Rosh Hashanah because of Ginsburg’s death, it also received some inaccurate information about Judaism. The Guardian newspaper, in its obituary, wrote that she “abandoned her religion” because women were not treated equally. Many pushed back on the assertion, which is the result of a non-Jewish understand of religion. While Christians might abandon their faith because of theological disagreements or a lapse in practice, many secular Jews, including Ginsburg, remain fiercely loyal to their Jewish identity regardless of synagogue affiliation or participation. The Guardian subsequently changed its article to read that she “moved away from strict religious observance”, which more accurately reflected Ginsburg’s life as a proud and knowledgeable Jew.
Indeed, during her funeral service at the Supreme Court, my friend and colleague Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt recited psalms and the El Malei memorial prayer. After a series of firsts in her life, she continues to break ground as “first Jew and the first woman to lie in repose at the court and to lie in state at the Capitol”.
While Ginsburg was universally embraced, some Jews felt the need to hold on to her as a uniquely Jewish icon. Many on social media memorialized the justice with the words “rest in peace”, which some Jews unfortunately took offense to, stating that it was incorrect to use this phrase for a Jewish person. Such an idea is news to me, since as I rabbi I have used those words at countless funerals given that it is the conclusion to our El Malei prayer.
Such protestations are an example of an overzealous defense of Jewish tradition against the encroachment of Christianity and represent an unfortunate lack of education. Many Jews are under the mistaken belief that our tradition does not have a heaven or hell. While our conceptions of the afterlife might be different from other religions, they are central to our beliefs.
I don’t know what Ruth Bader Ginsburg thought about life after death, but I do know that her legacy, her words, and her deeds will be an inspiration for Jews and all people long after she is gone. As we Jews say when someone important leaves us: zecher tzadeket livracha, may her righteous memory be a blessing.