Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice joins with all Americans to mourn the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a brilliant and compassionate Supreme Court justice, an advocate for the rights of all oppressed people, and a great champion not only for women’s rights but for equal justice for all.
Known affectionately as the Notorious RBG, Justice Ginsburg was a hero and a role model who knocked down legal obstacles to women’s equality and leveled the playing field between the sexes. As a Jew, Ginsburg cared as deeply for the rights of minority groups, immigrants, the disabled and others, as she did about the rights of women.
For the Jewish community, RBG was a source of tremendous pride. Justice Ginsburg often pointed to her Judaism as the wellspring from which she drew her passion for justice. In a 2004 speech, she said that her “heritage as a Jew and my occupation as a judge fit together symmetrically. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition. I take pride in and draw strength from my heritage, as signs in my chambers attest…[including] the command from Deuteronomy [16:20]: ‘Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof’ – ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue.’ Those words are ever-present reminders of what judges must do that they ‘may thrive.’”
Ginsburg further said of her Jewish heritage, “It makes you more empathetic to other people who are not insiders, who are outsiders.” That empathy led her to fight for the rights of minorities in all aspects of life.
Today we are living in tumultuous times, when threats to minority rights and to our very democracy seem to grow stronger every day. Justice Ginsburg knew that the greatest antidote to these threats is our right to vote. In 2013, she issued a scathing dissent in defense of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which the majority on the Court had just gutted in Shelby vs. Holder.
In her opinion, Justice Ginsburg outlined the very many instances in which the VRA had succeeded in its mission to prevent voter suppression in the targeted states and noted that, without it, there would be an avalanche of discriminatory practices preventing minorities from voting. In describing the circumstances under which the VRA was enacted, Ginsburg noted that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had warned that the passage of this Act would not be enough, but that, as she wrote, “there had to be a steadfast national commitment to see the task through to completion.”
Justice Ginsburg’s warning was prescient, as we have indeed seen an avalanche of assaults on people’s access to the ballot box. Here in Wisconsin, this threat has played out in egregious ways. Our voter ID law is one of the most stringent in the country, disenfranchising thousands of voters. Witness requirements for absentee ballots have proved a barrier, particularly during the pandemic. Reduced time for early voting in the upcoming election similarly places an undue burden on access to the ballot.
To honor Justice Ginsburg’s memory, we must join in her fight to combat voter suppression in Wisconsin and throughout the United States. To be true to her legacy, let us follow her call to protect voting rights by voting ourselves and by helping others to vote!
The tradition that Justice Ginsburg venerated in turn holds her in special esteem. As Nina Totenberg, NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent, tweeted: “A Jewish teaching says those who die just before the Jewish new year are the ones God has held back until the last moment because they were needed most & were the most righteous. And so it was that #RBG died as the sun was setting last night marking the beginning of Rosh Hashanah.”
Jewish tradition teaches that in every generation, the world is supported by 36 righteous people, for whose sakes the world is kept from destruction. They are called Lamed Vavniks for the Hebrew letters that stand for the number 36, a multiple of 18, the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “life.” They are people who toil all their lives for the good of others, who are people of compassion, who fight for justice, who stand for goodness and mercy. They are usually unknown to the world, and even to themselves.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a Lamed Vavnik, and the world is more precarious for her passing. May she be bound up in the bonds of everlasting life, and may she rest in peace.