It was a moment of stunning poignancy. The casket of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was brought into the U.S. Capitol on Friday morning, making her the first Jew and the first woman in American history to lie in state there. Her role as a trailblazer for gender equality and her battle to overcome discrimination in her own life have been much discussed. However, it was her Jewish faith that was front and center in the spare, elegant ceremony at the Capitol.
Ginsburg was arguably the most influential Jew in U.S. history (perhaps tied with Sandy Koufax for the most loved). Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt’s remarks at the ceremony centered on “tzedek, tzedek tirdof” — the phrase from Deuteronomy 16:20 meaning “justice, justice you shall pursue,” featured in an inscription on a piece of art in Ginsburg’s office. There are many rabbinical discussions on why the word “justice” is repeated, but my favorite — one certainly applicable to Ginsburg — is that you must pursue justice in a just way. Justice is not merely the result that matters, but the means by which you seek it. Ginsburg exemplified this idea by pursuing justice for all Americans, case by case, through the steady progress of the law. Might does not make right. It is through rational and creative thinking that justice is advanced. Justice does not come as a bolt from the blue, but as the result of tenacious, fierce, careful and inspired work.
If we are looking for a deus ex machina to relieve us from the scourge of President Trump and from the repeated denial of justice — for example, to African Americans such as Breonna Taylor — then we are missing the importance of Ginsburg’s legacy. Justice comes over years and decades, through voting, through the courts and through direct and peaceful action. What will save us from Trump is not a flash of conscience in the hearts of Republican senators, but the determination of tens of millions to pursue and defend the rule of law and the dignity of all Americans.
Holtzblatt also sang a passage from Psalm 118, known as “min hameitzar." Roughly translated, it says, “Out of the straits I called to God. He answered me in a large place.” In other words, out of the straits — a narrowness or a constricted existence — we seek a larger place, or an open and freer space. This was of course how Ginsburg approached the Constitution. “We the people,” she often explained, did not at the time include women, enslaved Blacks or Native Americans. In each generation, however, we have moved from the constricted, cramped expression of “We the people” to one that includes an ever-widening group of Americans. In her lifetime, “We the people” came to embrace not only women but Americans with disabilities and the LGBTQ community.
For her, the 14th Amendment and the promise of equal justice had to be liberated from the narrow interpretation of the 19th century. She was not “making up” law, but rather taking it quite literally. As the amendment states: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Any person. It was her life’s work to convince and cajole judges to cast off their narrow understanding of that amendment and move the United States to that larger place — a more inclusive society.
The outpouring of love and grief and loss we have seen over this week for a Supreme Court justice is as unique in history as Ginsburg was. Perhaps some of it comes from the loss of a great champion who was dedicated with every fiber of her being to pursuing justice and to bringing us all into the “We” in “We the people.” Now she rests, the rabbi noted, and we take up her struggle. We will need to be as determined, methodical and persistent as she was.
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