On Sept. 18th, we lost Ruth Bader Ginsburg: a champion of women’s rights. A lot of people are aware of Ginsburg’s impressive record regarding gender equity wins. From the 7-1 opinion she wrote declaring that the Virginia Military Institute could no longer remain an all-male institution, to her 2014 dissent against Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Ginsburg filed dozens of briefs to persuade the courts that the 14th Amendment applied not just to racial and ethnic minorities, but to women as well.
Many are not aware that Ginsburg’s Jewish identity influenced her career as both a lawyer and as a Supreme Court Justice. Ruth Bader Ginsburg faced a number of obstacles in her career, from being Jewish, to being a woman, to being a mother. Despite the fact that Ginsburg was the first Jewish woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States, her Jewish identity is rarely addressed outside of Jewish circles. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a proud Jewish woman who has said that her Jewish heritage and her occupation as a judge fit together symmetrically. Judaism has a strong, longstanding commitment to justice. Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9 reads: “צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף” (tzedek tzedek tirdof), meaning “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Justice Ginsburg hung artists’ renditions of these words on three walls in her chambers. She understood these words to be ever-present reminders of what judges must do and drew on this commitment to justice throughout her career.
In the past week we — along with a number of other Jewish students and leaders — have advised non-Jewish activists how to incorporate Ginsburg’s Jewish faith in commemorating her death. We would now like to provide a few answers on how to do so based on the questions we have received.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. In Jewish tradition, a person who dies on Rosh Hashanah is known as a tzaddik: a person of great righteousness. In the Jewish faith a variety of honorifics can be used to commemorate someone’s death, and each has an acronym to go with it. One of these phrases is “zekher tzadik livrakhah”– “may the memory of this righteous one be a blessing.” This phrase can be substituted with the acronym zt”l. It is also appropriate to say “May her memory be a blessing,” which can be substituted with z”l. Alternatively, some have been saying “May her memory be a revolution.”
We also suggest bringing a small stone in place of a flower when attending a memorial service, which is common practice in Jewish tradition. For some, this tradition is based on the superstition that stones will help the spirit of the dead to remain in this world and prevent demons and golems from entering the graves. Isaiah 40:6-7 provides another explanation, “יָבֵ֤שׁ חָצִיר֙ נָ֣בֵֽל צִ֔יץ כִּ֛י ר֥וּחַ יְהוָ֖ה נָ֣שְׁבָה בּ֑וֹ אָכֵ֥ן חָצִ֖יר הָעָֽם ׃,” meaning “Grass withers, flowers fade When the breath of the LORD blows on them. Indeed, man is but grass.” Stones, unlike flowers, do not die. They represent not only a safeguard for the spirit of the deceased, but also the permanence of a person’s legacy.
We recognize that there are many ways to mourn a person’s death, and some practices may speak to you more than others. We offer these suggestions with the hopes of educating people about a prominent aspect of her identity that is not often discussed. The passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a tremendous loss not only for the country, but also for American Jews. In commemorating her death with her Jewish faith in mind we seek to educate those who may not understand the Jewish community or its practices, furthering the potential for mutual understanding in a world that is otherwise so polarized.
On the night of Ginsburg’s death, there was a small earthquake in Los Angeles. Some have speculated that the earth shaking was indicative of her passing. We cannot think of anything more suitable for a woman who truly shook the world with her persistent commitment to justice and equality. May her memory be a blessing — or rather, a revolution.