In the wake of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s unexpected death, and while political turmoil abounds, many people are searching for ways to mourn the woman who blazed trails and had an outsized impact on American politics. For many in the United States, this is a moment of collective grief as we remember and honor someone whose legacy was evident even before her death last week at age 87. But the way we mourn Justice Ginsburg still matters.
Ginsburg was —proudly — a Jewish woman, and she held tight to her faith, saying in a 1996 essay for the American Jewish Committee, “I am a judge born, raised and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of the Jewish tradition.” She had a Torah verse hanging in her office, often cited the fact that she was the only justice with a mezuzah on her office’s door frame, and wore a collar with a Torah verse on the opening day of the Supreme Court last year (it read “Tzedek,” meaning “justice”). She even wrote feminist Torah commentary.
So, as we all grieve this incalculable loss, it is also important to honor Ginsburg’s Jewishness in the way we mourn her in public. “This is a moment when non-Jews can learn about Jewish grief and mourning practices, use Jewish language to offer condolence and honor the dead,” said Rabbi Ariana Katz, the founding rabbi of Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Shtiebl and host of Kaddish, a podcast about Jewish mourning rituals. “If you are looking to honor the life and legacy of an incredible person and are wholeheartedly using the prayers of your tradition, that is beautiful and authentic. But it might not be a public act, and requires rigor to make sure the theology you’re putting forward in your prayer does not impose a belief system on the person for whom you are praying.”
There are phrases you might hear people say of Ginsburg, or any other Jewish person who has died. “May her memory be for a blessing” is one of the most common, and it is “a traditional way of noting the ways in which those who have passed can live on and inform our actions and values in the world today,” Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, Scholar in Residence, the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), tells Refinery29. “It’s ancient, dates back to the Talmud (so, more than 1500 years).”
Another adaptation of this has also been used to honor Ginsburg: “may her memory be for a revolution.” This phrase actually originated in Israel to honor people who were victims of domestic violence or hate crimes “to make clear that their deaths should spur us to action and changemaking,” says Ruttenberg. The sentiment has now been expanded to commemorate victims of police brutality and white supremacy, which Ruttenberg says “has become a way of honoring the lives of everyone whose memory inspires us to push for a more just world.” Relatedly, NCJW’s campaign to honor Justice Ginsburg’s memory is called Ruth’s Revolution.
The timing of Ginsburg’s passing also matters in Jewish tradition. Ginsburg died on Friday night (Shabbat) which also happened to be Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. In Jewish tradition, someone who dies on Shabbat is a “tzadik,” or someone who is considered “righteous.” A person who dies on Rosh Hashanah is also a tzadik, according to tradition. Despite it being the beginning of High Holidays season, that night saw a collective outpouring of grief and thousands of people gathered outside the Supreme Court to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
“Saying the Mourner’s Kaddish on the steps of the Supreme Court brought honor to the memory of Justice Bader Ginsburg, and was a public display of Judaism,” says Rabbi Katz. “Public displays of Judaism in a time of frightening antisemetic attacks is an act of bravery. It was an act of love through vulnerability, to speak words that are for some the singular prayer they know. Saying the Kaddish on the steps of the Supreme Court encapsulates Jewish experiences of mourning, and is a flag that this death is known and visible.”
As if to emphasize the need to remain educated and appreciate these Jewish values when mourning the late Justice, other public mourning rituals have disregarded or ignored Ginsburg’s faith altogether. Alongside the Mourner’s Kaddish, people outside the Supreme Court sang “Amazing Grace,” a song written by a Christian priest about his Christianity. “Why the insistence on singing that song? There are so many songs that are secular or neutral of this loaded connotation,” Rabbi Ruttenberg notes.
There have also been memes calling Ginsburg “Saint Ruth,” something Ruttenberg calls “profoundly disrespectful” and “a particularly loaded erasure of her Jewishness.” Others have pictured Ginsburg in heaven alongside recently passed celebrities like Chadwick Boseman, though this too goes against Jewish tradition since Jews do not believe in heaven.
And although it should be acknowledged that Jews who were raised in multifaith homes sang both the Mourner’s Kaddish and Amazing Grace, or used both tzadik and saint to describe a person who passed, remembering Ginsburg’s impact on the Jewish community at-large should outweigh the need to honor her in any way but her own religion.
“It’s important to honor and center the religious and cultural perspective of any person who dies, and it’s all the more crucial to remember the larger historical context in which this conversation is happening,” says Ruttenberg. “We live in a Christian-dominated culture in which Jews have always been part of the religious minority, and in which Christians hold power in a particularly unique way. We live in the context of centuries of supersessionism — the notion that Christianity has come to replace Judaism, and centuries of Christian oppression of Jews and myriad attempts to convert us (and, many, many times, our expulsion and/or massacre when we have not done so).”
As Ginburg’s funeral started this morning, Wednesday, and the battle to fill her vacant seat consumes Congress, people will continue to memorialize the justice. But it’s important to do this in a way that also commemorates who she was: a strong, resilient, dissenting Jewish woman. So, you should call her memory a “blessing” or a “revolution; you should learn about the practice of sitting shiva for a week to mourn; and you should honor her legacy as a tzadik — for years to come.
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