Why Ruth Bader Ginsburg Had an Intimate, Yet Ambivalent, Relationship With Judaism and Israel

The late justice took pride in and drew strength from her Jewish heritage, but as a young woman her growing feminist awareness led her to make a decision about religious observance

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
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Candles being lit next an illustration of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as people mourn her death at the Supreme Court in Washington, September 19, 2020.
Candles being lit next an illustration of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as people mourn her death at the Supreme Court in Washington, September 19, 2020. Credit: JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

In July 2018, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with an intricately patterned blue-and-white scarf swathed around her shoulders like a prayer shawl, sat next to a woman who was the closest thing to her local counterpart: former Israeli Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch.

The two talked at the American Center, Jerusalem, about the common struggles of their two countries when it came to legal and parliamentary power, and the interplay between Judaism and the fight for equal rights in political and religious cultures – which purport to revere women but where “the pedestal often turns out to be a cage.”

Ginsburg stressed that U.S. and Israeli courts “are known throughout the world for judicial independence, and it’s something we hope we can keep. It requires a public that understands the tremendous value of having courts that are free from any influence from the government.”

The event, like other stops on Ginsburg’s Israel trip, which included an intimate lunch with Israel’s Supreme Court justices, had a comfortable familiarity. This was the fifth visit to the Holy Land for Ginsburg, who, raised in an Orthodox family, had an active if not always harmonious relationship with her Jewish heritage and the Jewish state throughout her lifetime.

At an event during the visit when the documentary about her life, “RBG,” was screened, Ginsburg, then 84, joked that she “pitied” her Israeli counterparts. “Here, there’s a compulsory retirement age. If I was in Israel, I would have retired 15 years ago,” she said.

Political controversy

The purpose of what turned out to be her final visit was to collect a lifetime achievement award from the Genesis Prize Foundation. The awards had been roiled in political controversy that year, which involved actress Natalie Portman and also Ginsburg herself. The latter was reportedly chosen as the Genesis Prize recipient before the prize committee allegedly backtracked after fearing that the justice’s previous criticism of Donald Trump would mean Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be unwilling to present her with the award.

The committee, for its part, said Ginsburg wouldn’t have been allowed to receive the $1 million award from a foreign entity, hence their decision to give her the lifetime achievement award and the main prize to Portman – a decision that also ended in controversy when the actress turned down the award for political reasons.

It was notable that Ginsburg didn’t receive her award in the traditional grandiose Jerusalem ceremony, but at a private event at the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv, co-hosted by Dalia Rabin, daughter of the murdered prime minister. And presenting her with the award was not Netanyahu (as had previously happened at such events), but former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak. He called her “an outstanding Jewish jurist whose fearless pursuit of human rights, equality and justice for all stems from her Jewish values.”

In her acceptance speech, Ginsburg said she was “a judge, born, raised and proud of being a Jew.”

The occasion was hardly the first time Ginsburg discussed her connection to her religion and culture.

In 2004, in a speech at a Holocaust Remembrance Day event held in the Capitol rotunda, she declared 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: a large silver mezuzah on my door post, gift from the Shulamith School for Girls in Brooklyn; on three walls, in artists’ renditions of Hebrew letters, the command from Deuteronomy: ‘Zedek, zedek, tirdof’ – ‘Justice, justice shall you pursue.’ Those words are ever-present reminders of what judges must do that they ‘may thrive.’”

During her 1993 Senate confirmation hearings, Ginsburg told of how her father’s family came to America partly because Jews were not allowed to attend high school in the part of Russia he came from.

Julie Cohen, co-director of the 2018 documentary “RBG,” told Haaretz in 2019 that Ginsburg had always been “very aware of what her father was limited from achieving because he was Jewish, and her mother from doing because she was Jewish and a woman. I think she feels like she was someone who was able to realize the dreams of previous generations.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg displaying a book titled "My Grandma is Very Special," which was written by her grandson Paul Spera, July 21, 1993.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg displaying a book titled "My Grandma is Very Special," which was written by her grandson Paul Spera, July 21, 1993. Credit: JENNIFER LAW - AFP

Built-in tension

There was a built-in tension for Ginsburg between these two core identities: being Jewish and being female.

As a young woman, she felt she had to make a choice between her religious observance and her growing feminist awareness. Like many other Jewish women of her generation who were raised in religiously traditional homes, Ginsburg told Cohen she couldn’t make peace with the deep gender inequalities built into her parents’ Orthodox practice, and that she had been particularly alienated by the idea that women didn’t count in a Jewish prayer quorum.

“It made her feel like women really didn’t count,” Cohen explained. “The idea that if you were trying to make something official in the Jewish world, it would be more possible to go out and find men on the street that you didn’t know, whereas women in your own family didn’t count in a minyan felt supremely unjust and made it hard [for her] to feel deeply part of the religion.”

In her 2018 dialogue with Beinisch, Ginsburg discussed that tension when she was asked about the ongoing Women of the Wall controversy – the fight for equal treatment for women worshipping at one of Judaism’s holiest sites.

Noting that while in the United States, differentiating between men and women in a public space would violate the equal protection principle, Ginsburg answered that “Israel is different” because its primary state religion is Orthodox Judaism, “and much of the authority over women’s matters has been given over to the religious community.”

She went on to say she was “proud” that Judaism in the United States had evolved when it came to institutionalizing equal status for women.

“In the United States, there are many more Conservative and Reform Jews than Orthodox, and I’m proud that in both Reform and Conservative synagogues, women are rabbis.

“I remember, in the 1970s, meeting with the heads of the Jewish theological seminaries,” she added. “The Reform [movement] had already admitted women to the Rabbinate. And so the seminary asked me, ‘We admit women to the cantorial program, isn’t that enough?’ And my answer was: ‘It’s not enough if you want to keep young people involved with the synagogues.’ Because young people growing up now don’t understand that people should be excluded simply because they are female – or male. One of the reasons women have been accepted as rabbis in the United States is that concern for the next generation.”

People taking a picture of a portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg displayed at a storefront in New York, September 19, 2020.
People taking a picture of a portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg displayed at a storefront in New York, September 19, 2020. Credit: Jeenah Moon - AFP

Ginsburg recalled that, as a girl, she was “jealous” of a male cousin who had a Bar Mitzvah when “there was no Bat Mitzvah back then,” noting that her colleague on the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan, was the first girl to have a Bat Mitzvah in her Manhattan synagogue.

Proud cultural Jew

While Ginsburg may have had an ambivalent relationship with organized religion, she was a proud cultural Jew. Cohen originally met her while filming a documentary about Russ & Daughters, where Ginsburg bought smoked fish and became the store’s most famous lifelong customer – with a particular fondness for pickled herring.

She also appreciated Israeli culture. In 2019, already battling serious health issues, she made a rare public appearance at a Washington event commemorating Israeli author Amos Oz, who had passed away in December 2018. Ginsburg told Oz’s daughter, Fania Oz-Salzberger, that she attended the event because she was a fan of the legendary author.

While the Genesis Prize claimed in 2018 that Ginsburg was barred from receiving and donating a monetary prize, a year later she did precisely that when she won the Gilel Storch Award from a Stockholm-based organization called Jewish Culture in Sweden.

The justice decided to divide her award of 250,000 Swedish krona (almost $27,000) evenly between three organizations that also work to promote tolerance: one in Sweden, one in the United States and in Israel. For the latter, Ginsburg chose Hand in Hand, a network of bilingual Hebrew and Arabic schools where Arab and Jewish Israeli children learn side-by-side, taught by both Arab and Jewish teachers.

“From the earliest grades, the children are taught to speak, read and write in Hebrew and Arabic. They learn the shared values of Jews, Muslims and Christians – among them helping others, welcoming guests, opposing oppression and caring for the Earth,” Ginsburg said during her acceptance speech, explaining her choice.

Ginsburg noted that it was in keeping with Jewish tradition that she was granting the prize money to organizations that upheld values that she shared and worked to advance throughout her long life: Seeking to “repair tears in our societies, reduce intolerance and promote understanding.”

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