Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Of the many women raised in the U.S.A. whose humanity and bravery sustain me when my spirits need lifting, two sterling examples. First Emma Lazarus, elder cousin to the great jurist Benjamin Nathan Cardozo. Emma Lazarus was a Zionist and her love for humankind is evident in all her writings. She wrote constantly from her first volume of poetry published in 1866 at age 17 until her death from cancer, far too soon, at age 38. Her poem “The New Colossus,” etched on the base of the Statue of Liberty, has welcomed legions of immigrants seeking shelter from fear and longing to find freedom from intolerance in the United States.
My next inspirer is Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold. Born in 1860, Szold lived until 1945. Szold had seven sisters and no brothers. When her mother died, Haym Peretz, a man well known for his community-spirited endeavors, offered to say the Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer that ancient custom decreed could only be recited by men. Szold responded in a letter dated September 16, 1916, writing: “It is impossible for me to find words in which to tell you how deeply I was touched by your offer to act as Kaddish for my dear mother. What you have offered to do is beautiful beyond thanks. I shall never forget it. You will wonder then, that I cannot accept your offer…I know well, and appreciate what you say about, the Jewish custom [that only male children recite the prayer and if there are no male survivors a male stranger may act as a substitute]; and Jewish custom is very dear and sacred to me. And yet I cannot ask you to say Kaddish after my mother. The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly manifests his intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community which his parent had, so that the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation, each adding its own link. You can do that for the generations of your family. I must do that for the generations of my family. My mother had eight daughters and no sons; and yet never did I hear a word of regret pass the lips of either my mother or my father that one of us was not a son. When my father died, my mother would not permit others to take her daughters’ place in saying the Kaddish, and so I am sure I am acting in her spirit when I am moved to decline your offer. But beautiful your offer remains nevertheless, and, I repeat, I know full well that it is much more in harmony with the generally accepted Jewish tradition than is my or my family’s conception. You understand me, don’t you?”
Szold’s plea for celebration of our common heritage while tolerating, indeed appreciating, the differences among us concerning religious practice is captivating. I recall her words even to this day when a colleague’s position betrays a certain lack of understanding.
I conclude with words I often use when asked to say who I am. I am a judge, born, raised and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition. I hope that in all the years I have the good fortune to continue serving on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States I will have the strength and courage to remain steadfast in the service of that demand.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born in 1933 in Brooklyn, NY. She earned a scholarship to Cornell, where she graduated first in her class. She attended Harvard and then Columbia Law Schools, making Law Review at each and again graduating at the top of her class. Ginsburg began as a research associate at Columbia Law School, eventually becoming the first woman to be hired there with tenure. At the same time, she campaigned tirelessly for women’s rights and became involved in the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1972, she became the first director of the ACLU's Women's Rights Project. Ginsburg often argued before the Supreme Court on the topic of women’s rights, until President Carter appointed her Judge of the D.C. Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in 1981. In 1993, President Clinton made Ginsburg his first appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court, where she has continued to work for women’s rights and civil liberties.
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