In 2016, Brandeis University marked the centennial anniversary of Louis D. Brandeis’s appointment to the United States Supreme Court. The centerpiece event was a panel program on the legacy of Justice Brandeis featuring another Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, zikhronah livrakhah (may her memory be a blessing). The gym at Brandeis is no small room, and despite being small in stature, her energy pervaded every corner. Justice Ginsburg was a rock star and her presence was electrifying.
It came from the story she told, citing cases argued by Justice Brandeis, which had informed her own judicial thinking even when she disagreed with his conclusions. It came from her admiration of the thoroughness and incisive analysis in Brandeis’s work and her hope that her own work would be seen the same way. It came from the passing but loving references to her husband, Martin, and his role in pushing forward her own career. And it came from her embodiment of American Jewish values, sensitive to how one could influence the other and conscious that they needed to be carefully deployed in the service of a secular ideal.
The news of Justice Ginsburg’s death reached me through the honeyed haze of a most peculiar Rosh Hashanah. What time of day did her soul depart, I asked? Was this the final brutal moment of a 5780 that had long outlived its usefulness, or a frightening harbinger of things to come in 5781? It was heartbreaking news no matter the answer, but in these fraught moments in which everything carries the weight of portent, I wanted a sign that the loss was not as devastating as it felt.
Our lives had whispers of overlap, unknown to her and tremendously compelling to me. We were both born in Brooklyn; our high schools were theater rivals. We both stepped into largely male spaces to pursue our dreams and suffered the indignities and privileges of being “first.” Her steps took her to 116th Street and Broadway (Columbia Law) and mine just a few blocks north to 122nd Street and Broadway (Jewish Theological Seminary). She was called “rabbi” at her Jewish summer camp, and I became a rabbi. And her death on the eve of Rosh Hashanah will be forever linked for me to my own father’s yahrzeit (anniversary of death) just two days later.
This morning, as I heard the ancient words of the El Maleh Rahamim memorial prayer intoned at the Supreme Court, I was struck by how far we have come and how far we have yet to go. We have lost our hero, our advocate, our prophet, but we have not lost one word of what she has taught us. This is the charge with which she has left us: to make ourselves heard no matter how softly we speak, to remember that we stand on the shoulders of giants, to bring in and raise up the voices of those on the margins, to be relentless in our pursuit of justice and, no matter the setback, to always live to fight another day. We are Ruthless, and we will fill that void with a commitment to follow her, wherever she may lead.
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