Comparing Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the Book of Ruth

MIDDLE ISRAEL: Throughout her life, then, and in all respects, RBG followed in the original Ruth’s footsteps; in all respects, that is, except one.

US SUPREME COURT Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, delivers remarks during a discussion hosted by the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington in 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS/SARAH SILBIGER)
US SUPREME COURT Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, delivers remarks during a discussion hosted by the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington in 2019.
(photo credit: REUTERS/SARAH SILBIGER)
The two scenes seemed taken from inverted books.

One, in Washington’s velvet walled Kennedy Center, was about 2,300 Americans’ standing ovation for a petit octogenarian named Ruth, who in the daytime defended them in court, and that evening entertained them as the operatic snob Duchess Krakenthorp.
The other scene was set in a wheat field outside biblical Bethlehem, where another Ruth was ambling “behind the reapers,” collecting the harvesters’ leftovers while personifying the powerless other: a stranger among natives, a pauper among landlords, a woman among men.
And yet in all respects – all, that is, except one – the Second Book of Ruth was the first one’s sequel.
FIRST, the original Book of Ruth is a subversive tale of feminine empowerment in which women first endure the hardships that their men did not survive, and then proceed to control the plot, even while men control households, set society’s norms and populate its courts.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG) was not born into a time nearly as chauvinistic as the Bible’s, but she did personally experience the sex discrimination she later helped undo.
The jurist who became Columbia University’s first tenured female professor of law was initially rejected by multiple law firms that would not hire a woman.
In her struggles for the American Civil Liberties’ Union, RBG exposed gender discrimination in, for instance, the way financial estates were written in Idaho; the way the military underpaid men in its widowers’ benefits; or the way Oklahoma set different drinking ages for women and men.
Winning five of six cases at the Supreme Court, she led it to agree that the 14th Amendment of 1868, which guaranteed legal equality, must regard not only race but also gender.
Obviously, RBG’s agenda – and impact – transcended women’s rights.
Like the first Book of Ruth – a pastoral idyll in which villagers treat a foreigner with justice, kindness and generosity – she ruled that a court which had terminated a mother’s parental rights must pay her court fees, because she was poor.
Like the first Book of Ruth, whose main theme is an immigrant’s acceptance, RBG was part of the 5-4 majority that blocked President Donald Trump’s deportation of illegal immigrants’ children.
Lastly, RBG emulated the original Ruth not only in her universal feminism and compassion, but also in her tribal solidarity and faith.
RAISED IN wartime Brooklyn, where her family attended a conservative synagogue, RBG went to Jewish summer camps and even functioned there as a religious leader, an inclination she later lost as she drifted away from observance. Still, RBG clung to her identity, both reflexively and consciously.
Reflexively, RBG knew she was part of a tribe and never fled or concealed those roots. “I am a judge, born, raised and proud of being a Jew,” she said in a 1995 address to the American Jewish Committee, titled “What Being Jewish Means to Me.”
The Ruth who at age 13 wrote in the East Midwood Jewish Center journal, “We must never forget the horrors which our brethren were subjected to in Bergen-Belsen and other Nazi concentration camps,” was the same Ruth who as a Supreme Court justice delivered the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Remembrance Day speech, and at another time awarded a medal to Oskar Schindler’s widow on the museum’s behalf.
In terms of conscience, RBG ascribed her passion for law and justice to “the age-old connection between Judaism and law.” Citing former Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg’s statement “my concern for justice, for peace, for enlightenment, all stem from my heritage,” RBG said plainly: “I am fortunate to be linked to that heritage.”
That is why in her office RBG hung a Hebrew poster with Deuteronomy’s command “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” Hebrew characters she also wove into one of the jabots she occasionally wore on her justice’s robe.
The same sense of Judaic pride and conviction made RBG send her children to Hebrew school, observe the Passover Seder, and also write a commentary for the Haggadah with Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt in which the two hailed the roles of five women – the two midwives, Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses’s sister and mother – in delivering Israel’s salvation.
Throughout her life, then, and in all respects, RBG followed in the original Ruth’s footsteps; in all respects, that is, except one.
IN ITS feminist, social and religious spirit, the Second Book of Ruth picks up from where the First Book of Ruth left off. Geographically, however, the two part ways.
The biblical story’s physical path is from the homeland to “exile” and back, and its national message is that life abroad ends in the death it had in store for Naomi’s husband and sons.
American Jewry’s social acceptance and professional success refuted that dictum, and RBG personified that acceptance and success.
The first Jew to lie in state at the Capitol was one of three among the American Supreme Court’s nine members, alongside Stephen Breyer, whose first response upon learning of RBG’s death was to say kaddish, and Elena Kagan, whose bat mitzvah was the first held in New York’s Lincoln Square Synagogue.
Yes, the Second Ruth admired Israel and also visited it repeatedly, most recently two years ago, when she attended a screening of the feature film RBG in Jerusalem, and received the Genesis Prize in Tel Aviv while flanked by four Israeli Supreme Court presidents (three of them women).
Yet the Second Ruth was an American; an American citizen, an American warrior, an American heroine and an American Jew. Indeed, hers were the American-Jewish pride, conviction and success that we Israelis don’t always know to respect, but now, when facing the admiration, love and sorrow with which millions of Americans bid Ruth Bader Ginsburg farewell – we must all salute.
The writer’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.