Friday Takeaway: Ruth, a fighter for women and minorities

  • Jerrey Roberts photo Jerrey Roberts photo

For Hampshire Life
Published: 10/10/2019 4:38:56 PM
Modified: 10/10/2019 4:38:46 PM

She wears her Jewishness with humility. Her demeanor makes her extraordinarily personable, to the point of inviting others to think of her in simple ways. Yet she is a titan.

In an age of fallen idols, she is unfailing in her fortitude. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (“Notorious R.B.G.,” after the rapper “Notorious B.I.G.,” another Brooklynite) isn’t the first Jewish judge to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court — alphabetically, Brandeis, Breyer, Cardoso, Fortas, Frankfurter and Goldberg preceded her — but she is the first Jewish woman.

I am in awe of her intelligence. She visibly enjoys pondering things, calmly seeing their two sides. Her ideas have edge, roundness. She speaks softly, calibrating each of her words with admirable ease yet still sounding spontaneous. She knows that to think clearly, unimpeded, is to be.

Her life-long quest is for equal protection. More than anything else, Justice Ginsburg is a fighter for the rights of women and minorities. She understands that, in a country where inequality runs rampant from the moment the Constitution was drafted, such fight is unending. The fight must be made one step at a time. Of the three branches of government, the Supreme Court isn’t active but reactive: it waits for people to come to it in order to legislate on a given matter. In other words, it depends on patience. Justice Ginsburg is a master of patience.

Her first name is biblical but the biblical Ruth, a Moabite who married an Israelite, isn’t resonant in terms of her personality. She has more in common with other characters, for instance Deborah the judge and Miriam and Huldah the prophetesses.

To me Justice Ginsburg is a reminder of the long absences of women in Jewish jurisprudence. The Sanhedrin, the rabbinical courts that functioned as tribunals in ancient Israel, mostly excluded women, who it considered impure. Rabbi Akiva, Saadia Gaon, Maimonides, Rashi, Baal Shem Tov, the Vilna Gaon, and other rabbis are always men. Women are subservient.

Recently, I have delved into the life of the legendary Bruriah, daughter of Rabbi Haninah ben Teradion, a leader who was martyred for his faith by the Roman Empire. Bruriah had two siblings: a sister, who was sold into sexual slavery; and a brother, who, realizing he couldn’t match Bruriah’s talents as a teacher, turned into crime.

Bruriah is among the very few Jewish female sages in the Talmud. But she is a mystery, her raw story left untold, for others to speculate. Rashi, the medieval French commentator, was among those offering an explanation. To prove that women were weak (e.g., “light-minded”), Bruriah’s husband, Rabbi Meir, one in the lineage of Tannaim, encouraged a pupil to seduce his wife. After falling for the pupil, Bruriah committed suicide, which, in and of itself, is the most serious offense in Judaism. That’s why, according to Rashi, we know nothing about her: because she defied the divine power by taken her life.

Was Bruriah guilty? Should those who pushed her over the edge be judged more sternly? Justice Ginsburg (her married name comes from her husband, Martin Ginsburg) makes any such extreme redundant. Upon seeing her, one feels as if the wind could suddenly blow her away — she projects such fragility. Yet just minutes after the conversation has started, it is clear she is solid as a rock. She likes to repeat that, had she not been a lawyer, she would have liked to be an opera diva. But by her own admission — and fortunately for us — she is tone-deaf.

How different would Jewish history, and Jewish law, had been if more Ruths, more Deborahs, more Miriams and Huldahs, had taken a protagonist role? Even nowadays, among the rabbinical elite in Israel and abroad, little room exists for the likes of her.

On the topic of deafness, I love how Justice Ginsburg exhorts us to listen. We have forgotten how to do it, she admonishes. Without listening, we are all trapped into a box of resonance. She states that when she got married, the best recommendation her mother-in-law gave her was not to listen to everything. I agree: the best marriages, the ones that survive, depend on not taking themselves too seriously.

That she cares deeply about her Jewishness and doesn’t see it as an aside is resonant to me. Her vast memory and ongoing devotion to wisdom (she is able to retrieve with ease details of a long-ago case, or the twist of sentence in a favorite book) is proof of it.

I am particularly enthralled by her relationship with Justice Antonin Scalia. It is difficult to imagine two more formidable opponents, one on the right, the other on the left. They respected each other thoroughly, frequently laughing together. There is an opera by Derrick Wang about them, directed by Lorin Maazel (in Hebrew).

When asked about the turbulent present period in American history, Justice Ginsburg described it, succinctly, as an aberration. It is indeed: Trump is un-American in every way; or maybe he is hyper-American, synthesizing in one single individual the worst this country has to offer. In contrast, Justice Ginsburg is subtle, discreet. After bouts of cancer and other indignities, she says she will outlast the ogre, not allowing him to steal away her coveted Supreme Court seat.

Her intellectual elegance comes across in her conviction that reacting in anger doesn’t advance one’s ability to persuade, that it is our fault if and when words fail us, and that time is the wisest sage.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of “In Contrast” on NEPR.


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