(JTA) — Many Americans have been paying tribute to the popularized version of Ruth Bader Ginsberg — the feisty workout-devoted octogenarian Supreme Court justice who had morphed in the past decade from admired legal trailblazer to beloved feminist pop icon, the subject of a Hollywood biopic, a documentary, “Saturday Night Live” sketches and late-night interviews, not to mention T-shirts, mugs and bobbleheads.
But as word of her death spread Friday in the first few hours of Rosh Hashanah, it became clear that many Jews were mourning something spiritually deeper. For them, the Notorious RBG had become Ruth the Tzaddik.
Author and book critic Ruth Franklin quickly captured the sentiment in a tweet shared thousands of times and liked by more than 200,000: “According to Jewish tradition, a person who dies on Rosh Hashanah, which began tonight, is a tzaddik, a person of great righteousness. Baruch Dayan HaEmet.”
Nina Totenberg, the NPR Supreme Court correspondent and Ginsburg’s friend, eschewed her usual legal analysis for a religious explanation.
“A Jewish teaching says those who die just before the Jewish new year are the ones God has held back until the last moment bc they were needed most & were the most righteous,” Totenberg wrote in a tweet shared more than 40,000 times. “And so it was that #RBG died as the sun was setting last night marking the beginning of Rosh Hashanah.”
Those interpretations may have reflected a loose interpretation of Jewish texts, but the sentiment behind them reflected Ginsburg’s evolution from staid jurist to pop culture icon to spiritual figure.
That evolution was fueled first by a cohort of bloggers, biographers and filmmakers — mostly Jewish, meaning that Ginsburg’s deep and abiding Jewish values came through loud and clear in her pop culture depictions. Then it found a ready audience among the majority of American Jews for whom Judaism and progressive political values are intertwined.
Rabbi Emily Cohen of New York’s West End synagogue had almost finished leading virtual services from her home in Brooklyn when a message popped up in the gathering’s Zoom chat room: “RBG is dead.” After announcing the news, she led the more than 120 worshippers on Zoom in a special recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish.
As the holiday came to an end on Sunday night, Cohen took to Twitter to share her thoughts with her more than 5,000 followers.
“She was a tzaddik. Her memory is a blessing and an inspiration,” the rabbi wrote. “5781 is for progress. We will not go back. #rbg.”
Cohen, who was just 6 years old in 1993 when Ginsburg became the first Jewish woman to serve on the nation’s highest court, sees parallels between the jurist’s long career of standing up for the rights of women and minorities and religious leaders from Jewish history.
“Like many prophets, she was willing to say the uncomfortable things even when she was in the minority,” Cohen said. “The notion of ‘I dissent,’ the notion of standing up, even knowing that she is not going to have the majority rule in some cases, the notion that she was still willing to stand up for what was right is very powerful.”
At first glance, the evolution of Ginsberg into a spiritual figure might be more surprising than her emergence as a pop culture phenomenon. But it was clear from a visit to her court chambers — with a painting of the biblical precept “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” or “Justice, justice you shall pursue”– that like the majority of American Jews, she saw a clear throughline from the Torah to her legal work and political values, however secular or cultural a Jew she might have been in her practices. And as several Jewish leaders pointed out, the timing of her death undoubtedly helped fuel the religious imagery.
“How can one not find resonance and meaning that [she died] on the holiest day of the year, as we are entering this period of teshuvah, which is in essence a Jewish affirmation that the brokenness in the world and the brokenness of a person isn’t necessarily the state that needs to be, that repair is possible, that teshuvah, that repentance is available and that redemption can come,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “So on the one hand it was a tragic loss as Jews have faced loss for 5,000 years and, on the other hand, people immediately began reading meaning into it.”
Even though Ginsburg was not a religious leader, she shared many similarities with Judaism’s famous rabbis, Pesner added.
“Rabbi means teacher, so at its core before there was even a notion of clergy, the rabbis were the guardians of Jewish wisdom and they were charged with transmitting Jewish values and Jewish traditions to students of the next generation,” he said. “That’s exactly what RBG, the Notorious RBG, whether it’s the Ledbetter v. Goodyear dissent, or the Shelby v. Holder dissent or an enormous body of work, she will go down in human history and in Jewish history as a ‘rav l’Yisrael’ and a ‘rav le kol haolam,’ a teacher to all of Israel and to all of the world.”
At least one Ginsburg fan felt uncomfortable at the theological arguments that spread widely on social media following her death.
“There does seem something a little remarkable about the timing of her death, so people want to be able to understanding that calling her a tzadik or tzaddeket and framing it around what it means to die on erev Shabbat, erev Rosh Hashanah feels like a way to make sense of something,” said Rabbi Hara Person, the head of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.
“The narrative of her being an extra righteous soul is very appealing, very compelling, but it leads to a theological place that I’m not totally comfortable, which is to say that it kind of positions God more in the role of a master puppeteer. … I don’t really subscribe to that in that literal way,” Person said. “I think it’s fine for us to call her somebody who was unique and for whom we should feel grateful and really held an incredibly unique place in our national life.”
The conversation this week might have looked different had Ginsburg not died on Rosh Hashanah, said Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, which organized a rally in honor of Ginsburg’s life on Saturday that drew thousands to the steps of the Supreme Court.
“I think the fact that it happened on Rosh Hashanah was a moment where at least Jews were thinking about our faith and our background in a different kind of way,” Katz said. “I don’t know what the conversation would be had it not been Rosh Hashanah, but I’m glad that we are talking about her this way.”