Like (most) everyone else in the country, the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg hit me hard. Oh, there are the political ramifications, but those aren’t the primary source of my angst. There’s the fact that she was such a wise and accomplished woman, but even those traits, while indisputable, aren’t why I’m profoundly sad. What I find so traumatic is that, in her, we’ve lost something less tangible but more potent: the death of intelligentsia.
To read about RBG is to learn of a woman who fought for equality and rights that we (women especially) now take for granted. A friend posted on Facebook a call to women: If you have a credit card in your own name and your own credit history, if you have leased an apartment or bought property in your name, if you have consented to your own medical treatment, if you played a sport in school, you can thank Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. To us females, these accomplishments transcend political party.
Ginsburg went to Harvard Law School in an era when there were only eight other women—at a time when, as the story goes, she was asked how it felt to take the spot reserved for a man. I have always been struck by the fact that Ginsburg was not just a constitutional scholar or wise counselor; she was also a wife and mother and obviously committed to those roles. Ginsburg was the stereotype of a working woman juggling it all before there was such a stereotype. She paved the way that so many of us now walk.
One has only to glimpse the little girls dressed in RBG Halloween costumes, sporting oversized glasses and a gavel, to realize that RBG became a cultural icon. And yet, in so many ways, she was the most unlikely woman to achieve that status.
Take her size, for instance: Ginsburg was quite the diminutive person. Consider her personage: She wore her hair in a severe graying ponytail—not the long lemony tresses we like in our models. Or think of her lifestyle: While I’m sure she was a woman of means, we hear nothing of her purchasing islands, flying around in private jets or flaunting her riches. And what about her marriage: She was married to the same man for over 50 years (yawn). There are no stories of RBG and her beloved husband Martin party hopping. Rather, there’s the little known tale of Ginsburg taking notes for Martin while they were students at Harvard Law, when he was battling cancer. As the movie “On the Basis of Sex” revealed, RBG did this while working on the Harvard Law Review and raising their first child.
RBG obviously fits none of our society’s pre-conceived notions of celebrity: not wildly beautiful or wildly rich or merely wild. So why do we feel this loss so intensely? I think it’s because RBG represented an intelligentsia that seems subjugated by our fascination with the shiny, with celebrity. If you attend an Ivy League institution you are elitist, and if you read The New York Times you must be a left-winger; if a story can’t be reduced and repackaged into a 30-second snippet on Facebook, then why would you bother reading it? For that matter, why read at all? The fast moving tripes on social media are so much more enticing. Think, for a moment, of RBG bowed over a desk in the law library, poring over legal cases, statutes and precedents—all in an effort to argue her case logically, intelligently, armed with facts. Yet these days, although our lives have been changed, bettered by Ginsburg’s pursuit of knowledge, most of us cannot be bothered to watch more than one news channel.
And so, for me, it feels as if our country has lost a warrior not only for equality and decency but for intelligence. Most of us never met RBG, but there was some sense of security in knowing that she was part of our governance—that apart from the noise and the soundbites and the celebrity stalking our attention, wisdom resides in our country’s most hallowed chambers.
My friend remarked that it was somehow fitting that RBG, raised Jewish, died on the first night of Rosh Hashanah: She held on until the Shabbos. It is said that Ginsburg had somewhat turned her back on her faith, yet she acknowledges how it shaped her. According to a recent article in The Washington Post, in Ginsburg’s office was a framed phrase from Deuteronomy: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (Justice, justice, you shall pursue). Growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust, Ginsburg was keenly aware that she, as a Jewish woman, was an “outsider.” That heritage shaped her life’s work. She is quoted as saying that being a minority “makes you more empathetic to other people who are not insiders, who are outsiders.”
To me, the ending of Ginsburg’s life on the Jewish New Year feels poignantly symbolic. Perhaps her life and death will be the wakeup call our country needs to reavow the pursuit of knowledge and justice. Maybe those little girls will see beyond the Halloween costumes to a world in which they can make a difference. Perhaps we will all feel compelled to stretch our intellectual limbs, to read something, listen to something that might make us uneasy, uncomfortable—might make us question our preconceived notions. RBG’s life should not be merely relegated to the annals of history—a life well lived, a difference made. All five feet of her should remind us that knowledge is cool, that the intelligentsia in our society are as important today as yesteryear’s prophets in the temples. Careful, deliberate thought, commitment to reason—these are the steps out of the problems our society faces.
Do we have the courage, the wisdom, to embrace them? If so, it can be a happy new year, starting now. The Jewish greeting Shana Tovah (good new year) has never been more appropriate than this Rosh Hashanah, with Ginsburg’s death. This year, it is not only a greeting but a blessing that I have to believe RBG would want passed on.