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When Ruth Bader was a teenager, her mother, Celia, died of cancer just two days shy of Ruth’s graduation from high school. In keeping with Jewish custom in those days, only men could be counted as part of a minyan or quorum - so Ruth wasn’t allowed to pray the mourner’s prayer for her mother (a rule since changed in both Reform and Conservative Judaism). Ruth was both heartbroken and outraged - and as a result, felt alienated from synagogue membership for much of the rest of her life.

The Bible, however, remained a lifelong touchstone of insight and inspiration. Throughout her childhood, her mother regaled her with biblical stories of “women of valor,” heroes who were ambitious, wise, and successful. Ruth drank deeply from these stories, learning them by heart.

Accordingly, when in 2015 she was asked by the American Jewish World Service to write an insert for the Passover order of service, she enthusiastically agreed. She organized it around what she called “The Heroic and Visionary Women of Passover,” five figures who play pivotal roles in the story, and yet are often overlooked: Moses’ mother, Yocheved; the Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah; Moses’ sister, Miriam; and Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya.

On the last of these five, Bader Ginsburg quotes a midrash from the Babylonian Talmud:

“When Pharaoh’s daughter’s handmaidens saw that she intended to rescue Moses, they attempted to dissuade her, and persuade her to heed her father. They said to her: ‘Our mistress, it is the way of the world that when a king issues a decree, it is not heeded by the entire world, but his children and the members of his household do observe it, and you wish to transgress your father’s decree?’”

And then RBG adds: “But transgress she did.”

“These women,” she continues, “had a vision leading out of the darkness shrouding their world. They were women of action, prepared to defy authority to make their vision a reality bathed in the light of the day.”

It’s a description that applies just as well to RBG herself. Framed on a wall in her chambers at the Supreme Court, she kept a quote from Deuteronomy, three Hebrew words in beautiful calligraphy: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof - “Justice, justice, you shall pursue” (Deut 16:20).

In the larger passage from which these three words are taken, the author has just outlined the sacred festivals of Israel (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot), and now seamlessly turns to the judicial system. Passover, of course, is about the journey from enslavement to freedom, an odyssey that leads to the reception of the law at Mount Sinai. In the ancient Israelite imagination, then, Passover and covenant, freedom and law, are intimately interwoven.

After all, God frees the Israelites for a new life and society characterized by equality and integrity under the law: “You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. Justice, justice, you shall pursue” (Deut 16:19-20).

Is there a prominent American in recent memory who more vividly personifies this kind of integrity, this resistance to corruption, this commitment to equality, this devotion to justice, than the late, great RBG? Let us all take up the mourner’s prayer, in a quorum extending across the country and around the world. We have lost a transformative intellect, a brilliant strategist, a wise jurist, and a fierce pursuer of justice, justice.

We have lost, in other words, a woman of valor. But like Yocheved, Shifra, Puah, Miriam, and Batya, what Ruth Bader Ginsburg left behind - if we do our part to remember and build upon her work - will nourish us and our descendants for generations to come. For she, too, had a vision leading out of the darkness shrouding our world. And we, too, must be prepared to make that vision a reality bathed in the light of the day.

What better way to thank her?

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof!

Story and photo from the SALT Project