text of rbg genesis speech

Justice Ginsburg honors heritage of Jewish women


U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg received the inaugural Genesis Lifetime Achievement Award in Israel on July 4. Here’s a video and a transcript of her remarks:


Isaac Bashevis Singer had a remembrance that bears retelling on an occasion like this. Singer’s grandfather was a renowned Orthodox rabbi who in a sermon put this question to his congregation:

“Why is the Almighty so eager for praise? Three times a day we pray to Him, saying how great he is, how wonderful. Why should the Creator of all the stars and all the planets be so eager for praise? The sage rabbis answer: the Almighty knows from divine experience that when people stop praising him they begin to praise one another.”

This thing, his grandfather said, is what the Almighty does not like, but small people that we are, Singer added, we enjoy sometimes some praise especially when it comes from the mouths of good people. Just so, I am enjoying this event and my revisit to Israel.

It is fitting on this occasion to speak of two Jewish women raised in the USA whose humanity and bravery inspired me in my growing up years.

First, Emma Lazarus, elder cousin to the great jurist Benjamin Nathan Cardozo. Emma Lazarus was a Zionist before that word came into vogue. Her love for humankind and especially for her people is evident in all her writings. She wrote constantly, from her first volume of poetry, published in 1866 at age 17, until her death from cancer far too soon at age 38. Her poem “The New Colossus,” etched on the base of the Statue of Liberty, has welcomed legions of immigrants including my father and grandparents, people seeking in the USA shelter from fear, and longing for freedom from intolerance.

My next inspirer: Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold.

Born in 1860, 11 years after Emma Lazarus, Szold lived until 1945. My mother spoke of her glowingly, also of Henry Street Settlement House founder Lillian Wald, who lived from 1867 until 1940.

Szold knew how to say “no” better than any other person whose words I have read. Szold had seven sisters but no brother. When her mother died, a man well known for his community spirit endeavors, Haim Peretz, offered to say the Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer that ancient custom instructed could be recited only by men. Szold responded to that caring offer in a letter dated Sept. 16, 1916. You can read it in full in “Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality” and in the Jewish Women’s Archive curriculum, “Making Our Wilderness Bloom.” I will read the key passages.

“It is impossible for me to find words in which to tell you how deeply I was touched by your offer to say Kaddish after my mother. The Kaddish means to me that the survivor publicly manifests his intention to assume the relation to the Jewish community which his parents had, so that the chain of tradition remains unbroken from generation to generation, each adding its own link. You can do that for the generations of your family. I must do that for the generations of my family.

“My mother had eight daughters and no son, yet never did I hear a word of regret pass the lips of either my mother or my father that one of us was not a son. When my father died, my mother would not permit others to take her daughters’ place in saying the Kaddish, and so I am sure I am acting in her spirit when I am moved to decline your offer. But beautiful your offer remains, and I repeat, I know full well it is much more in harmony with the generally accepted Jewish tradition than is my family’s conception. You understand me, don’t you?”

Szold’s plea for celebration of our common heritage while tolerating, indeed appreciating, the differences among us concerning religious practice, is captivating. I recall her words even to this day when a colleague’s words portray a certain lack of understanding.

When I became active in the movement to open doors to women, enabling them to enter occupations once closed to them — lawyering and judging, bartending, policing, firefighting, for a few examples — I was hearted by the words of a girl of my generation. She wrote:

 “One of the many questions that has often bothered me is why women have been and still are thought to be so inferior to men. It’s easy to say it’s unfair, but that’s not enough for me. I’d really like to know the reason for this great injustice. Men presumably dominated women from the very beginning because of their greater physical strength. It’s men who earn a living, beget children, and do as they please. Until recently, women silently went along with this, which was stupid since the longer it’s kept up the more deeply entrenched it becomes. Fortunately, education, work, and progress have opened women’s eyes. In many countries, they’ve been granted equal rights. Many people—mainly women but also men—now realize how wrong it was to tolerate this state of affairs for so long.

“Yours, Anne M. Frank.”

This insightful comment was one of the last entered in her diary. Anne Frank, people in this audience know, was born in the Netherlands in July 1929. She died in 1945 while imprisoned at Bergen-Belsen, three months short of her 16th birthday.

I was asked some years ago by the AJC [American Jewish Committee] to supply a statement on how my heritage as a Jew and my occupation as a judge fit together. I responded this way:

“I am a judge, born, raised, and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice, for peace, for enlightenment, runs through the entirety of the Jewish history and Jewish tradition. I hope that in all the years I have the good fortune to continue serving on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, I will have the strength and courage to remain steadfast in service of that demand.”

With thanks for your patient audience, and once again deepest appreciation to Aharon Barak and to the Genesis Foundation, may I say to all gathered here, Shalom v’todah rabba.

See also RBG: Judaism shaped my life