By Jordan Rudner
The Jewish people have always been loud.
We’re a religion that allows for — and in fact, prioritizes — argument and dissent.
The sages write about it in Pirkei Avot: “Every argument that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure.” Jewish people are encouraged to complain. We’re supposed to disagree. We’re meant to challenge those in power, even when those in power are our friends.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg understood the responsibility of challenging the status quo better than anyone. And although she was soft-spoken, her writing was always loud. Her legacy is resounding.
As an advocate and as a judge, she frequently embodied the best principles of our shared heritage. In victory, and more frequently in dissent, she knew how to make arguments that were destined to endure.
Joan Ruth Bader was born on March 15, 1933, to a family that had immigrated to America in response to antisemitism in Europe. From an early age, she understood that different forms of discrimination had limited the opportunities afforded to both her parents. Her father, Nathan, had been refused entry to most of the schools in Odessa, Ukraine, because he was Jewish.
Her mother, Celia, was put to work in the garment district, despite her fierce intellectual appetite, because she was a woman. Celia’s family considered her brother more worthy of a higher education.
Celia insisted that Ruth be given every opportunity that Celia herself had been denied. She taught Ruth to speak up for herself, as a woman and as a Jew, even when that meant making trouble.
When Celia died on the day of Ruth’s high school graduation, Ruth was not allowed to join the minyan, and was told she could not recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, because she was a woman. Ruth never forgot that moment. Her relationship with religion was complex. But her anger, and her grief, served to strengthen the conviction that became her life’s work: to combat discrimination in the law, and to overturn society’s rigid and binary understanding of what women, and men, should be allowed to do.
As an advocate and as a judge, Justice Ginsburg revolutionized the way courts treat laws that discriminate based on gender. Her efforts as the first-ever head of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project almost single-handedly convinced the overwhelmingly male judiciary to extend the 14th Amendment’s promise of equal protection to women.
As I write this in 2020, and because I was born decades after Justice Ginsburg’s work began, it’s almost impossible for me to fully understand how different my world is because she was in it. As a law student, and as a woman who has never doubted that I deserve a place at the table, I owe her more than I can say.
Her philosophy, as she explained in the 1996 case U.S. v. Virginia, was simple: that all people should have “equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society, based on their individual talents and capacities” — without being limited by the circumstances of their birth, their gender, their race, or anything else. Simple, yes. And revolutionary.
Justice Ginsburg drew on the best that Judaism has to offer in 2007, when she issued her dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire, a case about the legal rights that women have when they want to bring claims of wage discrimination.
Lilly Ledbetter, who worked at Goodyear Tire for 11 years, had been paid significantly less than her male counterparts for her entire tenure at Goodyear. She didn’t know it until the very end of her career, when an anonymous coworker tipped her off — but when she filed a lawsuit, the courts said it was too late to do anything. According to the law, complaints about equal pay needed to be brought within 180 days of the alleged illegal conduct. But Ms. Ledbetter couldn’t have made her complaint within that time. She had no idea it was happening.
The Supreme Court ruled against Ms. Ledbetter. In a 5-4 decision, split down predictable lines, the men said that the law was the law, and Ms. Ledbetter’s 180 days had passed. She did not have an available remedy, despite the 11 years of discrimination she had endured.
Tradition dictates that when a Supreme Court Justice disagrees about a majority decision, she can write a dissent, explaining the nature of her objection. Typically, such dissents are only made in writing: Justices don’t often read dissents aloud.
But Justice Ginsburg rarely put much stock in traditions, and nothing about her life’s work was typical. From behind the Supreme Court’s wooden bench, she issued a scathing dissent. She pointed out that the majority had completely ignored the reality of wage discrimination, and explained the injustices they were perpetuating, using plain language that anyone could understand.
And because Justice Ginsburg was arguing for the sake of Heaven, she didn’t stop there. She addressed Congress directly, calling on the legislative branch to amend pay discrimination statutes. She spoke with fervor and determination.
And she won.
Two years later, President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, amending the law just as Justice Ginsburg had suggested. It was the first law he signed as president.
One of the most influential briefs that Justice Ginsburg ever wrote, a comprehensive explanation of the pernicious nature of gender discrimination, became known as a “grandmother brief” because generations of lawyers drew on its research for their own work to combat gender discrimination in the law.
In the most literal sense of the phrase, Justice Ginsburg’s work has already been passed l’dor vador — from generation to generation. Her arguments, for the sake of Heaven, endure. Her memory is a blessing. Her legacy is a call to action.
It’s our turn to dissent now.
Jordan Rudner is a Dallas native whose life trajectory was shaped by Jewish mothers and grandmothers. She is a second-year student at Stanford Law School.