Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died earlier this month at the age of 87, following 27 years of service on the United States Supreme Court, where she was the first Jewish woman to serve. Throughout her career she was an advocate for women’s rights, as evidenced by her writing the majority opinion in United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515 (1996) which struck down the male-only admission policy of the Virginia Military Institute. Her forceful and principaled opinions earned her the moniker Notorious RBG. What was the “Great Yom Kippur Controversy” that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was involved in?
614px-Ruth_Bader_Ginsburg_2016_portrait by Camilo Schaser-Hughes is in the public domain
A. Ginsburg was a member of the Jewish Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority at Cornell University. While she was a student there, a number of the sorority sisters proposed that the sorority house kitchen be open on Yom Kippur, though it had always previously been closed for that holiday. But many of the members were not observant, and wanted to be able to eat in the house as they did every day. Ginsburg herself was not observant, but she led the opposition to the proposal. Local rabbis and communal leaders also weighed in on what became a heated debate. Ultimately, Ginsburg’s side won and the kitchen remained closed in what became known as the “Cornell Great Yom Kippur Controversy”.
B. In 1995, the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments on a case on Yom Kippur. Chief Justice William Rehnquist was resistant to canceling the hearing and changing the date. Said Rehnquist, “We confer on Good Friday and nobody complains about that.” Justice Ginsburg nevertheless convinced him to change the hearing date, emphasizing the fact that some of the lawyers who had been preparing their case for many weeks would find themselves torn between their court and client obligation and their personal religious belief.
C. Ruth Bader was born in 1933 in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in the East Flatbush neighborhood. Her family was not very observant, but they were members of the Conservative East Midwood Jewish Center. When Ruth was in 3rd grade, there was a proposal in the Brooklyn schools to close on Yom Kippur (prior to that schools had always been open on all of the Jewish holidays). The proposal was pushed by the Teachers Union, a fledgling organization founded in 1935, which Ruth’s mother, Celia, a teacher, served as president. In a major speech given by Celia Bader, she said that the proposal was not only to accommodate the Jewish teachers, but also for the children, such as her daughter Ruth, who should be allowed to be with their families on the holiest day of the year. This “Great Yom Kippur Controversy” led to an adoption of Yom Kippur as an official school holiday, and Rosh Hashanah was added to the list five years later.
D. In August 1991, a Jewish member of the Navy Seals who was serving in the Middle East on missions related to Operation Desert Storm filed suit because his commanders said that he was not allowed to fast on Yom Kippur. He argued that his religious rights were being violated. The military command countered that the national security interest of not having a team member whose physical weakness from fasting might endanger the mission and the lives of other personnel overrode his individual rights. Because the case was timely and national security was involved, the case was quickly escalated to Judge Ginsburg, who was serving on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The case became known as the “Great Yom Kippur Controversy”, and received national attention from Jewish organizations including the Anti-Defamation League and the Orthodox Union, as well as military and veterans organizations. Judge Ginsburg ultimately ruled in favor of the military and the Jewish serviceman agreed to eat on Yom Kippur.
E. In 1987, when Judge Ginsburg was serving on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, she was also on the Board of Trustees of her Conservative synagogue, Adas Israel Congregation. The Law Committee of United Synagogue of America had approved egalitarianism as an option for member synagogues a few years earlier, and Adas Israel was now debating whether to allow equal participation by women in their ritual life. Judge Ginsburg opposed women’s participation, stating, “When it comes to the Torah, I am an originalist. Judaism clearly states that counting in a minyan, leading services, and other roles, are for men only. There can be no leeway, as the words and meaning of Torah and the Rabbis are clear.” There was a huge split in the congregation, and when the board voted by a narrow majority to maintain a non-egalitarian approach, board members who favored egalitarianism filed a lawsuit to force the leadership to allow equal rights for women. Judge Ginsburg represented the Board of Trustees in court, while the dissenting members hired a lawyer to represent them, Antonin Scalia, who argued in court that Torah is clearly a living document, one that should be interpreted according to its core principals, but consistent with modern life. A judge ruled in favor of attorney Scalia’s argument, and egalitarianism was implemented. Judge Ginsburg resigned from the board stating, “My burden is not to show that originalism is perfect, but that it beats the other alternatives. Sadly they accepted the argument of Mr. Scalia. He seems like a nice man, though. I suspect we would get along very well together.”
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