March 28, 2021
Dear Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
I wear this lace jabot in honor of you this morning, as I pen these words to your spirit which I heartily believe continues on, even as your body has ceased functioning. For 87 years, it was your dwelling place and focus for all your energies. Until the very end, your work on America’s Supreme Court was in high gear, even as you were fighting through four separate bouts of cancer and all the related chemotherapy and radiation therapy treatments.
But the fifth time would prove simply too much.
You died September 8, 2020.
Ten days after your body succumbed, tribute was paid to you in a most appropriate way. Opera was one of your greatest loves; you once said that music makes life worth living, and opera in particular had the power to absorb your attentions completely and give you a break from the all-consuming work of the Court.
That’s what figure skating does for me, in my line of work, so I can understand the love.
So it was on September 18, 2020, that the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts paid tribute to you with a performance of an aria from Beethoven’s Fidelio—a work that you yourself said gave you “the greatest hope for the future.“ Greatest hope—perhaps because Beethoven’s opera featured one of the strongest independent female heroines in opera history, the woman Lenore, whose entire story is about how she dared all to fight political injustice on behalf of those she loved, and demonstrated unshakeable courage and vision.
That’s who you are, and that’s what your life’s work was all about: helping, through changes to law, to create a society that allows more and more women to be all that they can be. Which, at the same time, means men being liberated from whatever toxic gender stereotypes are boxing them in. You called for both women and men to forge “new, shared patterns of career and parenthood,” “striving to create a society that facilitates those patterns.” Again, you have said that “Human caring and concern, for home, children, and the welfare of others, ought not be regarded as dominantly ‘women’s work’; it should become the work of all.”
Lenore from the opera is you, as you dared fight for a justice that opens doors to lives of greater authenticity for more women and more men.
In your later years, an interviewer once asked you, “And when the time comes, what would you like to be remembered for?” Your reply? “Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.”
Ruth, hearing this, I just have to share with you a special word that comes from my religious tradition of Unitarian Universalism. The word was coined by one of our greatest preachers, Hosea Ballou, who believed that God made human nature to be such that doing good deeply and lastingly satisfies. Fear of hellfire and damnation is an inferior sort of motivation, Ballou believed, because it was unnecessary psychologically, but there was also the fact (in his mind, and mine too) that eternal hellfire and damnation don’t even exist to begin with. What does exist, however, is the deep hunger in every person’s heart to be of service, in a way that is unique to them.
Hosea Ballou called this “happification.” That’s the word he coined. To be “happified” is to find your sweet spot of service to the world beyond yourself, in a way that expresses your unique passions and gifts.
You are one of the best examples of this I know.
Happified is who you are.
But in saying this, I don’t mean to suggest that being happified is the same as feeling happy emotions. It doesn’t mean that life feels easy. People who are happified, like yourself, are often more likely to feel disappointed than others, because you care. Because you are paying attention, and are engaged. Bad decisions that run contrary to justice aren’t things that truly happified people can easily turn a blind eye to.
One example of this was in 2013, when a 5-4 majority of your colleagues on the Supreme Court voted to strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required states with a history of voter suppression and discrimination to apply for “preclearance” from the federal government should they want to make a change to their voting rules. Chief Justice John Roberts, representing the majority, argued that “Any racial discrimination in voting is too much, but our country has changed in the last fifty years.”
That’s what he says.
Your dissenting opinion has become legendary. You said, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Then you quoted a saying from another of our Unitarian Universalist ancestors, Theodore Parker, which was made famous, a hundred or so years later, by Dr. King: that “the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.” The arc does bend, you said, but only “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”
You said this and much more, and the colorfulness of the language you used to express the intensity of your dissatisfaction was so impressive that you earned a new name: “Notorious RBG.” New York University law student Shana Knizhnik called you that, and she said, “Ginsburg defies stereotypes. People expect this meek, grandmotherly type. She is a grandmother, but she shows so much strength, and she is who she is without apology.” She also said that you “allow women to imagine a different kind of power and to visualize a woman in power [of an] age where she is usually invisible to society.”
Notorious RBG! Because you were happified and in your sweet spot of service to the world. Because you used whatever talent and ability you had, to do what only you could do.
It made you famous, which caused you to marvel. You could hardly believe it. Not just winning serious scholarly prizes, or being named “Woman of the Year,” or making the list of “100 Most Powerful Women in the World” and the like. But pop culture famous. Suddenly people were wearing all these t-shirts, with slogans like, “I dissent!” or “What would Ruth Bader Ginsburg do?” or “You can’t spell truth without Ruth.”
It simply amazed you, how Saturday Night Live actress Kate McKinnon started portraying you on the show in 2015; or how, in the major motion picture Deadpool 2, the Deadpool character is deciding on which superheroes to invite to his special “X-Force” group—and a photo of you is shown. In 2019, the beer maker, Samuel Adams, released a limited-edition beer called “When There Are Nine,” referring to your well-known reply to the question about when there would be enough women on the Supreme Court.
Even Cleveland chipped in on this lovefest for you. Researchers at our Museum of Natural History gave a species of praying mantis the name llomantis ginsburgae after Ginsburg. The name was given because the neck plate of the Ilomantis ginsburgae resembles a jabot, which you were known for wearing. Moreover, the new species was identified based upon the female insect’s genitalia instead of based upon the male of the species. The Cleveland researchers wanted to give a nod to your fight for gender equality.
I mean, how many people have an animal named after them!
But here again, let me warn against misconstruing what it means to be happified. I would say that almost all people who are happified like you, and in their sweet spot of serving the larger world out of their personal gifts and interests, never gain fame. They never experience what you did.
Your beloved mother, for one.
When you were giving testimony in the Senate during your Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and your mother came up, you called her “the bravest, strongest person I have known.” “I pray that I may be all that she would have been,” you said, “had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve, and daughters are cherished as much as sons.”
What your mother could have been is intriguingly suggested by a piece of family lore. Apparently, she had a habit of reading books while walking down the sidewalk. Ideas inspired her and totally absorbed her, as they did for you. But one day, she walked herself into an open cellar door and ended up breaking her nose!
Education mattered for her. She excelled in school and graduated early, at only 15. But because she was a woman, her interests took backseat to her brother’s and she was forced to get a job as a garment worker and pay for her brother’s education at Cornell University. And then, like most women of her generation, she married young and had your older sister Marilyn, who ended up dying of meningitis at 6, and then you.
Scholarship would have happified her, but it was not to be. She did not live in an age when women could fully aspire and achieve. But mothering a scholar—that was a glorious happification she could have, with you.
Your mother admired Eleanor Roosevelt and would read you the First Lady’s newspaper column every week. This blew open your mind to the world way beyond the Brooklyn you were born in. And so, for example, at 11 years old, you are already speaking in mature ways about serious matters, as in your 8th grade article entitled “One People,” where you say about the war, “[It] has left a bloody trail and many deep wounds not too easily healed. […] We must never forget the horrors which our brethren were subjected to in Bergen-Belsen and other Nazi concentration camps. […] Rabbi Alfred Bettleheim once said, ‘Prejudice saves us a painful trouble, the trouble of thinking.’”
If only your 8th grade voice could penetrate the mental fog of millions of Americans today.
But right now what I want to say is that I’m grateful you’ve shared stories about your mom with the world, because for one thing, how otherwise can we be healed of the illusion that great people become great all by themselves—that people like you are somehow morally superhuman, and regular people need not apply?
But you are not superhuman. Rather, you were loved, and your talents were recognized and nurtured by your mother.
Thinking of your mother—and thinking of all the people who have loved me in my life, or thinking of the love that the children of my church are shown by religious education volunteers—I find myself flashing on that old quote, about how people are blessed who plant trees under whose shade they will never sit. They plant the trees without any thought of themselves. They bless the future generously, and freely.
And we are the grateful beneficiaries.
So may it be.
Ruth, the words of Shana Knizhnik—who dubbed you Notorious RBG—come to mind again, when she said that you are who you are without apology. When, in 1954, Dean Erwin Griswold said to your face, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking a place that could have gone to a man?” nevertheless, you persisted.
You are who you are, without apology.
In 1960, when Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter turned down your application to be his clerk, on the grounds that he wasn’t ready for a woman, nevertheless, you persisted.
You are who you are, without apology.
When, in the 1970s, as a young lawyer and co-founder of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, you argued case after case about gender equality issues before the Supreme Court, and you were facing a Court that was early in its understanding of gender discrimination, and thought that law-based special protections towards women were positive things rather than unfair and life-denying, nevertheless, you persisted, and you helped the Court get to a better place, to see, in Justice Brennan’s words, that “the pedestal on which some thought women were standing all too often turned out to be a cage.”
You are who you are, without apology.
1971’s Reed v. Reed
1972’s Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue
1972’s Struck v. Secretary of Defense
1973’s Frontiero v. Richardson
1975’s Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld
And on and on, all the cases you were involved with in the 1970s; and then, on to the 1980s when President Jimmy Carter appointed you to the U.S. Court of Appeals; and then on to 1993, when President Bill Clinton elevated you to the Supreme Court; and then there, for almost 30 years, championing the Constitution’s democratic ideals.
You are who you are, even when your opinion was in the minority, and, nevertheless, you persisted. You wrote your Notorious RBG dissents, but you knew that such dissents were not useless gestures or complaints of a sore loser—you knew that dissents speak to the future and can persuade future generations to correct the mistakes of their ancestors. “That’s the dissenter’s hope,” you once said, “that they are writing not for today but for tomorrow.”
I long for the day when people will see that “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet” is truly a stupid thing to do.
You are who you are, without apology.
Especially in your more private life. We all marveled at your vibrant friendship with Justice Scalia who, ideologically, couldn’t be more different than you. But you had a love of opera and good food in common; and though you often disagreed with what he said, you loved the way he said it and it challenged you to make your own opinions that much stronger; and, above all, you both knew and loved the Constitution and that was your common ground.
If only politicians today could tell the difference between conflict and combat.
If only politicians today shared a bedrock knowledge of and love for the Constitution and for democracy.
If only—for in today’s America, this seemingly obviously needful thing cannot be taken for granted.
Nevertheless, we must persist.
Speaking of your private life, we must mention your beloved husband Marty. Earlier we heard you say that “Human caring and concern, for home, children, and the welfare of others, ought not be regarded as dominantly ‘women’s work’; it should become the work of all.” You and Marty, in your almost 60 years together, defied gender expectations and created a relationship that embodied your hopes for greater equality between the sexes. Once, your daughter was asked about the division of labor in the family, and she said, “Mommy does the thinking and Daddy does the cooking.”
You are who you are.
100 years before you were even born, the great abolitionist Sarah Moore Grimke tells a story in her journal, about a time she was invited to the Supreme Court building, and to sit in one of the Justices’ seats. She says that, as she took the seat, she found herself spontaneously exclaiming, “Who knows, but this chair may one day be occupied by a woman!” Hearing this, people laughed at her. They laughed.
No one’s laughing now.
Ruth—Judge Ginsburg—Notorious RBG—I am grateful to God for your happified service to America and to the millions of women and men whose lives your efforts have touched and changed for the better.
I say your name upon the earth now: Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Your body has succumbed to the cancer, but your spirit lives on.
Let your spirit speak to each of us now. You, quoting the great Theodore Parker, when he said that “the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.” The arc does bend, you said, but only “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”
We saw that commitment in you.
Let it be steadfast in us, today. To see the task through to completion.
I am gratefully yours,
Rev. Anthony Makar
Senior Minister, West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church