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Mourning RBG

On Yom Kippur, trying to learn life lessons from the Supreme Court justice

Marjorie Ingall
September 25, 2020
Pablo Martinez Monsivais-Pool/Getty Images
Pablo Martinez Monsivais-Pool/Getty Images

During Rosh Hashanah services, our rabbi announced that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. It felt like a terrible joke, like the worst insult comedy, like a topping of turkey vulture vomit on this year’s shit sundae.

I’ve written multiple columns on apology for Tablet, but right now, at the time of year that’s all about repentance, I don’t care to think about apologies at all. I’m too angry and too upset. Two-hundred-thousand Americans are dead, with no end in sight. People in positions of power view science with indifference, suspicion, or outright scorn. Teachers are being sent back into crumbling schools with insufficient ventilation and resources. Black Americans just keep on dying at the hands—and knees, and guns—of police. Fires rage. Job losses are at staggering levels. Children are crammed into cages. Thanks to voter suppression, Russian interference, easily hacked voting machines, and a deliberate attempt to kneecap the postal service, there’s no assurance whatsoever that our next election will be free or fair.

At the moment, I don’t want to apologize to anyone. And I don’t care if anyone apologizes to me. The people I actually wish would apologize—the civic leaders and advisers exercising unjust and unrightful authority, to invoke the version of the Prayer for Our Country I said as a child—never will. I can’t recall ever feeling this hopeless and this helpless. And I say this as a drama queen.

Grief for the loss of RBG hangs over everything. Jewish women—particularly older millennials, Gen X, and boomers—seem to be mourning the hardest. RBG’s quiet fierceness, her dissent collar, her determination to get through every door that was unjustly closed to her because of her gender, and her determination to keep those doors open after her, to help other wrongly disenfranchised people make it through. We relished stories of her telling her son’s school, when they called insisting on talking to her for the umpteenth time, “this child has two parents.” We admired her truth-telling about the “women can have it all” cliché: “You can’t have it all at once,” she said. We loved the stories about her adoring, supportive, gourmet-cooking spouse and her own inability to turn on a stove. But most of all, we loved her steady determination to use the law as a plane to gradually level an uneven surface.

One thing I didn’t love, or even understand, was her friendship with Antonin Scalia. The two were ideological opposites, but they went to the opera and rode camels on vacation together. How could she choose to spend her free time with someone who repeatedly said homophobic, racist, anti-choice things? Her own words give us a clue. “You can disagree without being disagreeable,” she once said. She said Scalia made her laugh. Perhaps it was a mark of her generation that she stayed so even-keeled, that she was able to hang out with someone whose beliefs were so different from hers.

She was already an outlier.

Perhaps she got as far as she did, before almost anyone else did, by being able to get along with everyone. Perhaps it became ingrained in her that she never had the luxury of taking offense.

Or maybe I don’t have to understand. I loved her, but always found her oblique. Maybe I’m just temperamentally different.

“Fight for the things that you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you,” she said. Also, “reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.” Easier said than done, for me.

But trying to apply RBG’s philosophy to my own life, without feeling like I’m negating my sense of self, might be a worthy intellectual and emotional exercise in 5781. Spending less time on social media, where it’s easy to snark into an echo chamber and easy to go all out attacking faceless people, could only help. There are Tablet colleagues I could not disagree more fervently with, but we don’t scream at each other. We can eat babka together. There is value, I know, in continuing to offer a progressive perspective to people who don’t share it, even if it sometimes feels pointless. When I’m frustrated, I might choose to think of RBG’s words: “Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong …’ The greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.” I hope she was right, that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice (RBG added to MLK’s sentiment, “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion”). She also said, “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”

Like all of us, RBG was flawed. As someone with a vested interest in apologies, I’m interested in those times when RBG ignored her own advice about not being “disagreeable,” said something intemperate … and then chose not to apologize. In July 2016, for instance, she told The New York Times, “I can’t imagine what the country would be with Donald Trump as our President,” adding that her late husband would have said, “Time for us to move to New Zealand.” She also told CNN that Trump was a “faker” with “no consistency about him” who “says whatever comes into his head at the moment.”

Headlines later that week said she apologized. But if you actually read her statement, she didn’t. She said, “On reflection, my recent remarks in response to press inquiries were ill-advised and I regret making them. Judges should avoid commenting on a candidate for public office. In the future I will be more circumspect.” Where’s the apology there? Regret is not apology. Regret is about how the speaker feels; apology is about the hurt/insulted party’s feelings. RBG made it clear she regretted her “ill-advised” behavior, not what she actually said. (I’m reminded of Samantha Bee’s apology for calling Ivanka Trump a feckless C-word. Bee did not apologize to Ivanka, but rather expressed regret that her language deflected attention from the point she was trying to make about the administration’s policy of imprisoning children of immigrants and asylum seekers.)

RBG could, however, acknowledge when she was wrong. After a book came out containing an anecdote in which RBG compared Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee to flag burning—“I wouldn’t lock a person up for doing it” but it’s “dumb and disrespectful,” she said—RBG did say she regretted her actual words. This time she noted her own ignorance—when she’d made the comment a year earlier, she said, she was “barely aware of the incident or its purpose”—and called her initial response “inappropriately dismissive.”

Apologize if you know you should; don’t apologize if you’re really not sorry.

And getting back to the holiday looming in front of us right now: My grief for the loss of RBG, along with my sorrow and fury at all the other mishigas in the world, will mean I’ll be wrestling with the Unetaneh Tokef even more than usual this year. You know the prayer I’m talking about: It’s the one that’s the basis for Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire” song. It’s the list of all ways we could die in the coming year, “but repentance, prayer and tzedakah can reduce the severity of the decree.” As a kid, I found this prayer shiver-inducingly scary. (I loved the martyrology, too. It is unsurprising that I later went through a Goth phase.) The Unetaneh Tokef, with its booming and ominous chorus, felt like a ghost story—so many delicious ways to die!—and I enjoyed the notion that if I just prayed really hard, I could save myself and possibly all the people I loved. So powerful! Intoxicating!

But as a grown-up who has experienced loss and who sees how much unfairness there is in the world, I am way less enamored of this prayer. It seems to blame the victim. If the Yom Kippur gates slammed shut and if your lousy Rosh Hashanah fortunes got sealed for good on Yom Kippur, that’s on you. You didn’t repent, pray, and/or tzedakah-ize enough.

Unless … we choose to interpret the prayer differently. In a lovely Tablet piece about the Unetaneh Tokef published a few years ago, Rabbi Helen Plotkin asked what difference teshuvahtefillah, and tzedakah could possibly make. “Even if they don’t change the plot of your story,” she suggested, “they do change your character. That is, they make you a more worthwhile character in your own story. It’s not the plot that determines whether a work of literature is great or not so great. When you read a novel, you don’t appreciate the characters on the basis of whether they live long lives with no loss. What you appreciate is the depth and richness of the characters’ lives. Teshuvahtefillah, and tzedakah can change your story into one worth reading. They can introduce the forms of thought and expression that make your story eloquent. They can make you part of a well-written novel, one about good characters grappling with serious issues.” We are the ones who choose to make meaning in our lives.

Similarly, Jennifer Richler wrote in Tablet (this turns out to be a useful website!) that her rabbi helped her understand, after she suffered a terrible loss, that the Unetaneh Tokef doesn’t mean that repentance has the power to “avert the evil decree.” Rather, it can “cause the evilness of the decree to pass away.” In other words, it’s not that “everything happens for the best” or any similar platitude about horrid things being necessary but beyond our ken. It’s that, “why bad things happen to good people is the wrong thing to be asking,” Richler’s rabbi told her. “The right question is, when bad things happen … are you going to respond with bitterness, self-pity, despair, or are you going to respond toward life?”

If we possibly can, we need to choose life. Even when we experience terrible, unfair losses. We vote, we do what we can to help other folks vote in a system that seeks to disenfranchise them, we wear our masks as a way to say we are part of a community and we care for each other, we protest, we do our best to ensure that other people’s names are inscribed in the Book of Life.

Which brings me to the last quote from RBG I have wrestled with. “Don’t be distracted by emotions like anger, envy, resentment. These just zap energy and waste time.” I’d always shrugged: How can I help what I feel? But on this Yom Kippur, so soon after losing her, I think maybe I understand what she meant. We can’t control what we feel. But we can decide whether to let those feelings control us.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.