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When Justice Breyer Was Called to the Torah

Fittingly, the justice shares a Hebrew name with the renowned commentator Rashi

by
Nathan Lewin
January 31, 2022
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Bill Clinton’s 1994 nomination of Stephen Breyer put a second Jew on the Supreme Court for the first time since 1932-1938, when Justices Louis Brandeis and Benjamin Cardozo had been on the court together. At the time I was president of the American section of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, an organization that had been founded by Justice Arthur Goldberg and Israeli Supreme Court Justice Haim Cohn.

When Ruth Ginsburg was appointed to the court in 1993 (restoring, after almost 25 years, the “Jewish seat” that had been occupied by Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter and ended with the resignation of Abe Fortas in 1969), our association held an impressive ceremony, followed by a kosher reception, in the Supreme Court courtroom to honor the new justice. I made the arrangements and presided. The event was held just before the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, when the Book of Ruth is read in synagogues. Capitalizing on this calendrical coincidence of the festival and Ginsburg’s name, we presented the new justice with an antique engraving of Ruth gleaning in the fields of Boaz. I was told that Justice Ginsburg promptly mounted the framed engraving on a wall in her Supreme Court chambers.

The Breyer appointment deserved no lesser celebration. Our association’s board sought and received permission for a second event in the majestic courtroom to honor Stephen Breyer. Still president, I was in charge of the program and would be presiding. I was confronted with the challenge of matching the honor we tried to bestow a year before on the earlier Jewish appointee. Could I find a comparable work of art that would be given a place of honor in a Supreme Court office?

What, I thought, was the Hebrew version of Stephen? Could it be Shimon, the second of Jacob’s sons? Or Shmuel, the prophet who crowned Kings Saul and David? I called and asked the justice directly what Hebrew name he had been given at birth. He responded that he didn’t know but would ask his brother Charles (a federal district judge in California). There was no immediate response before I left on a visit to our home in Jerusalem.

The answer came in a faxed note after we had arrived in Jerusalem. Breyer’s office sent not only the justice’s own Hebrew name but also the Hebrew name of his father. He is Shlomo ben Yitzchak.

I was captivated. Shlomo ben Yitzchak is the name of the most renowned and authoritative commentator on the Bible and the Talmud—Rashi.

I hurried to the traditional art shops in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood in search of a graphic that would suit Rashi’s namesake. A Yiddish-speaking storeowner brought from her cabinet a rainbow graphic that reproduced, in the unique Hebrew script associated with Rashi’s commentary as it appears in traditional printings of the Bible and Talmud, Rashi’s gloss on “Shema Yisroel”—the focus of morning and evening prayer. After having it framed, I brought it to our Supreme Court event where it stood cloaked on an easel as I chaired the initial portions of the program.

When we reached the presentation, I began by disclosing to the gathered dignitaries that the justice shared a Hebrew name with the greatest commentator in the history of Jewish learning. Aided by modern computer technology, I noted how frequently “commentary” had appeared in opinions Breyer had written as an appellate judge. I then called on professor Alan Dershowitz to bestow the award. Dershowitz had preceded Breyer as a law clerk to Justice Arthur Goldberg and both were members of the Harvard Law School faculty. Dershowitz was selected, I explained, because with his yeshiva training (including as a student in the Talmud class taught by my father-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Gordon, z”l), he was able to read the archaic Hebrew script. Dershowitz then made a wonderful laudatory presentation. I was informed a few days later that Breyer proudly installed the print on the wall of his chambers.

Years later, during an event that we both attended, the justice told me that the Rashi identification proved useful during a visit he had made to England. He attended Sabbath services at London’s Marble Arch Synagogue and was recognized by the gabbai (sexton). He was offered the honor of an aliyah—the designee who stands next to the reader of the Torah portion after being called up by his Hebrew name. Breyer confessed to me that when asked his Hebrew name, he hesitated at first, not recalling “Shlomo ben Yitzchak.” Then he responded, “My name is the same as Rashi.” And so he got his aliyah. 

Nathan Lewin is a Washington lawyer with a Supreme Court practice who has taught at Harvard, Georgetown, Columbia, and University of Chicago Law Schools.

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