Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a surprise guest speaker Wednesday evening during services for the Jewish new year in Washington, telling worshippers she believes being Jewish helped her empathize with other minority groups.
Ginsburg spoke mostly about her Jewish faith, acknowledging that the Jewish justices who have served on the court have shared some similar views, which she linked to their Jewish heritage.
“If you are a member of a minority group, particularly a minority group that has been picked on, you have empathy for others who are similarly situated,” she said during about 20 minutes of answering questions from attorney Kenneth Feinberg.
Ginsburg spoke at services for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, which began Wednesday evening and which Jews continue observing Thursday. The service she attended was organized by Sixth & I, a historic synagogue that hosts a range of Jewish and cultural events. Worshippers were not told ahead of time that she’d be appearing.
Ginsburg is one of three Jewish justices on the nine-member Supreme Court. Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan are also Jewish, and Breyer spoke at services organized by Sixth & I last year. The 84-year-old Ginsburg, who has served on the court since 1993, noted that she is now the longest-serving Jewish justice. She also spoke about Jewish values that have guided her.
“The Jewish religion is an ethical religion. That is, we are taught to do right, to love mercy, do justice, not because there’s gonna be any reward in heaven or punishment in hell. We live righteously because that’s how people should live and not anticipating any award in the hereafter,” Ginsburg told the audience.
Ginsburg also talked about what she called the “Great Yom Kippur controversy,” when in 1995 the court had been scheduled to hear arguments on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Ginsburg said what finally persuaded Chief Justice William Rehnquist not to hold arguments was when Ginsburg and Breyer, then the only two Jewish justices on the court, told Rehnquist that some lawyers who had been practicing for their arguments for weeks would be asked to choose between their religion and arguing. “That sold him,” Ginsburg said. Since then, the court has not heard arguments on Jewish holy days, she said.
Last year, when the first day of the Supreme Court’s term fell on the Jewish new Year, the three Jewish justices were absent and the court’s short session consisted largely of admitting new attorneys to the Supreme Court bar.
The Supreme Court will open its next term Oct. 2. The justices are scheduled to tackle cases involving President Donald Trump’s travel ban, a clash between gay rights and religion, partisan advantage in redistricting, the privacy of certain cellphone records and sports betting.
“There’s only one prediction that’s entirely safe about the upcoming term, and that is: it will be momentous,” Ginsburg said earlier Wednesday at Georgetown University’s law school.
The Georgetown audience included Trump’s daughter Tiffany Trump, a Georgetown law student.