BY NAN PINCUS
“Look how his face turns into a bird,” said Reb Yelfer to Reb Yod. And “how the squirrel tries to recognize itself in his face.
Look how his face turns into a branch. And how the branch blossoms for the face.
From the alder to the fir, from the abundant baobab to the delicate profile of the spindle tree: look how the world of trees ages and dies in man’s face.
For us, too, the time of transparency will come.”—The Book of Questions, Edmond Jabés
Will it? Our country is rightfully desperate for it. One of the greatest askers of questions in American history has died, and we mourn without answers. We wonder what we can learn from her life, and even more painfully, what we can learn from her death. We watch videos of her giving a tour through her closet, we mix a Campari and soda and say a toast; and for those of us who are also Jewish, we recite Kaddish after Kaddish.
In this moment, we experience differences in our pain and differences in our needs. As for myself, I have a vein on my forehead that comes out when I am stressed. His name is Alfred, and like when Endora visits Samantha in Bewitched—to inquire why she won’t use her powers—his visit is interrogative, asking me what is amiss and why. Alfred is a great asker of questions in my life, but when I feel total sadness or total anger, he doesn’t visit. Instead, his appearance is a complex sign: that I’m overwhelmed, navigating complexity and pain, without a clear plan for attaining personal and collective liberation. Alfred asks: What is going on? How could it be different? How do I feel, and what do I need?
Alfred asks me to stop pretending that my needs are the same as others. While we can be guided by pioneers in history or those we admire in our own lives, we are all inherently commonplace, one of billions, and yet individual and sacred. This is a preoccupation of Jewish thought: how can we be humble before a vast universe and a history of those greater than us, while still being true to ourselves? One of my favorite Jewish stories is that of Rabbi Zusya, an early Hasidic leader and folk hero, and his final words:
When I reach the world to come, God will not ask me why I wasn’t more like Moses. He will ask why I wasn’t more like Zusya.
These two questions form a powerful dichotomy. The first is one that others often ask us: why aren’t we more like someone else? The second is what Jewish tradition asks us: why aren’t we more like ourselves? The Jewish psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is powerful, prompting us not only to see everything it takes for us to be our best selves, but also to expose the injustices rooted in our national “bootstraps” mentality. The hierarchy asks us: why are so few people in our country having their physiological and safety needs met? What about their love and esteem needs, all of which are necessary for us to reach our full potential?
Still, the hierarchy of needs is a general paradigm, and our own specific hierarchies vary. As a young person, I became self-aware of my love of sleep. I went to sleep earlier than my peers and got up earlier, and if something kept me up late, I would become, to use the Yiddish, farbissin. I also found that if I wasn’t reading for my own learning and pleasure, I felt shallow and empty, regardless of what else was going on in my life. I would recite a little rhyme to remind myself: “To be well-slept, and well-fed, well-loved, and well-read.” This silly statement of needs, garnered from introspection and an embrace of my vulnerability (and my inherent corniness), has steered me many a time. It tells me what needs to be in place for me to be the most capable version of myself.
Self-awareness is the first step toward self-advocacy because we must know what we need in order to demand it. The paradox of self-advocacy is that being forward enough to say, “This is what I need,” is to admit a vulnerability. It has the potential to backfire in two different ways: you’re too brash for making the demand, and yet, you’re also weak for having the need in the first place. While we can be inspired by others, often we are alone in the petition for our needs. I think of Hasidic Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav’s prayer:
Sovereign of the Universe, grant me the ability to be alone.
It is hard to be alone, to say the others have accepted this, but I will not. Justice Ginsburg embraced this call to be herself and to advocate for herself regardless of historical precedent, as when she recounts the Christian language of Supreme Court bar certificates:
There hadn’t been a Jewish justice for some years, from Abe Fortas until my appointment. The clerk of the Supreme Court, Clerk Souter, came to see me very early on in my tenure. And he said, I’m very glad you’re here because you can help me with a problem. The Supreme Court admits lawyers to membership in the Supreme Court bar. And every year they would get, oh, a half a dozen or more complaints from Orthodox Jews who said, “we’re so proud of our membership in the Supreme Court bar. But we can’t frame our certificate included in the wall because it said in the year of our lord so-and-so and he’s not our lord.” So, I spoke to the chief about this [and] he said we’ll take it up at conference.
And one of my colleagues, and I will not disclose who, said, “in the year of our Lord was good enough for Brandeis, it was good enough for Cardozo, it was good enough for Frankfurter, it was good enough even for Goldberg.” And before he got to Fortas, I said “it’s not good enough for Ginsburg.”
By her insistence, she affirmed that it wasn’t good enough for any of us. Self-advocacy is, at the first moment, an action of self-interest, but in the moment it hangs in the air, and in its aftermath, it is an action for others. When we hear someone advocate for themselves, it tells us not only how we can do right by that person, but also that we too can say what we need.
While we may be punished for it, we might be punished anyway because of the tendency for those in power to preemptively stifle the ambitions of anyone belonging to a marginalized group. Despite a brilliant student record, including graduating co-valedictorian of her law class at Columbia, Justice Ginsburg struggled to find a job. Among the many judges who rejected her was Learned Hand, who professed concern about having to swear less in the presence of a female clerk.
One of the incredible effects of question-asking for self-advocacy is that ultimately it creates a more just world. Justice Ginsburg had to advocate for her right not to work on the High Holidays (a self-advocacy undertaken by Jews in a variety of fields, from Sammy Davis Jr to Sandy Koufax). She related:
Usually the High Holy days come out before the court starts up but sometimes they overlap. So Justice [Stephen] Breyer and I—Justice [Elena] Kagan was not on the court—asked the chief if the court could defer the sitting day. And the first response was, “we confer on Good Friday and nobody complains about that.” I said, “I’d be happy to come Thursday that week.” Then I think the argument that was utterly convincing for the chief was that inevitably in an argument session there will be Jewish lawyers and you want to put them—this is their day at the Supreme Court. Do you want to take away from them the opportunity to present their case and require them to have a substitute?
And that resonated and so now we don’t sit on High Holy Days.
Again, Ginsburg confronted the fallacy that because someone else is alright with something, you must be too. While self-advocacy can require a demand, it is often most effective when posed as a question—like Ginsburg’s about the rights of a Jewish lawyer not to give up her day in court. Questions can illuminate prejudice and make transparent what was previously opaque. This is demonstrated in a joke about anti-Semitism. You say, “Jews and cyclists are responsible for all our troubles,” expecting the response, “Why cyclists?” to which you question back, “Why Jews?” When we move from facts to questions, we create a clearer vision of the world.
Questions have a profound role in the performing arts, where we imagine other worlds through the microworld of the stage. On the stage, huge questions abound, such as: how do we relate to each other, how do we overcome personal tragedy, and how do we handle a country in disarray? Justice Ginsburg was passionate about the performing arts, particularly opera. She was a supernumerary in several productions including Die Fledermaus and Ariadne auf Naxos, and penned her own spoken lines in La Fille du Regiment. She purchased a replica minister’s collar from Verdi’s Stiffelioand wore it as a jabot. Justice Ginsburg did not limit herself to performing the stolid judge archetype. Through embracing the performing arts, she celebrated her full humanity.
Justice Ginsburg is rightly revered for her spectacular advocacy of marginalized groups, including those suffering from mental illness, in her majority opinion on Olmstead v. L.C.; working mothers, in her dissent on Ledbetter v. Goodyear; and those affected by industrial polluters, in her majority opinion on Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services, Inc. Yet we can learn just as much from her self-advocacy, and her resolute embrace of who she was.
As we grapple with Justice Ginsburg’s life and death, one way we can move forward is by asking questions. The four questions was Justice Ginsburg’s favorite part of the Seder, and her career is defined not only by her brilliant dissents but by her precise and persistent questions. While we sometimes associate questioning with a lack of certainty around who we are, Justice Ginsburg showed us that when we embrace asking questions, we embrace the power of identity and self-knowledge. As the great question-asker herself said in 2018:
I am a judge, born, raised and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice, for peace and for enlightenment runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition.
Justice Ginsburg’s questions did not undermine but affirmed her certainty in herself. She asked questions to home in on why things are the way they are, how they could be different, and how she could advocate for herself and others. While we celebrate her life and admire her legacy, we can ask ourselves: how can we be more like Justice Ginsburg? But more importantly, we can ask:
How can we be more like ourselves?
Nan Pincus is a columnist at Part-Time Audiophile and Content Marketing Manager at Long Wharf Theatre who scored a perfect 180 on the LSAT and remains a devoted listener to NPR’s Supreme Court coverage.