Tikvah Wiener
Head of School of The Idea School, the first project-based learning Jewish high school in America

Fearing Death, Choosing Life

“It is fitting for every person who has fear of Heaven to be anguished and concerned regarding the destruction of the Temple.”

So goes the Shulchan Aruch — the most widely accepted compilation of Jewish law, written in Safed, Israel, in 1563 by Joseph Karo — in a section called the Orach Chayim, Siman 1, which deals with the laws regarding the morning prayer routine.

This past week, we ushered in a New Year amidst a pandemic and raging climate wildfires, not to mention a spate of hurricanes and earthquakes and after a brief tussle with murder hornets. Those of us who get the newspaper also woke up to the news on Shabbat, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died. On Tzom Gedaliah, the third day of the new year, we learned that the death toll from the pandemic in the United States is nearing 200,000, and that we’ve lost close to a million people worldwide to the coronavirus.

We are anguished, and we are concerned. Destruction surrounds us.

How do we process the losses that we are experiencing? How do we properly mourn when each day brings a new crisis that’s gargantuan in scale? As I was reading the Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Review section — which my neighbor kindly drops off for me each Shabbat — I caught Jason Gay’s take on the news this week that scientists had discovered life on Venus. Gay writes from the point of view of the planet:

“Attention People of Earth:

“Fine. The big secret is out. A bunch of your finest science nerds have cracked the case and discovered there is life tens of millions of miles away—here, on the beautiful planet of Venus.

“Yeah, no duh. Congrats on the big reveal. We have a polite request:

“Stay away. . . .

“We mean no hostility. We’re actually a very nice planet. It’s just that we’re not terribly impressed by what you’ve got going on down there.

“Earth looks like a mess.”

Gay followed it up with a tweet on September 20:

“Honestly, it’s a relief to see a bunch of ‘OH GODs’ in the Twitter timeline and you’re all just talking about the Jets.”

Obviously, humor is a good way to get through tough times, but as I was reading the articles and tributes to Justice Ginsburg, I also thought about her approach to creating equality for women, and I was struck, as I always am, by her quiet brilliance and subtlety. Justice Ginsburg’s work has been made famous most recently by the successful 2018 documentary about her life, “RBG,” directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, and by the 2018 film “On the Basis of Sex,” which honed in on the Supreme Court cases she litigated early in her career that set precedents against gender-based discrimination.

Ginsburg took up cases in which a man experienced bias because he fulfilled duties typically associated with women — caring for a sick parent or a baby — and argued that men should have the same rights as women when they take on those roles. By doing so she strategically opened the way for women to have the same access as men to rights and privileges they enjoy when, say, administering estates and providing financially for their families.

Her advocacy on behalf of women led her to famously express herself in the 1996 case of United States v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court struck down the male-only admission policy of the Virginia Military Institute. As quoted in the New York Times on September 18, Justice Ginsburg wrote in her majority opinion:

“Generalizations about ‘the way women are,’ estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description. . . .

“Inherent differences between men and women, we have come to appreciate, remain cause for celebration, but not for denigration of the members of either sex or for artificial constraints on an individual’s opportunity.”

Differential treatment, she wrote, must not “create or perpetuate the legal, social, and economic inferiority of women.”

What’s admirable about the way Ginsburg wrote — and she was taught and influenced by Vladimir Nabakov, in whose class she sat when an undergraduate at Cornell University — was her ability to make assertions in a manner that acknowledged both sides of an argument. In her majority opinion, she demonstrates respect for those who honor men’s and women’s more traditional roles, while also laying the foundation for the world in which we now live, where many women have discovered a “talent and capacity that place them outside the average description.”

Notice too how Justice Ginsburg deploys the language of both the conservative and the liberal, articulating the conservative desire to assess an individual solely on that person’s capabilities and a liberal’s desire to fight for greater equality for a minority group.

What has all this to do with the catastrophes in which we find ourselves and the source from the Shulchan Aruch?

On Tzom Gedaliah this week at the Idea School, we looked at three assassinations: of Gedaliah, Yitzchak Rabin, and JFK. As discussion of the killings ensued, one student noted that today we might not be annihilating our leaders physically, but we are verbally killing each other, being hypercritical of those leaders — and members — who are not from our party or in-group, feeling free to denigrate them and remain non-empathetic to their worldviews.

Many of us spend the 10 days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur thinking about improving relations between ourselves and our families, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Doing so is an obviously laudable goal. Justice Ginsburg understood, though, as feminist thinkers have written, that all politics is personal. From the intricacies of everyday life comes the woof and weave that comprises the larger fabric of society and ultimately leads to the highest echelons of power, a White House, a Supreme Court . . . a Temple.

I’ve been taught all my life that the temples were destroyed because of baseless hatred, and I’ve grappled with understanding what that baseless hatred is. Seeing where we are as a country right now makes me think that hatred may end up baseless, but it often doesn’t begin that way. In the case of Gedaliah, that hatred is very much based in the way we know humans to behave: Ishmael son of Nathaniah leads a group that murders the Babylonian-appointed Gedaliah because Ishmael is from the Davidic dynasty and wants to see it restored. Ishmael may have believed he was doing the right thing, the thing that God wanted. Yigal Amir was doing something similar when he killed Rabin; and Lee Harvey Oswald was striking out at capitalism when he put a bullet through John F. Kennedy.

When we are so convinced that our actions are right that not only can we not articulate the other side but see its adherents as something to demonize and destroy, then perhaps we have allowed our hatred to become baseless, to be sprung from whatever reasonable reason we may have had for disagreeing with someone and launched into a space where that hatred exists in and of itself and for no cause.

When this hatred stands alone, we have destroyed the Temple of our society, and perhaps that’s why in the laws for our morning prayer routine, we are told that the one who fears Heaven should be anguished and concerned regarding the destruction of the Temple. We should be shaking in fear at the prospect of starting the day in a mindset that would allow us to end up descending into the madness of baseless hatred, and of where that might lead us as a nation. If we safeguard ourselves from the madness, if doing so is part of our daily routine, then perhaps we can make something of the world. Justice Ginsburg provided a model: of listening to both sides, of being able to be collegial with her fellow justices with whom she disagreed vociferously on core issues of existence but with whom she needed to work and live.

There is a lot that we cannot control right now. Since escaping to Venus apparently is off the table, we can use this time — finding shelter and staying safe from the virus, the fires, the storms, and whatever other plagues are in store for us — to know that there is one thing we can control: how we interact with and respond to each other, and whether we choose to create a society in which the other is a demon who must be destroyed — or someone with limitless talent and capacity.

G’mar chatima tova. May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.

About the Author
Tikvah Wiener is Head of School of The Idea School, a project-based learning Orthodox high school located at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, NJ. www.theideaschool.org. She lives in Teaneck, NJ, with her husband and children.