Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Abraham Lincoln, and American Jewish History

tags: Jewish history, Abraham Lincoln, Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg

On September 18, 2020, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on both Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat. In Hebrew, dying on Rosh Hashanah makes one righteous, or Tzaddik. Adding Shabbat increases the righteousness exponentially. Outside the Supreme Court that Friday night, Shabbat and Erev Rosh Hashanah, a diverse crowd of grieving Americans recited the Mourner’s Kaddish in honor of Justice Ginsburg, who was Jewish. Outside the Supreme Court the following night, sundown on Shabbat and the first day of Rosh Hashanah, they sang Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam… for Havdalah. The custom of Havdalah marks the close of Jewish Sabbath at sundown on Saturday. Have diverse crowds from countless backgrounds and religions ever gathered in the United States to honor and indulge in the meaning of Jewish Sabbath practices or Jewish end-of-life rituals? Though not a precedent, an earlier milestone suggests that drawing on the rituals of Jewish Sabbath to mourn Ruth Bader Ginsburg marks a significant moment in American religious history.

On Friday, April 15, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln died on both Passover and Shabbat. Jewish leaders traveled to Washington, DC, to recite Kaddish for someone who was not Jewish for the first time in American history. Jewish intellectual and religious leader Isaac Leeser recited the Mourner’s Kaddish at Washington Hebrew Congregation in the capital city.[1] Three key issues had faced American Jewish communities during the Civil War: chaplaincy debates, General Ulysses S. Grant’s notorious General Order 11, and the rights of Saturday versus Sunday observers. Chaplaincy debates started soon after the Civil War began. After the Department of War rejected an application for a Jewish chaplain to provide his services to the U.S. Army, President Lincoln collaborated with Congress to enact legislation that would enable the Department of War to reverse its policy regarding Jewish chaplains in the Army.[2]

The most significant discrimination that Jewish Americans endured in U.S. history was likely the infamous General Order Number 11, when Grant expelled Jewish soldiers from the Army. He claimed that they had been smuggling and speculating disproportionately compared to non-Jewish soldiers. The stereotype of a conniving, scheming Jewish person fit dangerous, timeless, antisemitic tropes. President Lincoln swiftly reversed the Order. Jewish leaders appreciated Lincoln’s quick action. While Lincoln earned respect from American Jewish communities during the chaplaincy debates and in the aftermath of General Order 11, the President’s approach to Sabbath debates remained Christian-centric. President Lincoln actively encouraged U.S. soldiers to observe Sabbath on Sundays. A Jewish soldier replied: “Shall you not give the same privilege to a minority?”[3] Ironically, Confederate General Robert E. Lee repeatedly accommodated Jewish holidays and Saturday observance, likely because Jewish soldiers were white-passing, and the Confederacy centered white supremacy.[4]


Read entire article at Society for U.S. Intellectual History

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