Of the many lessons Ruth Bader Ginsburg embodied – that our legal status should not be contingent on gender; that we can value people with whom we virulently disagree, and that disagreement can make us better; that choosing the right life partner can make all the difference – the one that most resonates with me is that we can use clothing to send an intentional message.
I know I’m not the only one who has been thinking a lot about the supreme court justice whose iconic metonymic representation—black robes, rounded collar—seems to have appeared on every surface, virtual and physical, since her passing. Not only did we lose an inspiring figure in American political life (towering despite her diminutive status), but we lost her just before Rosh Hashanah began. To many Jews, this fact cemented her status as a true tzaddik: Hashem sealed her fate a full year prior but graciously let us keep her until the very last possible moment.
As much as this idea gave me solace, it did not compensate for my feelings of impending doom, realizing that the timing of her death put American women’s right to bodily autonomy at risk by enabling Donald Trump to nominate a pro-life justice to replace her. I spent much of the first day of Rosh Hashannah in bed; without a service to attend or a meal to host or friends to visit, there was nothing to pull me away from the sinking feeling that 5781 was not off to a great start.
As I headed toward Yom Kippur, I began an intense week of teaching: four different topics to four different sets of students across 10 time zones. It was exhausting, but that exhaustion created the opportunity for a particularly meaningful period of contemplation during the yomim nora’im.
What I discovered during that week of near round-the-clock teaching was a message that threaded through all of my courses, and which found particular resonance with the Notorious RBG.
Intention. We must act with intention
I tell my students to be intentional in almost every lesson. Over the past few months, I have also taken up writing a blog on what I call Sartorial Politics, where I have repeatedly noted that we should be dressing with intention: if clothing is the story we tell about ourselves, we must dress thoughtfully, carefully, making sure we are giving off the right impression.
Ginsburg’s use of jabots, the decorative collars she wore with her judicial robes, have been the subject of admiring scrutiny for years. More than mere decoration, these items telegraphed very intentional messages. Some were literal: the bold collar, made of golden lace, was for majority opinions, while the black, spiky one was used to express dissent.
But there was deeper meaning, as well. In 2019, she wore a new piece to the Supreme Court’s opening session, commissioned by a Jewish publication, that incorporated the word tzedek. Echoing the phrase ‘tzedek, tzedek tirdof’ (Deuteronomy 16:20), or ‘justice, justice shall you pursue’, this sentiment inspired Justice Ginsburg and featured prominently in art hung in her chambers.
Her jabots also emphasised her femininity. As she told The Washington Post, when Ginsburg joined the Supreme Court, she and her sole female colleague decided to wear decorative collars to counterbalance the decided masculinity of judicial robes. ‘You know, the standard robe is made for a man because it has a place for the shirt to show, and the tie’, Ginsburg explained. ‘So Sandra Day O’Connor and I thought it would be appropriate if we included as part of our robe something typical of a woman. So I have many, many collars’.
It strikes me that using clothing as an expression of both identity and intentionality is particularly Jewish.
Consider the kippah, which immediately identifies one as a Jew. The style of kippah often indicates identification with a particular strain of Judaism, from the suede and satin kippot of my American Conservative youth to the crocheted kippot of Religious Zionists and many Modern Orthodox to the black velvet style preferred by Haredi Jews (or, in my family’s case, the MacLennan tartan kippot I had made for my wedding to honour my Glaswegian Jewish husband’s family heritage!). Wearing the kippah, however, requires intent. It is an act of marking one’s humility before Hashem.
Tefillin, tzitzit, and tallitot are perhaps even more intentional objects. Not merely ritual items, they require the recitation of a bracha. These items mark our identity as Jews while connecting us directly to the acts of prayer and service in which we engage while wearing them. That they are mentioned in the Torah binds us to a tradition that is both thousands of years old and still meaningful today.
Jewish women’s clothing is similarly intentional. Whether they cover their hair with a tichel or sheitel on a daily basis, or wear a hat to shul, or cover their shoulders when ascending the bimah for an aliyah, many women make an intentional choice to follow the norms of modesty or tzniut. For some, the act of covering their hair connotes marital status and the privileges of private relationships, while for others it is merely a symbol of modesty. For all, however, it requires intentional thought: it is a statement of identity and a choice of which we are reminded each day.
Making these connections – from Ginsburg to intention to Judaism to my own work – was an act of incredible comfort. I don’t know whether RBG connected her jabot collection to her Jewish heritage. I do know that she inspired this Jew to think – and act – more intentionally.