Monday, February 15, 2016

Justice Antonin Scalia and the Jewish People

Much is being written about the late Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court justice who passed away over the weekend. Much of the "talk" is of a political nature as a debate has ensued in Washington as to whether President Obama should appoint a replacement or wait for the next President to do so. Of course, it's the President's job to appoint justices to the highest court in the land, regardless of whether there is less than a year left in his term.

Some liberals immediately took to social media to gloat about Scalia's passing, knowing that an Obama replacement would shake up the court and lean it toward liberal decisions. I saw a couple of posts humorously playing on the Hebrew phrase we say when someone dies, "Baruch Dayan Ha'Emet" (blessed is the true judge). Scalia was generally not liked by Jewish people as his very conservative rulings often came into conflict with the Jewish community's feelings with regard to freedom of religious expression. In a 2009 article in the Jewish Daily Forward, J.J. Goldberg wrote that Scalia is bad for the Jews and laments his legal opinion about an eight-foot metal cross erected as a war memorial.

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, writing on the Religion News Service website, did a wonderful job criticizing those who gloated over this news. Salkin writes, "To all of my fellow liberals: I know that you didn’t like Antonin Scalia’s rulings. We get it. Frankly, I don’t blame you. I found Scalia’s positions on church-state relations, sexuality, guns, abortion, death penalty, and pretty much everything else to be very problematic... Because, based on what I am seeing on social media, there has been a lot of inappropriate snark about his sudden passing." Salkin goes on to demonstrate how Jewish tradition informs us about how to handle the death of a person we don’t like.

Antonin Scalia with Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The snarky comments about Scalia's passing aside, I've been enjoying the wonderful stories about Justice Scalia, including his unlikely friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Scalia's law school classmate Nathan Lewin. As many know, Scalia, a Roman Catholic, was the first justice on the Supreme Court to use the term "Chutzpah" in an opinion (National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley, 1998). Scalia ruled on several Jewish cases including whether "Israel" should be included on passports of Americans born in Jerusalem, whether a Jewish Air Force officer be allowed to wear a yarmulke while in uniform,  and whether Chabad Lubavitch had a legal right to place a menorah on public property. In a 2013 appearance at Yeshiva University, Scalia argued with his Harvard Law classmate Nathan Lewin whether it was legal to criminalize circumcision. Scalia remarked, "If the practice is something that society does not want, and it’s not intended to discriminate against Jews in particular, I think the law is perfectly valid."

Scalia and Ginsburg took their families on vacations together, regularly went out together and met up each New Year’s Eve. "Call us the odd couple," Scalia recently said. "She likes opera, and she's a very nice person. What’s not to like?" He then quipped, "except her views on the law." Last year a one-act opera, Scalia/Ginsburg by Derrik Wang debuted, chronicling the pair’s unlikely friendship. Ginsburg said of Scalia, "As annoyed as you might be about his zinging dissent, he’s so utterly charming, so amusing, so sometimes outrageous, you can’t help but say, ‘I’m glad that he’s my friend or he’s my colleague.’”

A friend of mine posted on Facebook this wonderful story he heard from a friend who clerked for Ginsburg years ago: "Occasionally, the Washington National Opera would try to raise extra funds by having the Supreme Court justices star as 'extras' (non-singing) in productions. At one such performance, one of the lead actors was about to go on, and saw another performer fussing with her costume. She realized... it was Justice Ginsburg! She overheard her whisper to the person on her right "Nino! Nino!" (her friend, Justice Antonin Scalia, also apparently in the production), "we're not entering from the right place, I think we need to move to the right!" Not missing a beat, Justice Scalia whispered back "Ruth, I've been waiting for you to move to the right for 25 years!"

Arthur Kurzweil, posted another funny anecdote about Justice Scalia on Facebook. He wrote of a time "a few years ago when Justice Scalia and Justice Sonia Sotomayor sponsored a private luncheon in honor of Rabbi Steinsaltz in the United States Supreme Court Building. A small group of us ate lunch (my wife Bobby and I sat with the totally delightful Justice Sotomayor) after which Rabbi Steinsaltz, Justice Scalia and Justice Sotomayor, had a formal conversation. There were three chairs at the front of the room, and the two Justices urged the Rabbi to sit in the middle. Justice Scalia comically remarked, 'I’ll take my usual place here on the left.' Once seated, there was no clear plan as to who would begin the conversation. After a few moments of somewhat awkward silence, Justice Scalia, in the tone of an old Yiddish speaker, shrugged his shoulders and said, 'Nu?'"

Regardless of what one thought of the legal opinions of Justice Antonin Scalia, he was a brilliant legal mind who influenced much of the American legal system over the past three decades. May his memory be for blessings.


Marc Daniels said...

There is light in every candidate and in every position. Thank you for this blog article

Unknown said...

Good article Rabbi. Here is another article about Justice Scalia, that I believe will not gain wide publication.