When he heard about the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Rabbi Mark Katz of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield knew that he had to do something.
“I found out about it in the parking lot, when I was leaving the synagogue after Rosh Hashanah services,” Rabbi Katz said. It was the evening when Rosh Hashanah began, and it also was erev Shabbat. It was a hard time for a loss.
He couldn’t leave Justice Ginsburg’s death unmentioned and unacknowledged. “I couldn’t not do anything,” he said.
But the next morning’s sermons — the obvious place to mention such a death — had been prerecorded.
What to do?
“We had to condense what’s usually a three-hour service into an hour and a half,” Rabbi Katz said. “We already had prerecorded the haftarah. We had not planned to show it. The link was supposed to be up on the screen, but it never was supposed to be part of the livestream.” (The services at his shul were part prerecorded, part livestreamed, he said.)
But he started thinking about the haftarah. (Keep in mind, Rabbi Katz said, he is not the only Reform rabbi to have had such thoughts. “I can’t take credit for it,” he said. The first time he heard a similar idea was in response to September 11, when someone took one of the last phone calls from the doomed World Trade Center and read it to the trope traditionally used for the reading of Eicha — Lamentations — on Tisha b’Av.)
The haftarot we read after we read the Torah on Shabbat and holidays are readings from the prophets. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a kind of prophet too, the rabbi reasoned; she was an advocate for justice, which the Torah and the prophets tell us to pursue.
“I figured that we’d do something similar for RBG,” Rabbi Katz said. He would read some of her most passionate, direct, or well-known lines set to the haftarah trope. All he had to do was figure out which of her words to use.
That was easy.
“From the time I went to sleep to the time I woke up, every major news outlet had published quotes,” Rabbi Katz said. He edited them — there were some wonderful quotes about her mother, and about the astonishing marriage she shared with her husband, Martin, that were not relevant in this context. He removed those.
“There was a great flow to what was left,” he said. “So we” — that’s Rabbi Katz and Ner Tamid’s cantor, Meredith Greenberg, who stood next to each other on bimah and took turns reading the liturgy — “assigned parts and went with it.”
When it came time for the haftarah, Cantor Greenberg sang the preliminary blessings, and then she and Rabbi Katz each sang some of Justice Ginsburg’s words, set to Torah trope. Basically, he made the trope up as he went along, Rabbi Katz said.
The only pushback he’s gotten from members of his shul, who overwhelmingly told him that they were moved by it, was that he shouldn’t have prefaced and concluded the reading with the blessings, Rabbi Katz said. “We did the blessings before and after; the critique is that we shouldn’t have.” The argument continues to make the point that the blessings are the framework for prophesy, and that Justice Ginsburg was not a prophet.
He only sort of concedes that point, Rabbi Katz said. “There are two kinds of prophets. One is someone who speaks the word of God. The other is someone who speaks out for truth and justice, in an almost iconoclastic way.
“I don’t think that a single person would say that RGB was speaking the word of God,” Rabbi Katz concluded. “However, I could make a big argument that she was an iconoclast, speaking for justice and truth.”