Yom Shishi, 11 Sivan 5778
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19 February 2016

Why We Will Be Reciting Kaddish for Justice Scalia at Temple Emanu-El

By Rabbi Doug Sagal

The death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia has left not only a vacancy on the Supreme Court, but a gaping wound in the discourse of our civil society. His death had barely been announced when those on the right were pledging to defy the president and oppose any judicial nomination, and some on the left were engaging in vitriolic denunciations of him, which could not but hurt his already grieving family.

Justice Scalia was unquestionably brilliant (my brother, who as a law student attended one of his lectures, has said that he was the single most brilliant person he ever met) but part of the partisan divide that is chipping away at our social fabric. On a personal level, I could not have disagreed with him more on issues such as LGBT rights, civil rights legislation, abortion rights, and racial injustice. In my view, he unfortunately chose to clearly and unashamedly associate himself with the views of one political party (and its leadership) which again, in my view, led to a sense that the Court itself suffered from partisan taint. When I lived by the University of Chicago I knew people who called him a personal friend, and from them I heard that in private he was a gregarious, friendly, and generous man. His deep friendship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg seems to attest to that side of his character.

In the Late Talmudic period, during a time when many Jews lived in the Diaspora of Babylonia, the sages developed the legal principle of “Dina De Malchuta Dina” - literally, the law of the land is the law. The practical effect of this was to put primacy, in civil matters, on local courts rather than rabbinic, Jewish courts.  (religious matters, of course, always trumped local laws). What is interesting is the reason the sages developed this legislation. It appears that they felt that if Jews were living in a society governed by rule of law, with a court system and a justice process, then as citizens we had a responsibility to respect and abide by the civil society.

I don’t need to tell you that respect for the civil society and respect for one another, despite differing political views, is at rock bottom. The current climate is vindictive, foolish, and unworthy of our democracy. Because we believe in Dina De Malchuta Dina - that we respect and honor the institutions of our country - we will be saying Kaddish for the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.

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