Justice Antonin Scalia passed away last week. He served as an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court for the past thirty years. He was a brilliant jurist, an acerbic wit, a kind gentleman and a devout Roman Catholic. He was a strict constructionist of the American constitution, often stating that the simple language of the constitution should not be reinterpreted and twisted in order to render decisions that conform to current mores and political correctness.
He famously called opinions written by many of his liberal colleagues “haberdashery” or “applesauce.” He was a pugnacious questioner of those who appeared before the court and his sharp intellect and brilliant analysis of constitutional issues impressed all, even those who consistently disagreed with him.
His written opinions were never expressed in legalese, were not obscure or obstinate, but were rather pieces of literature, witty and even poignant. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who was his ideological polar opposite, claimed him as her best friend on and off the bench of the court.
Scalia stated that he opposed or supported ideas and policies and not people or colleagues on the court. He was a deeply religious man who operated in the realm of separation of church and state, which is the bedrock of American constitutional democracy. He avoided unnecessary publicity both personal and familial.
He was relatively unknown in his lifetime in spite of his exalted and very exclusive position on the United States Supreme Court. He was a strong voice for tradition, morality and the old-fashioned value systems of America and was out of tune with much of the liberal policies and legislation that currently rule American society.
There are consequences to his passing for the Orthodox Jewish community in the United States. It is no secret that the current dominant culture in America is completely out of tune with Jewish tradition. The relaxation of all sexual mores and restraints, the atmosphere of violence that dominates American television and movies, the hedonistic goals of much of America’s youth, the obsession with personal technology and communication, all react negatively regarding the maintenance of a traditionally Jewish way of life and Torah observance.
And, while the culture is so prevalent that even publicly criticizing or opposing this ‘tsunami’ engulfing the country usually brings a negative response, yet Justice Scalia was a counter-culture bulwark. He had the courage and the bully pulpit to point out that this restructuring of America was in many ways unconstitutional and morally dangerous.
It is unlikely that there will be another voice as strategically placed and influential as was Justice Scalia. And that will certainly make it culturally, if not even legally, more difficult for an Orthodox Jewish society to maintain the gains made over the last half-century in America.
What happens in general society always profoundly affects the Jewish world, sometimes directly, but most times indirectly. But it surely affects our world even if most of us are consciously unaware or even uncaring about what the outside non-Jewish political world is interested in or doing. And that type of head-in-the-sand attitude is very dangerous in the long run, as the twentieth century should have proven to us.
Popular American culture affects Israeli society as well. The Orthodox presence in Israeli society is larger and more politically potent than in the United States. But it is also certainly affected and influenced by the general society, which as I just pointed out is affected by the ruling culture in the United States. The shrinking world that the advances in technology have wrought has effectively destroyed any bulwarks of cultural isolation here in Israel as well. So what the American Supreme Court decides amazingly affects Bnei Brak also.
There is great importance to what happens and who sits on the American Supreme Court. The fact that our community may choose to ignore this fact, either out of belief that what happens in the general world is unimportant or a simple misunderstanding of the issues involved, is a great danger to our ability to retain a traditional Jewish life style in the Jewish state.
It is obvious that millions of Jews in Israel never heard of Justice Scalia. But he was an important defender of the moral values and timeless traditions of Jewish life, even though he was a non-Jew. Of course all of this requires a certain breadth of vision and worldview that an insular society almost by definition institutionally lacks. We have to hope and pray that somehow another champion of moral values will arise in American society.