Giving Up the Plan: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Law School, and the Pursuit of Torah

By: Mindy Schwartz  |  January 22, 2018

It had to do with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I think. Why I was sitting–for the second time–in an office waiting for the pre-law advisor on a Tuesday this past November. The advisor asked me some basic questions about my(academic)self, and seemed pleased enough with my GPA and the extracurriculars I rattled off for her. We discussed my chances of getting into good law schools and she assured me that taking the LSAT after I graduate would not harm my chances at admission.  

On the face of it, the meeting was perfectly clarifying; yet inside I was only left more confused. Because even though I had requested this second meeting with the pre-law advisor, I didn’t actually want to go to law school, or be a lawyer at all. I had hardly even considered it until the second semester of my junior year, as the steady stream of “So what are going to do after graduation?” inquiries began to stream in from all sides like a dam had broke.  

Since grade school, I have always been someone with a plan. I planned because I arrogantly and naively believed (and sometimes still do) that if I just stuck to a plan, I could do anything. Success seemed to have a clear recipe: plan, and carry out the plan. Since fourth grade I had a plan for how to do well on tests and since ninth grade I had plan for how I was going to get a good enough SAT score to get a scholarship to Stern.

My plans were always practical and thoroughly laid out, and my career plan was going to be no exception. During my year in Israel I discovered a deep passion for Torah learning, and for a moment I was sure I was meant to learn and teach Torah forever. But there were too many questions: where would I gain true mastery of Jewish texts and if I ever did gain that mastery, where would someone pay me to teach it? I was drawn to college and post-college education, but the opportunities for female Torah educators in these fields are hopelessly scant. Clearly this was not a career where a woman could “plan, and carry out the plan.”

There are of course exceptional women who are able to gain the skills needed to serve as Torah scholars to college and post-college communities, but there is no guarantee of such a position. Even if a woman is able to be adequately taught, the reality is that being a female Torah scholar is a risk–a risk that no institution or community will respect her, accept her, and, more critically, hire her. Simply put: you can’t plan for a job that might not exist.

So with some heartache, I determined that the path of a female “Torah educator” was too uncertain for me to really consider. I stored away the thought, and landed on something I could plan for: I would major in Art History and become a museum curator.

When I got to Stern I carefully followed the path I had planned for myself, but the longer I stayed on this route the more it felt like I was ignoring some blaring call in my ears. While I loved my Art History courses, it was my Judaic Studies courses, particularly Advanced Talmud, that really left me hungry for more. The summer after my sophomore year I interned at a Jewish museum where I got to teach guests about some of the most exquisite art and architecture the city has to offer, and yet my favorite part of the job was discussing religious philosophy and practice with my non-Jewish and non-Orthodox co-workers.

Once the sum of these small facts became too difficult for me to ignore, I realized I had a problem. I knew my heart was made for learning and teaching Torah, but suddenly I was without a plan. Even as I decided to charge forward, despite being plan-less, into the world of Torah, I was still terrified of the shallow, murky waters that lay ahead of me. I was petrified that I could no longer plan, and then just carry out my plan.

When friends and relatives would ask me the fateful, “So what do you want to do after graduation?” I began to feel panicky. I knew I wanted to learn in GPATS after Stern, but if anyone asked me what I wanted to do in the long term, or what I wanted to be, I would just mumble and evade the question.

Clearly I was charting new territory for myself by committing to an unplanned, almost un-planable career. At times this filled me with pride, with a sense of purpose and mission, but often it left me sad, frustrated, and frightened. Still, I had decided.

A few months later I listened to a podcast about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the longest serving woman on the US Supreme Court. Ginsburg’s hard-earned and well-deserved success made me envious–not because I could ever possibly be worthy of such unfathomable success, but because here was a woman who planned and was able, despite many obstacles, to carry out her plan, and succeed. Already weary from the fear that came with the uncertainty of my new career path, I began to question my choice. Perhaps there was something I could do as a woman where I would not be limited. Where if I planned and carried out my plan well enough I could actually succeed, completely and unrestrictedly. Where I could be, at least in some small way, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

So I made a meeting with the pre-law advisor. But law just wasn’t my dream, and as much as I tired, it just didn’t stick. As I entered my last year at Stern and even more questions about my future streamed in, I panicked again and made a second meeting with the pre-law advisor. But law still wasn’t my dream, and it still didn’t stick.

Wiser than I was in grade school, I now know that success isn’t as simple as “plan, and carry out your plan.” I know that sometimes you can be given the chance to carry out your plan and still fail. And I also know that sadly, sometimes, you are not even given the opportunity to try and  carry out your plan at all.

It is because of this latter truth that I am still tempted to make a third appointment with the pre-law advisor. I am tempted try and make law my new dream, to ignore all the glaring signs and pick this as my new “true” calling.

Still, I don’t. I worry that if too many women leave the pursuit Torah scholarship to be lawyers and doctors, and perhaps even Supreme Court judges, the opportunities for Torah I long for will never exist. I understand the choices of these women on a deeply personal level, and I view their choices without the slightest bit of judgement. I understand the desire to pursue a career where you can carry out your plan, where you know that you will be judged based on your skills, and be given equal opportunity to succeed.

But I also know that we cannot all leave. Because we will never move forward on this path if everyone walks away. Some of us must to stay, find something in this world of Torah, build something here, however small, if things are ever going to change–if any young girl in the future is ever going to be able to say “I want to be a Torah Scholar”, and carry out her plan.