The Justice Who Never Forgot His Roots: Benjamin N. Cardozo, in the Pews and on the Bench

Imagine a scenario in which a United States Supreme Court vacancy opens in the final months of a president’s last term; the previous Justice was revered for his brilliance and his writing, and the replacement Justice might well shift the balance of political power on the court bench. Such was the situation in 1932, when President Herbert Hoover found himself tasked with the responsibility of appointing a new Supreme Court Justice. The story of Hoover’s appointment of Benjamin Nathan Cardozo (1870-1938), the first Jewish judge on New York’s Court of Appeals, formed the subject of Straus Center Director Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik’s lecture at Manhattan’s Congregation Shearith Israel on February 13.

Soloveichik explained that Cardozo’s appointment was remarkable for the time. “Hoover picks Cardozo even though he’s from a different party, and even though there was already one Jew on the bench,” said Soloveichik, noting that Hoover was a Republican and Cardozo a Democrat. “At that time, to put two Jews on the Supreme Court was an exceptional thing. He did so because he was asked and begged to do so” by individuals from both parties, who valued Cardozo’s brilliance, personal integrity, and respect toward those with whom he disagreed.

Also remarkable was Cardozo’s swift and unanimous confirmation by the Senate. “What this indicates is that Benjamin Cardozo was a unique person,” said Soloveichik. “But he was also a unique sort of Jew.”

Soloveichik guided lecture attendees through a selection primary and secondary sources on Cardozo’s family background, early life, and professional activities. Cardozo was born to a family of bonafide Shearith Israel members of converso descent; his lineage is a veritable who’s-who of influential Early American Jewish families: Hart, Seixas, Nunez, and Lazarus. However, young Cardozo ceased attending prayers and professing Jewish belief after his bar mitzvah.

Yet Cardozo never renounced his Judaism and even adhered to certain traditional Jewish rituals. “He was the most Judaic non-observant Jew that one could possibly find,” said Soloveichik. “His Jewishness was always an essential part of his identity.” For instance, unlike his contemporary Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, Cardozo never served non-kosher food in his home and was buried according to traditional Sephardic rite, in a Hebrew-only ceremony. Despite his lack of synagogue attendance, he remained affiliated with Shearith Israel and in 1890s he argued against the incorporation of Reform practices, helping influence the institution to retain Orthodox rites. According to Soloveichik, Cardozo’s worldview indicated a belief that “whether we have observance or not, we are bound by a familial loyalty to each other.”

To illustrate Cardozo’s sense of honor, loyalty and partnership, Soloveichik discussed his favorite Cardozo Supreme Court case: Meinhard v. Salmon. Cardozo’s ruling found in favor of the plaintiff (Meinhard) who sued his business partner for withholding information about a profitable business opportunity to do with their joint venture. Cardozo wrote that in the case of “coadventurers” such as them, “[n]ot honesty alone, but the punctilio of an honor the most sensitive, is then the standard of behavior.” Soloveichik argued that this was Cardozo’s approach to his Jewish identity, as well as the standard to which opponents within the same political system should aspire. “Without that [feeling of being coadventurers] we cannot move forward,” he said.

The lecture was sponsored by the Kaye Family in memory of Judge Judith Kaye, a longtime Chief Justice of the New York Court of Appeals and member of Congregation of Shearith Israel, on the occasion of her first nahala. “Judge Kaye is remembered with great love and is greatly missed at Shearith Israel,” said Soloveichik. “We were delighted with the warmth and light that was her presence in our synagogue.”

Soloveichik also thanked the Kapito family for their sponsorship of the Straus Center’s Program on Early America and the Jews.

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