The prospect of a third Jew on the U.S. Supreme Court -- and the second Jewish woman -- is both exciting and mind-boggling.
In many ways, Elena Kagan's story exemplifies par excellence the typical Jewish American story: the granddaughter of Russian immigrants whose parents instilled a strong commitment to education and social justice.
And by most accounts, Kagan's Jewish connections run deep. At the age of 12, she became the first Bat Mitzvah at an Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan. She now reportedly considers herself a Conservative Jew.
But while we can't help but take pride in her Jewishness -- not to mention the fact that her mother, Gloria Gittelman, grew up in South Philadelphia -- ultimately it will be her intellect, experience and apparent ability to build consensus that will determine her effectiveness on the court, if she is confirmed.
Still, like a good journalist who always strives to be fair and balanced, a judge, in formulating a ruling based on the law and the facts of a particular case, cannot wipe out the perspective and wisdom she has accumulated over a lifetime. Nor should she.
Indeed, at this critical juncture, the court sorely needs a person with Kagan's background and sensibilities. Under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., the body has increasingly tilted rightward, undermining -- or coming very close to undermining -- some civil and social rights that have long been at the forefront of the Jewish communal agenda.
We need only look to some of the decisions made this week to see how far the court has swung rightward. Most notable and distressing is the court's 5-4 decision that Chicago's ban on handguns violates an individual's right to own firearms.
The decision at best now leaves highly ambiguous state and local authorities' ability to contain deadly gun violence; at worst, it gives a green light to overthrow most gun restrictions.
As the replacement for the retiring John Paul Stevens, one of the court's most liberal justices, Kagan's voice would do little to shift the balance; at the very least, she could maintain the status quo and possibly, if her reported powers of persuasion and consensus-building are as accurate as some say, be able to influence others on the court.
The truth is we don't know where Kagan stands on many issues, including the question of providing public funds for faith-based schools and other programs.
What we do know is that the Supreme Court provides one of the fundamental checks and balances that distinguishes our system of government.
Let's hope that if confirmed, Kagan's voice -- a proudly Jewish one -- will help ensure that balance, which in turn will enable the wheels of justice to run smoothly.