Dear Commissioner Adam Silver,
Thank you for taking such swift and just action against Mr. Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, for his disparaging remarks against black people. The harsh punishment you rendered left no room to doubt your sincerity that this kind of racist and hateful language has no place in the NBA. Personally, I think it’s fitting that you made this decision to ban Mr. Sterling for life from the NBA and to “urge” owners to force him to sell the team on the final day of “the week of g’vurah” (strength/discernment) in the Jewish counting of the omer — the counting of days between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot (Feast of Weeks/Pentecost). According to Rabbi Min Kantrowitz in her book “Counting the Omer: A Kabbalistic Meditation Guide,” g’vurah is the “type of strength that assesses a situation and then responds appropriately” (p.65). In other words, Mr. Silver, g’vurah is what you showed in your response on Monday.
Yet while I applaud your decision, Mr. Silver, translating your action into Jewish terms reminds me that if there was one aspect of your response that left me lacking it was your answer to the “Jewish” question. Howard Megdal, a Jewish sportswriter from Sports On Earth, asked you point-blank whether or not your Jewishness played a role in your “personal” response to Mr. Sterling’s awful remarks:
“You spoke about your personal response to [Sterling’s racist remarks and his subsequent punishment]. In terms of Donald Sterling self-identifying as Jewish, and you doing the same as well, I’m wondering if there was a specific kind of pain associated with that for you, and if you felt a certain responsibility within the Jewish community to be responding to this in this way?” (Taken from Jewschool.com)
Mr. Silver, here was an opportunity for you to express what many fellow Jews, regardless of religious affiliation, felt after hearing the remarks of Mr. Sterling: that he was a shande fur die goyim (a shameful, public act by a Jew that gives Jews a bad name). Yet, you did not take advantage of that opportunity. Instead, you said…
“I think my response was as a human being, and I used the word distraught before. I spoke on Saturday morning directly to Chris Paul, to Doc Rivers, and it wasn’t even anger at that point. I mean, there was a certain somberness, and frankly, I felt sort of most strongly and personally for that team. While this affects every player and anyone associated with the NBA family, for those players and those coaches to go out and do what they need to do and play at the highest level in the world and have them hanging over this I think caused me to have a certain sadness I would say about the entire situation. I think this is regardless of anyone’s religion, ethnicity, nationality. I think this is incredibly hurtful” (transcript from USAToday).
While you responded very personally out of your sense of shared humanity, you failed to speak personally out of a shared sense of having a unique and personal heritage. While you made it clear (rightfully so) that race, religion, gender, or nationality should not impact how one’s deeds are judged, I don’t think our unique heritages can be excluded from the decisions we make. It is very hard to simply be “human,” rather our humanity is borne out of our experience of life through the lens of our unique heritages, through our race, our religion, our ethnicity, our gender, our nationality. Of course there are many other aspects of our personal identity than these heritages which are passed down to us by birthright (though at times chosen by our own will). Yet, issues surrounding discrimination are more often than not embedded within the canopy of our unique heritages and how we struggle as a society to accept, tolerate, and ultimately embrace our unique differences. That is to say, Mr. Silver, that while you may want to only respond out of your shared humanity, your Jewish, white, and male heritages play an important role in this issue, especially since the offender was another white Jewish man. And even if you don’t want to respond out of those heritages, others will view this issue in those terms.
Mr. Silver, I don’t intend to criticize your actions or even the distraught feelings you had out of your sense of being a human being. I’m simply saying that here was an opportunity, especially because of the question offered to you, to express another feeling behind your personal response. In this regard, I don’t wish to judge how strongly you identify as Jewish or how appropriate you feel it is to bring your Jewish identity into this conversation. I’m simply saying that there was an opportunity to do so, and lest you think that Judaism advises not to raise the issue of your faith identity, it is clear to me, speaking as a rabbi, that that is not the case. On the contrary, the principle of kol yisrael areivim zeh lazeh — All of Israel is responsible for one another (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 27b) — necessitates that Jews should care how other Jews handle their business. At times, this kind of “parental” concern can be stifling, especially when it is associated with following strict religious practice. At other times, though, this kind of concern can be life-saving. It is obvious to me that not all situations require a particular “Jewish” response, and indeed Mr. Silver, it may be unfair to ask you to do so given that your current position has no religious, racial, or ethnic significance in and of itself and you may have never considered yourself as someone who should speak out in Jewish terms. But because of Mr. Sterling’s Jewish identity, because Ms. Stiviano challenged his views based on his Jewish identity, because of the timing of this incident on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and the end of Passover when Jews around the world are encouraged to use our heritage of suffering to treat others equally, and because of your Jewish identity, you had an opportunity to make a strong Jewish response that Mr. Sterling’s words are not what Jews should say, but that your actions are how Jews should respond.
Hopefully, an opportunity like this will never come across your desk as commissioner again.
With kind regards and deep thanks for acting justly,
Rabbi Ari Saks
Photo produced by Michael Tipton on Flickr — https://flic.kr/p/eXHnVP