An Open Letter From a Rabbi to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver: A Jewish Response to Donald Sterling

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

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6 thoughts on “An Open Letter From a Rabbi to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver: A Jewish Response to Donald Sterling

  1. No, no Rabbi. Why are we always to apologize if one man, or even a few happen to be racists, cheats, and also Jewish?Did not hear any Muslim clerics apologizing for 9/11.
    There are bad apples in all ethnicities. I was not even sure in the beginning that Sterling was Jewish.
    Good for Silver! He condemned the action. It does not matter what his religion is. Did not hear anyone in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church or any priest bringing attention to Mel Gibson’s religion after his drunken anti-Semetic rant.
    In fact, citing Sterling’s religion could bring forth animosity toward Jews, since I do not think everyone was aware that he was Jewish. If the Commissioner were Christian should he still have mentioned Sterling’s religion.?

    1. Joan, thanks for the comment and I appreciate your concern in giving too much attention to Mr. Sterling’s Jewish identity. I agree that there are “bad apples in all ethnicities” and as I mention in the article that one’s “race, religion, gender, or nationality should not impact how one’s deeds are judged.” As such, my article isn’t suggesting that Mr. Silver apologize for Mr. Sterling’s remarks but rather that Judaism teaches that we care about what other Jews say and do. From Bernie Madoff to Sandy Koufax, we either cringe or take great pride in the accomplishments of fellow Jews.

      I can’t speak to how people from other faiths and ethnicities feel about similar situations, but for me I cared a little more about this situation because I knew that Mr. Sterling was Jewish and I was worried how this situation would affect how people look at Jews. You also raise this point that by “citing Sterling’s religion could bring forth animosity toward Jews.” But his Jewishness was never a secret and, as I mentioned in my bulletin article to the community (http://bethmordecai.org/?p=4596) his Jewish identity was a part of the issue when Ms. Stiviano remarked at how Mr. Sterling’s Jewishness should prevent him from having feelings of discrimination. Yet, even if Ms. Stiviano didn’t say anything about it, Mr. Sterling’s Jewish identity makes Judaism apart of the conversation, whether we like it or not. In fact the link in my article attached to “others will view this issue in those terms” reflected on how Mr. Sterling’s case was another example of Jewish, white racism, which was particularly disturbing (and erroneous), but raises the point that there are those who will look at this situation in relgiious/ethinic terms.

      Given that in my (admittedly) rabbinic eyes there was a Jewish element to this situation, I felt that Mr. Silver had an opportunity to respond in Jewish terms to clearly indicate how Jews should act when confronted by racism. That doesn’t change the fact that his response was very strong and I can be proud of his response as a fellow Jew (let alone as a human being), but I would have liked him to take advantage of the opportunity to particularly respond out of his Jewishness since that opportunity was there.

  2. I was horrified tonight when donald sterling’s interview with Anderson cooper aired and he went on and on about being jewish and also compared blacks to jews. The only comfort I found in that entire interview was that sterling seems to be completely and utterly off his rocker. Still by him continually bringing up jews I had the terrible fear this could come back to bite all of us. It is indeed a huge humiliation to our whole community. Further I do think it needs to be publicly condemned by jews and no Christians were not held under the same standards as Christians as your last commenter pointed out. However, we need to keep in mind that jews like blacks do get stereotyped much more harshly than do white Christians. That I’d exactly what makes mr sterling’s comments even more abhorrent! He should know better!!!

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