I have had many reactions so far to the recently leaked audio of comments made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. For those who have missed the media coverage, Sterling had a lengthy conversation with his girlfriend about why she should remove all photos of herself with African-Americans on the social media platform Instagram and why she should not bring African-Americans to Clippers basketball games.
First and foremost, I am disgusted by his comments. I am disgusted by the dehumanizing hate inherent in his words. I am disgusted that Donald Sterling is a Jew, the son of immigrants who knew what it meant to be hated for what you were rather than judged for who you were as a person. I am disgusted that Sterling can date his girlfriend/mistress (he is not divorced from his wife), who is both African-American and Mexican, while finding her public associations with other African-Americans to be abhorrent. I am disgusted that Sterling can find it fitting to profit from the physical exploits of his predominantly African-American basketball players yet prefer for African-Americans not to attend his games. I am disgusted that a Jew would be associated with these racist comments at the time of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we affirm our commitment never to forget what hate and discrimination can lead to. So I join the basketball players, sports columnists, and pundits who have condemned these comments. I hope, once due process runs its course, that if it is confirmed that Sterling spoke these words (thus far he has not denied that it is his voice speaking), that he is forced to sell his team and banned from basketball.
(Update: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced today that Sterling admitted to being the speaker on the audio recording and Silver banned Sterling for life from the NBA and was fined $2.5 million)
I further hope that the Jewish community of Los Angeles will exercise tochecha (rebuke) and reject his presence and involvement unless and until he shows true contrition and a willingness to engage in teshuva (restorative repentance).
Yet some might view Sterling’s comments as less abhorrent than the overtly racist screeds we heard earlier this week from Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who illegally grazed his cattle on federal lands and refused to pay for it. Bundy, of course, became infamous last week for telling New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney that African-Americans were better off when they were slaves:
“They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
Seen in this light, Sterling’s comments seem far less jarring. Disregarding the fact that Sterling has a history of explicitly racist comments, in the audio recording, Sterling argues that he is not racist but a realist. At about the one minute mark, he claims that his girlfriend should not publicly associate with African-Americans not because they are inherently bad but because of public perception of minorities as bad. “I’m living in a culture, and I have to live within the culture. So that’s the way it is.”
Yet there is an insidious underpinning to Sterling’s comments that bothers me, as a Jew, far more than Bundy’s noxious harangue. Sterling argues that we stuck with the detritus of our culture, that there is nothing we can do individually to change racism in America. But this idea of acquiescence is anathema to Judaism! It is the opposite of the redemption we have experienced throughout our national history and which we pray for daily in our liturgy. The story of Abraham is the story of a man being willing to leave his homeland, his status quo, for an uncertain future. And, in Genesis 18 (when Abraham argues with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), it is the story of a man who was willing to stand up to no less than God for what he thought was right. The story of Passover, which we just celebrated, is the story of God, through Moses, freeing the Israelite slaves in Egypt from the mightiest empire then on earth. The story of the founding of Israel in 1948 is the story of a people who had been exiled from their homeland for nearly 2000 years yet never giving up hope of an ultimate restoration to that land. As Rabbi Tarfon insists in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) 2:16, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist from trying.” Standing up to the status quo, fighting for what is just, effecting change in a world of intransigence and stasis—this is what makes Jews Jews.
During the seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot, we Jews count the Omer to symbolize and to embody the ongoing pursuit of personal and collective redemption. As we do so this year, let us continue to fight for what is right and reject those who claim “that’s just the way it is.” Let us reject the Sterlings who accept the world with all its flaws and re-commit ourselves to creating the world as we aspire it to become.
In the ongoing dustup that started several years ago between Rabbi Daniel Gordis and a series of young rabbis, most recently Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, Rabbi Gordis either implied or directly stated that in offering the opinion that Jews should have compassion for those who aren’t Jews – in Gordis’ case, for Palestinians- is a betrayal of Judaism.
The columnist Jeff Goldberg, in a somewhat confused defense of Rabbi Gordis, couches Gordis’ plea as saying that a Jew should “love Jews a little more than [one] loves Palestinians.” Rabbi Gordis defending his own statements, begs us to notice that our tradition speaks in a particularistic language, that Judaism has always been internal looking, and strongly asks Jews to recognize one another as part of a special family, a family that we are obligated to care for first and foremost.
He is right, of course. It is absolutely true that Judaism is a particularistic religion. It is also equally, simultaneously, true that Judaism is a universalistic religion as well.
For example, the text that Rabbi Gordis suggests as his proof of Judaism’s particularistic bent, the one which we should take to heart when thinking of who to care for first is part of a longer section in the talmud.
The section of the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 71a, is one whose context is of lending money to the poor, whether one may lend money for interest and to whom one may charge interest. The text there is attempting to clarify the argument by quoting Exodus 22:24: “If you lend money to any of my people that is poor by you, ” continuing, “[this teaches, if the choice lies between] my people and a heathen, ‘my people’ has preference; the poor or the rich — the ‘poor’ takes precedence; your poor [i.e. your relatives] and the [general] poor of your town — your poor come first; the poor of your city and the poor of another town — the poor of your own town have prior rights. The Master said: ‘[If the choice lies between] my people and a non-Jew — “my people” has preference.’ But is it not obvious? — R. Nahman answered: Huna told me it means that even if [money is lent] to the non-Jew on interest, and to the Israelite without [the latter should take precedence].”
Clearly, this is indeed a section that shows that the tradition expects a certain sort of preference for “one’s own.” And yet, it’s not so completely clear as that. Note that the section does not say that one should help one’s own alone; note that it doesn’t say, help your family and ignore the poor of your town; nor does it say that one should help one’s town and ignore the poor of another town. It does recognize that in a situation of limited resources, one may have to parcel them out preferentially, and in that case, one helps those who are close, first. Elsewhere, the order of importance is laid out even more clearly, starting with oneself, the one’s family, then one’s community, and so forth. Continue reading