Friday, May 2, 2014

Donald Sterling and Adam Silver - Jew vs. Jew

BY NOW THE ENTIRE WORLD knows that Donald Sterling, a Jew, and owner of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers, holds racist opinions of African-Americans. What you might not know is that the commissioner of the NBA, Adam Silver, is also Jewish. Following Silver’s prepared statements in which he announced that Sterling was banned for life from any association with the NBA, I heard this question from one of the journalists:

POPJEWISH-Rabbi Josh Hess (Orthodox)
"I'm curious -- you spoke about your personal response to this. In terms of Donald Sterling self-identifying as Jewish and you doing the same, as well, I'm wondering whether 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?"

I was taken aback. Why did the journalist feel the need to turn this into a Jewish issue?  Leave us out if for once! We've got enough problems to deal with. On the other hand, I felt a sense a pride knowing that at this seminal moment in NBA and American history, a Jewish commissioner was responsible for reprimanding a Jewish owner for his discriminatory views. Perhaps the listening audience was unaware of this. Turns out that the journalist who asked the question, Howard Megdal, is also Jewish. Silver responded beautifully:

"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 this hanging over themI 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."

LA Clippers Owner Donald Sterling and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver Together
LA Clippers Owner Donald Sterling and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver

This week-long saga surrounding Sterling’s bigoted comments, heightened by Megdal's question got me thinking (which is a very dangerous thing): Why is it that Jews, particularly Orthodox Jews like myself, are appalled, angered, and hurt by Sterling’s discriminatory comments, yet continue to scrupulously follow the Torah that appears to contain its own set of prejudiced views?

In this week’s Torah portion, for example, we are taught that a Kohen, priest, with a blemish, is not allowed to participate in the sacrificial service of the Temple. A blemish disqualifies him? Isn’t that discrimination against the physically disabled? It goes without saying that a woman can’t participate in the Temple service. Doesn't that sound a bit prejudiced as well? A child born out of an illicit relationship can often be given the title of “Mamzer” and isn't allowed to enter the “community of God.” A person isn’t considered Jewish unless his mother is Jewish. So here I am condemning a fellow Jew for his discriminatory views and yet I might maintain my own prejudiced value system!

The irony of it all is that the biblical commandments I just enumerated stand in stark contrast to some other equally important and significant moral and ethical imperatives. Most noteworthy is the Torah’s concern for the welfare of the stranger. In no fewer than 36 places it urges us to love the stranger because “you were strangers in Egypt.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains,

“This is…part of Israel’s moral struggle against tribalism and its modern successor, xenophobic nationalism. Strangers, too, have rights and make a legitimate claim on our humanity, for we are all strangers to someone else. This is something Israel is expected not merely to know abstractly but to feel in the deepest recesses of its collective memory.”

So you see, based on our biblical tradition, I am required to stand up to bigotry. It’s not surprising that I was outraged by Sterling’s comments.

The question that begs to be answered is how can the Bible be both prejudiced and tolerant? The more I thought about it, I came to realize that there are three possible solutions to my question, one of which is completely unacceptable to my Jewish identity. One could argue that the reason I am having this internal struggle is because I believe in a book that is anachronistic, outmoded, and often antithetical to our modern sensibilities. As an observant Jew, I’m not going down that route.

Another possibility is to show that while some of the Torah’s rules may appear to smell of bigotry, there are humanistic reasons at the root of their observance. I can go through a process of rationalization and argue that from a religious perspective men and women enjoy different roles, that the lay-leadership may lose confidence in a blemished priest, and that a “mamzer” is punished for his parent’s mistake so that people will learn the painful lesson that their actions sometimes may not only hurt themselves but also their children. I don’t love this type of response because it feels like a forced justification which I find to be somewhat disrespectful to the Torah I hold so dear. This leads to the last answer which is most satisfying to me.

I think it’s important to separate our religious tradition from secular society while maintaining an American-Jewish symbiosis. We must recognize that our ancient religious tradition contains rules and laws that might not conform to our modern sensibilities. And while I may feel upset or frustrated from time to time that my religious faith doesn’t share every enlightened view that has been adopted up to 2014, I continue to practice my religion confidently knowing that the bible is divine and my religious observance is part of a beautiful and historic heritage going back to Moses at Sinai. The way that I am required to engage with secular or modern society is governed by a different set of values and principles. There is undoubtedly great tension living in two worlds simultaneously, but as am American I have the gift of the constitution that protects my right to adhere to my faith.

As an Orthodox Jew I will continue to condemn people who harbor racist and bigoted animus towards others. I will continue to feel a moral imperative to “love the stranger” and adhere to all the other universalist imperatives of my religious tradition. I also realize and occasionally am frustrated by the fact that there are aspects of my religious tradition that modern society considers prejudiced. The beauty of being an American is that I, along with so many others, am able to have a hyphenated identity. I can be a Jewish-American and my friends can be African-American, Muslim-American or Native-American. Every person has the right to affirm their religious, ethnic, and cultural heritage, while being part of American society.

So am I a walking contradiction? Perhaps. But I am also living proof that people of all faiths, cultures and ethnicities can be proud to live in the United States of America while maintaining all of their idiosyncrasies and leading honorable lives. As a human being who lives in the United States, I thank Adam Silver for his leadership in rooting out racism in the NBA and sending this important message to the American public.

Rabbi Joshua Hess is a congregational rabbi, chaplain and accidental writer. He is a frequent contributor to the Huffington Post, New Jersey Jewish News, and Jewish World Review. Rabbi Hess and his beautiful wife, Naava, are the proud parents of four children.