John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach of UCLA once said: “Sports do not build character. They reveal it.” Wooden, himself an English teacher by trade, understood the power of sports as a metaphor for life. We turn to sports as participants and spectators in order to reenact the much larger dramas that play out in every aspect of our lives. Recognizing the role spectator sports play in our lives, it is no surprise that the nation has been riveted by the sordid controversy surrounding Donald Sterling, the embattled owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.
The controversy became public when a recorded conversation allegedly between Sterling and his mistress, V. Stiviano, was leaked to the media. In the conversation, Sterling goes on a racist rant about black people and voices his dismay that his girlfriend posed for a photograph with Magic Johnson, an African American. As our nation voyeuristically listened in on this conversation, there has been widespread outrage. In response, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issued a strong condemnation and meted out the harshest punishment at his disposal: a lifetime ban from the NBA.
As this story unfolded, numerous questions have arisen in the public and, I suspect, in many of our minds. Some examples: Why did the girlfriend make this recording to begin with? Why was it leaked? If Sterling had a history of bigoted statements, as is apparently the case, why didn’t the NBA take action long ago? What was it about this private conversation that inflamed our collective emotions? And, is anything really private anymore (the answer to that is, no).
Among all of these questions, the first question to come to my mind after the story broke was, “Is Donald Sterling Jewish?” Unfortunately, the answer to that is yes. He changed his name from Tokowitz. In addition the recorded discussion veers into Israel and the Holocaust. The mistress asks Sterling if black Jews are inferior to white Jews and he says, “a hundred percent.” She then draws an analogy between his racism and the Holocaust.
Stiviano: “Isn’t [racism] wrong? Wasn’t it wrong then? With the Holocaust? And you’re Jewish, you understand discrimination.”
Sterling: “You’re a mental case, you’re really a mental case.”
So, add Donald Sterling to the list of members of our tribe who have discredited our reputation before the community at large.
We need not fret too much, however. Adam Silver, the new Commissioner of the NBA has handled this test of his leadership with decisiveness and grace. Clearly, he is Jewish as well. His forceful statement demonstrated integrity and a commitment to healing. So, while Sterling disgraced our people, Adam Silver scored one for the Jews.
Even in our open American society, it is natural for us as an ethnic and religious minority to maintain our self-consciousness regarding external attitudes toward Jews. The tension we feel between negative and positive perceptions of Jewish people in the public sphere comes right out of this week’s Torah portion, Emor. The portion introduces two parallel concepts: Hillul HaShem, the desecration of God’s name, and Kiddush HaShem, the sanctification of God’s name. The text tells us: lo tehallelu et shem kodshi venitkadeshti b’tokh b’nei yisrael, ani Adonai mekadishchem. You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people—I the Lord who sanctify you (22:32). Hillul HaShem is often defined as performing an act that reflects poorly on you in the eyes of decent human beings. Kiddush HaShem is the opposite, performing an act that reflects well in the eyes of decent human beings.
An example of Hillul HaShem is given at the end of the parasha in discussion of one who blasphemes God: ish ish ki yekallel elohav vnasa chet’o—Anyone who blasphemes God shall bear his guilt. The specific circumstances of the blaspheming are uncertain. Did the person curse God, or pronounce God’s name without due reverence? Commentators note that words are ephemeral but real and have the power to hurt or heal. Using the power of speech to hurt another person is a grave offense. Indeed, Donald Sterling’s mouth has caused plenty of hurt to millions of people; however, according to the Talmud, his actions can be seen as Hillul HaShem.
The Talmud states that there is no greater achievement for a Jew than acting in a way that causes others to praise and respect the God of Israel and the Torah’s ways; and there is no graver sin than acting in a way that causes people to think less of Israel’s God and Israel’s laws (BT Yoma 86a).
It is my hope that our society, and particularly the Jewish community, can move beyond voyeurism and sanctimony and use the national conversation on race to engage in a community Heshbon HaNefesh, a heartfelt introspection regarding our own attitudes towards race. It’s easy for any of us from a distance to listen to a salacious recording and pass judgment on a billionaire slum lord shooting his mouth off. The real question is: To what extent are we confronting racism in our own communities, our families and ourselves? If we tolerate in our own circles language and stereotypes that disparage African Americans and other ethnic groups, then we dehumanize them as “other.” When we fail to repudiate such behavior, we are as guilty as Donald Sterling of Hillul HaShem, desecration of God’s name. Let me be real specific. Let’s all make a pledge that we will not tolerate anyone using the epithet “Shvartze.” We all know what it means and what its intent is. If we think that using a Yiddish code word shields us from shame in the wider world, think again. It is a Hillul HaShem.
We have so many examples in our history of courageous Jews who dedicated themselves to building bridges and forging racial harmony in our society. The quintessential example is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King in Selma, AL, and saying afterwards, “[M]y feet were praying.” That was a Kiddush HaShem, a sanctification of God’s name, par excellence.
The world of sport reveals one’s true character and provides a window into the challenges of life itself. This week, the NBA has put on full display the worst and the best of human character. Let us seize this moment as a learning opportunity to reject Hillul HaShem and embrace Kiddush HaShem. Through our collective efforts, may we have the strength create greater harmony and to sanctify God’s name.