a text version of yesterday’s Shabbat sermon –
Some of you probably remember the name Dolph Schayes, commonly considered to be the greatest Jewish basketball player of all time. An All-American player at NYU, he went on to a long career in the NBA, playing for the Syracuse Nationals (the team that became the 76ers), making 12 all star teams, and at one point Dolph Schayes, a Jewish boy from New York, was actually the all time leading NBA scorer. His record of 19,249 career points was eclipsed by another pretty good player – any one know who? Wilt Chamberlin.
There are still a few Jewish players in the NBA these days, but none of them are stars, and none of them will be remembered as one of the game’s great players, like Dolph Schayes. But if not on the court, Jews still play an important role in professional basketball, as we have certainly seen over the last week, with the bigoted remarks of Donald Sterling, the Jewish owner of the NBA’s LA Clippers franchise, that became public, and with the response to those remarks by the league office and its commissioner, Adam Silver, also a Jew.
So first of all yes it is true, Donald Sterling is Jewish. He was born to Jewish immigrant parents, who fled eastern-Europe at least in part to get away from the kind of racism that their son ended up embracing. His birth name was Tokowitz before he changed it to ‘sterling’ as a young man, evidently equating the idea of money with success in life. And in 2006 he was elected to the Southern California Jewish Hall of Fame. I am not saying the guy went to minyan every day, but he clearly understands himself to be a Jew. It was interesting to me at the press conference where Mr. Silver announced that Sterling would be banned from basketball for life the question asked by one of the reporters, about the Jewish identity of the two men. Here is what the reporter asked the commissioner, Adam Silver:
Given the fact that you and Donald Sterling are both Jewish…”I am 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”… so forcefully? Silver paused, and then he said “I am responding to this as a human being.” It was a good answer, and my guess is that Adam Silver will not be asked that question again. But I also wonder if you caught him in a private moment, with his guard down, and not in front of a group of reporters, if he would answer the question differently. My guess would be that the commissioner of the NBA is like most of us who are Jewish, and when we hear about something like the Donald Sterling story one of the first thoughts that pops into our heads is “I hope that person is not Jewish.”
The question is why do we think that? Intellectually we know, or we should know, that Jews are no different from anybody else, and that we certainly have our fair share of immoral, prejudiced, and dishonest people. Can anyone say Bernie Madoff? So intellectually we are not surprised when someone who is Jewish does something that we know is wrong, or even that we feel is reprehensible. But emotionally it is a different story, and emotionally I think there are two things going on. The first is that we feel embarrassed when it is a Jew at the center of a story like this, because it reflects on our community, and we feel like it reflects on us.
But the other thing is that on a certain level we feel a Jew should know better. The Torah portion we read this morning reminds us that in ancient times, when our ancestors reaped the harvest of their fields, they felt commanded to leave the corners of those fields untouched, and not to harvest them. Why? So that the poor, the orphan, the widow, the stranger, all have something to eat. The values of our tradition teach us to respect others, teach us that all human beings, regardless of race, color, even faith, or economic status for that matter, are equal in God’s eyes, and teach us especially about minorities, especially about those who are marginalized, that we need to be watchful so that their rights are protected. It is a message the Torah gives again and again – you should be particularly sensitive to the rights of the underprivileged – why? Because you were strangers in the land of Egypt! So a Jew that is raised with those values should know better than to steal, cheat, lie, and certainly should know better than to express the kind of racist sentiments that Donald Sterling expressed on that recording. Whenever anything happens in the news, my father in law always asks: is it good for the Jews, or bad for the Jews – and Donald Sterling was bad for the Jews.
But if he was the bad news for Jews this week, I have to say I feel like Adam Silver, the commissioner of the league who suspended Sterling for life, was the good news. On the surface that might seem like a no-brainer, and you might even be thinking he just did what he had to do. But not necessarily. The commissioner might have easily said to himself Donald Sterling is the longest tenured owner in the league, he is a man who is worth probably a billion dollars or so, he is powerful, so I am going to slap his hand, fine him a couple of million dollars, suspend him for a year, and by the time he comes back, the way the news cycle works these days, no one will remember any way. And he could have easily supported a decision like that by arguing, as many libertarians have over the last few days, that in reality Sterling did nothing illegal – which is true. That he was expressing his views in a private conversation that he never meant to go public – which is also true. And that, whether we like it or not, he has every right, in a private conversation, to say whatever he wants about whomever he wants.
But I actually believe that Adam Silver felt a moral obligation to base his decision not upon what is legal or illegal, not upon what is easier or more difficult, and honestly not even upon what plays better in the press – but instead to base his decision upon what he felt was right and what he felt was wrong. Most of us when we look at situation have a moral compass that tells us it is either right or wrong. We may not always act on the feeling, we might ignore it, turn the other way, go with the crowd, do what is easier – but regardless of what we do or do not do, we generally know what we should do. And I think that was the feeling driving the commissioner’s decision to suspend Donald Sterling for life, regardless of legal issues, regardless of privacy issues – he knew – he felt – it was the right thing to do, and he did it.
There is a concept in Judaism called לפנים משורת הדין which is generally translated as ‘beyond the letter of the law.’ It comes from a curious comment in the Talmud about the reason for the destruction of Jerusalem (Bava Matziah 30b). The great sage Rebbe Yochanan says that the destruction of Jerusalem came about because the courts of that time based their legal judgements strictly on Torah law – ולא עבדו לפנים משורת הדין – but they were not capable of seeing beyond the letter of that law. It is easy to get caught up in legal technicalities, but sometimes you have to go beyond the letter of the law to make sure that true justice is served. The Talmud suggests that a society that forgets this idea is a society that will ultimately crumble. I don’t think that Adam Silver has ever studied Talmud, but it was exactly that talmudic principle that he applied in his decision.
You know I often go back and forth in my own mind about whether sports actually teaches us life lessons or not, but this week, I think, the commissioner of the NBA taught us all something. And he very clearly let everyone know that at least in his league, to quote the famous words of George Washington, they would give bigotry no sanction, and persecution no assistance. I hope and pray that one day we will be able to say those words not just about the NBA, but about the entire world.