Colin Kaepernick and Gene Wilder

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 9/3/16

A week from tomorrow another NFL season will kick off, with the Ravens opening at home agains the Buffalo Bills.  Fans from around the country, at least for a now, can dream big – as they say, at this point every team is undefeated.

I am always glad when the formal season begins because I have strong distaste for preseason football.  I think there are too many games, I think it wears down the players, and I also think it is more than a bit cynical that they charge those of you who are season ticket holders for the preseason match ups.  Aside from that the games are mostly meaningless.  But this year the NFL preseason was more interesting than usual, mostly because of the quarterback who will probably be starting for the 49s next weekend, a young man by the name of Colin Kaepernick.   If you follow the news at all you probably know that Kaepernick has been intentionally sitting during the pre game playing of the national anthem.  Admittedly it is one of those odd moments when the sports world overlaps with nationalism and patriotism, but it is traditional now, before any major sporting event, to play the Star Spangled Banner.  And it is of course traditional that when the Star Spangled Banner is played, everyone stands.

But not Colin Kaepernick.  He has explained that his sitting during the anthem is a way of quietly but very publicly protesting what he sees as racial inequality and injustice in this country, specifically directed at the African American community.  Kaepernick himself is biracial – he has one black parent, one white parent – was adopted and raised by white parents.  But he clearly identifies with his black heritage, and he has decided, as a public figure, to stage these protests, to speak out, and to take a stand.

Now you may agree or disagree with him on the issues, and you also may not believe it is proper for him to use the  public stage that he has to make his point.  At the same time you might feel that he is being disrespectful to the American flag, and maybe by extension to America itself.  Certainly the flag is a potent symbol, the National Anthem is something that is emotional, that people feel deeply about.  And no question what he is doing is provocative.  But I’d like to think with you for a moment about what he is doing from a different perspective  – the perspective of pride in identity, of caring about who you are and where you come from so much that you will put yourself at risk to stand up for it.

Certainly that is something that Jews should be able to identity with.  Here we are reading the book of Deuteronomy, the entire book a last long speech that Moses gives to the Israelites before they enter the land.  The fact that an entire book of the Torah is devoted to Moses’ words gives an indication of what a towering figure he is in the eyes of the tradition.  Moshe Rabeinu we call him – Moses our teacher.  The greatest teacher, law giver, and prophet we have every known.

You remember Moses’ background.  Where was he raised?  In the house of Pharaoh, in the wealthiest home in all of Egypt.  We so closely identify Moses with the Jewish people that we don’t often think about this, but Moses probably had a choice.  He could have been an Egyptian, perhaps he could have become powerful, living a life of luxury in the greatest country in the ancient world.  But he didn’t.  He chose another life.  He chose to cast his lot with his own people.  And ultimately that choice meant exile, it meant a life of hardship and difficulty, it meant wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, and in the end never actually making it to the Promised Land.

So imagine for a moment with me this morning if Colin Kaepernick were Jewish.  And imagine if his public protest was in support of Israel, or some other Jewish cause.  And I now how hard this is to imagine, because I know how hard it is to imagine that there is a starting quarterback in the NFL who is Jewish. (Jay Fiedler the last!?)  But imagine for a moment, if during the debate about the Iran nuclear deal for example –  a Jewish quarterback had said I am going to sit during the National Anthem as a way of showing support for Israel.  Certainly there would have been people in the Jewish community who would have taken tremendous pride in that, and said, ‘that guy is a hero!’

And the truth is, maybe we would like more of our well known Jewish figures to publicly stand up for Jewish causes and to make statements about Jewish issues and to take pride in their Jewish identity.  Thinking this week particularly about Jerome Silverman – who is that?  Gene Wilder!  That was Gene Wilder’s given name.  I loved Gene Wilder.  He was astonishingly talented, and hysterically funny.  All of the classic roles and films – Young Frankenstein, and Blazing Saddles, and the Frisco Kid and of course the classic film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where he played Willy Wonka.  But Becky and I weren’t even sure Gene Wilder was Jewish until his various obituaries started coming out.

In some ways Bernie Sanders was the same.  He seemed at times so uncomfortable with his Judaism, like he didn’t even want it brought up, and when it was, he made sure to let everyone know he was a secular Jew.  And this is not to knock Bernie Sanders as an individual, or as a politician for that matter, and it is not to knock Gene Wilder either.  It is simply to say that it would be nice, and in fact maybe it would even be important, if more Jews who were living in the public eye would show – publicly – a forceful pride in their Jewish roots and strong concern for Jewish causes.

Labor Day weekend may mark the beginning of the football season, but it also reminds us that the baseball playoffs cannot be far off.  (what is going to happen to the Orioles God only knows!)  And when Jews think about baseball, and they think about the holidays, who do they always think about?   Sandy Koufax, the hall of fame pitcher for the LA Dodgers, and the choice that he made not to pitch game 1 of the 1965 world series because why?  It fell on Yom Kippur.  A half a century later Jews still talk about that, we remember it, we hold it up as an example of a fellow Jew publicly affirming his Jewish identity and Jewish values.  We are tremendously proud of that moment.

And I think we need other moments like that.  It would be good for us, good for our pride, and I also think it would be good for our children and our grandchildren.  If I stand up to take a stand about a Jewish issue it doesn’t matter.  It is exactly what people would expect.  Our young people will say ‘that is the rabbi, of course!  No big deal!’  But if Bernie Sanders had said ‘I am running for president, and some of my core issues are based on Jewish values,’ or Jewish actor or musician stood up and said ‘I care about Israel and I am speaking out against BDS, or supporting some Jewish cause.  I think our kids would pay attention to that, and learn from it, and feel proud about it.

But you know what?  They will also pay attention to it, learn from it, and feel proud about it when we do it as well.  What a public figure does or does not do we can’t control.  What we do – that is up to us.  There is an old saying – rabbis only give two sermons – be good, and be Jewish.  Maybe this is a 3rd path – be good, be Jewish, and be proud.

Author: Steve Schwartz

Husband, father of three, Deadhead, and rabbi. I am now in my 22nd year of serving a large congregation in the Baltimore area.

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