Shavuot 5774

When Donald Sterling’s racist rant was released publicly by his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, late last month, I was upset not only that an NBA owner would hold such views, but that this NBA owner was Jewish. You remember, this owner of the Los Angeles Clippers was caught on tape telling his girlfriend that she should not come to NBA games with Black people, among other inanities. But I was also upset that the fact that he was Jewish became part of the story. After all, a few weeks before Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, made headlines for refusing to federal fees for grazing rights.   When he fell from grace by saying that blacks might have been better off as slaves nobody identified him by religion or by nationality. What did Donald Sterling’s religion or ethnicity have to do with his racist remarks, I thought?  Rabbi Mark Golub, the president of Shalom TV wrote that “a number of television commentators have gone out of their way to mention that Mr. Sterling is a Jew, a gratuitous and therefore anti-Semitic racist remark.” I agreed with him, at first.

After further examination of my initial reaction I shifted my views. When a prominent Jewish sports executive makes racist remarks, his Jewish origins are fair game for examination. Even his girlfriend expressed shock that he, as a member of a group that had been the target of vicious racism throughout its history, would harbor such thoughts. “Isn’t it wrong?” Stiviano asks on the tape. “Wasn’t it wrong then? With the Holocaust? And you’re Jewish; you understand discrimination.” In saying these words, his girlfriend gives this story its Jewish context. The Jewish press picked up the story and analyzed it from a Jewish perspective.  The Jewish Forward noted in a headline that the “Banned NBA Owner Represents [the] Benighted Worst of Us.”  Let’s face it. The world expects better of us as a group. We expect better of us. It hurts and it is shameful that a Jewish man has expressed such hideous racist views. 
In the course of reading about the scandal, I learned that seventy five percent of the players in the NBA are African-American and that fully half of the NBA owners are Jewish. The previous commissioner, David Stern, was Jewish and the current commissioner, Adam Silver, is Jewish. On June 3, the owners are holding a meeting to determine whether they will force Mr. Sterling to sell his team. Hopefully, they will do the right thing.  As I was thinking about this, it dawn on me that June 3rd is Erev Shavuot, and that coincidentally it seems like an appropriate time to hold such an meeting  for the following reason:
Mr. Sterling did not want his girlfriend to bring black people to Clippers games. In other words, he did not want them to be part of his community. Some 2500 years ago, there was another Jewish man who did not want those different from him to be part of his community. Ezra the Scribe was a great Jewish leader sent to Jerusalem by King Artaxerxes of Persia in 458 BCE. He was to help in rebuilding the Jewish community which had been destroyed by the Babylonians a century before.  He found that there was a great deal of intermarriage in the community, and decreed that all men must divorce their non-Jewish wives and send them away, along with their children.
It is likely that it was in response to this decree that the Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuoth, was written.  In the Book of Ruth, a Moabite widow, Ruth, joins the people of Israel and marries an Israelite man, Boaz. Ruth is portrayed as being gentle, loyal and righteous.  Yet she is also described as a “Moabite woman” and this would have immediately suggested a problem for the original readers of this story. The Moabites were not only Israel’s perennial enemy; they were specifically excluded for all time from joining the Jewish community. Their origins, according to the Torah, are unseemly. Following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his daughters take refuge in a mountain cave.  Believing that they are the only survivors of a world that has been totally annihilated, feeling responsible to continue the human race, Lot’s daughters get their father drunk and become impregnated by him. The one daughter names her son Moab, who is the ancestor of the Moabites.  Thus the Torah ascribes an unflattering origin story to a people that becomes one of their bitterest enemies. Although the Torah proclaims for than once that a Moabite can never enter the congregation of Israel, Ruth, a Moabite, marries a Jewish man and becomes the great-grandmother of none other than King David himself. 
It appears that the author of the Book of Ruth is challenging Ezra’s decree that foreigners, people from other lands, other races, are unwelcome in the Jewish community. Not only are they welcome, but they can become role models — even found a royal line. This is one of the primary messages of the Book of Ruth, and of the Festival of Shavuoth.  We do not look at bloodlines, at race, at national origin when determining who is a worthy person. We look at character and at values, not at biology and lineage.  Hatred of those who are different from us contradicts the fundamental values of Judaism.
Today, in our own times, we continue to hear echoes of that age old struggle of us versus them, of the audacity of some of us, that like Mr. Sterling, who remain small minded and parochial, who feel entitled to openly and blatantly see others not as fellow human beings, but as “the other” based on the color of their skin, their race, their sexual orientation, their class, their foreignness. This, I believe, challenges each of us to look inwards and ask ourselves where to we stand not only as people but as Jews.  Let’s strive to do the right thing guided by our Jewish values of tolerance, acceptance, and compassion.