Q: I'm writing today about race. I'm a member of an organization that tries to reduce racism in our community, so I'm quite sensitive to this issue. In light of the NBA/Donald Sterling fiasco, I felt compelled to write. Fortunately, the NBA took decisive action. Unfortunately, racism is still alive and well. What are your thoughts about this incident and about racism in general? Thank you for your wonderful insight, wisdom and warmth.
— A., Long Island, New York
A: My Grandma Sarah taught me that I should always live my life in a way that would not bring embarrassment to the Jewish people. Sterling did not do that, but thankfully, Adam Silver did. In the days and months ahead, I hope people think more about Silver than Sterling. I certainly will.
I was especially disappointed that some political commentators chose to focus on the hypocrisy of condemning one kind of bigot while saying nothing about others who still enjoy public support despite their odious past behavior and statements. This is true but irrelevant. It's like complaining to the traffic cop who stops you that you weren't the only one speeding down the highway. It's what you did that matters.
My point of view, like yours, is to focus on why prejudice still thrives in our culture. There are so many forces that sustain bigotry that it's truly surprising that, as a culture, we've made any strides to reduce it. At its root, the problem is tribalism. We're essentially tribal animals. We stick with groups most like ourselves. We like to see in others what we see when we look in a mirror. Zebras hang with other zebras.
This tendency toward tribalism can infect even those cultural institutions that could and should serve as anti-tribal forces for unity and acceptance. I'm thinking especially of sports and religion.
Sports can bring us together by teaching us to admire athletic achievement. Winning has no color, but as the occasional deadly soccer riots prove, sometimes your team is nothing more than your tribe. Both as an owner and as a Jew, Sterling should have understood that professional basketball has always been a shining example of equality and diversity. Shame on him. If I were his rabbi, I'd force him to listen to all my sermons — twice.
Religion can be a force for unity, but religion can also be infected by the virus of tribalism. In certain places, Islam has been hijacked by those who view the Ummah (the world community of Muslims) not as a compassionate witness to Allah but as a murderous tribe.
Until Vatican II, the same virus infected Catholicism. The same tribal tendency also exists in Judaism among those who view the Bible as a manifesto rather than as a compassionate teaching of "how good and sweet it is for brothers to dwell together in peace" (Psalm 133:1).
Despite this, I believe that religion — true religion — remains the most powerful antidote to the poison of tribalism in our world today. I believe this because of the teachings of Scripture that we human beings are all made in the image of God and therefore are all equally holy (Gen1:27).
I believe this because we're commanded in the supreme law of God's revelation to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Lev 19:18), and then, as if to anticipate the misinterpretation of the Golden Rule in verse 18 by those who would wrongly teach that it only applies to loving other members of your own tribe, we read in verse 34 that we should love the stranger — the non-tribal member — as we love ourselves.
God does not hate tribes, but God does hate tribes that teach us to hate each other. Moses' sister Miriam is punished with leprosy for racist remarks she made against her sister-in-law, Zipporah, Moses' wife (Numbers, Chapter 12).
The prophet Amos rebuked the Jewish tribalists in the eighth century BCE by reminding them that race does not matter in God's eyes: "Are ye not as children of the Ethiopians unto me, O children of Israel? saith the Lord. Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt? and the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Syrians from Kir?" (Amos 9:7).
Understood properly and with a spiritually generous heart, religion transcends nations and teams and every tribal construct and urges us — no, commands us — to find each other.
I wish I could read this by Edwin Markham to Sterling:
He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took him in.
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