What a Basketball Star Teaches about Antisemitism

Here is my sermon from Friday night.

As a kid growing up in Los Angeles there were many advantages. Surely one of them were the Los Angeles Lakers of 1987 and 1988. Playing center was the graceful Kareem Abdul-Jabbar whose iconic skyhook was one of the most graceful basketball shots of all time. Even today I can close my eyes and see Magic Johnson bringing the ball down the court and finding Kareem who seamlessly moved his 7 foot 2 inch frame into position away from a defender and released the basketball in a perfect arc with just the right amount of back spin. Kareem was a basketball fan’s dream center; fast, tall, quick hands, and an excellent free point shooter. Today, decades later, Kareem continues to be an exemplar for new reasons.

This week Kareem wrote a piece calling out the recent round of antisemetic tweets and posts from Black sports and entertainment celebrities. The rapper Ice Cube, NFL player DeSean Jackson, NBA player Stephen Jackson, said and wrote antisemetic messages that are cause for alarm for everyone.

Kareem wrote:

Recent incidents of anti-Semitic tweets and posts from sports and entertainment celebrities are a very troubling omen for the future of the Black Lives Matter movement, but so too is the shocking lack of massive indignation. Given the New Woke-fulness in Hollywood and the sports world, we expected more passionate public outrage. What we got was a shrug of meh-rage.

When reading the dark squishy entrails of popular culture, meh-rage in the face of sustained prejudice is an indisputable sign of the coming Apatholypse: apathy to all forms of social justice. After all, if it’s OK to discriminate against one group of people by hauling out cultural stereotypes without much pushback, it must be OK to do the same to others. Illogic begets illogic.[1]

Kareem’s warning of the coming Apatholypse, a widening sense of apathy of social justice and a myriad of other issues ought to be a warning to each of us. When we as a faith community stop ringing the alarm bells at injustice, we become part of the problem instead of part of the solution.

We need to harken to our own calendar warnings for apathy, too. We are amid the period in our tradition known as the three weeks that mark the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av, dates of trouble and turmoil for our people. The Mishna teaches that Moses broke the first set of tablets of the 10 Commandments on the 17th of Tammuz, the Romans forbade sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 69 CE, and in the year 70 the Romans breeched the Temple walls leading to the destruction of the Temple on the 9th of Av.[2] These three weeks are a period of semi-mourning and decreasing joy for some Jews as they lead into the nine days of the month of Av, traditionally a day with a 25-hour like Yom Kippur when we read the book of Lamentations. The destruction of the Temple though historically caused by the Romans and their conquest of the lands of the Middle East as the Roman Empire expanded has a different root theologically and on the psyche of the Jewish people. The Temple, the epicenter for Jewish life at the beginning of the millennium, is destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred, unwarranted apathy of people towards one another.[3]

We know the perils of apathy and we cannot afford to be silent when we begin to hear antisemitic tropes ever. A pandemic cannot quiet us. Our alliance with our siblings of color screaming for systemic change to the racist systems of oppression cannot distract us either.

Our Reform movement’s Union for Reform Judaism and Central Conference of American Rabbis issued a statement today that clarifies our position. The statement says:

Some in our country are resistant to the overdue changes and glimmer of hope which are blossoming for Black Americans at this moment of national reckoning. However, their efforts to impede important coalitions of change and sow seeds of division belie the fact that when any of us are oppressed, we are all oppressed. We as Reform Jews will not allow antisemitic words from individual members of an oppressed minority to diminish our support of Black lives or detract from our commitment to the dismantling of systemic and structural racism in our country. Instead of questioning the commitment of others, we reaffirm our own.[4]

We need to call out antisemitism every single time it rears its ugly head. We need to continue to educate ourselves and our allies so that our enemies’ attempts at fueling the fire of hatred get no oxygen. We need to be what Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin called “angelic troublemakers,” we cannot rest or be part of the Apatholypse because the threats to justice overwhelm us or seem like someone else’s problem. The book of Lamentations concludes with a verse we know well, “hashiveinu Adonai elecha v’nashuva, chadeish yameinu k’kedem, bring us back to You, Adonai, that we come back, renew our days as of old.”[5] May our weary souls find strength in our Eternal God and may our faith strengthen us as we root out baseless hatred in our hearts and in our world. Amen.


[1] https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/kareem-abdul-jabbar-is-outrage-anti-semitism-sports-hollywood-1303210

[2] Taanit 4:6.

[3] Yoma 9b.

[4] https://www.ccarnet.org/the-reform-movement-condemns-recent-antisemitic-statements/?fbclid=IwAR0QPMzFoeCIbCZUD9wm3hUB5dgWoOYf6xFg4FLXWPFy5A1vEppdeeq1Zss

[5] Lamentations 5:21.

About rabbisteinman

I am a rabbi living in North America. I was ordained from HUC-JIR. This is my blog.
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