Destroying a Sterling reputation – A Jewish perspective


My decision to write an article on Donald Sterling goes against the prevailing wisdom and will unfortunately put a damper on any political aspirations I may have had.  My aim is neither to support or condemn, rather to convey a legal analysis of this one particular event.  There should never be a justification in defense of inequality and racism. As Jews we have paid the price of the world’s acquiescence and silent complicity and must be in the forefront of promoting racial equality and a cessation baseless hate. I maintain my moral clarity in spite of my certainty that if the racist diatribes were anti-Semitic or anti-Israel in nature the world’s silence would be silently deafening.  My desire is not to defend the ‘sterling’ character of someone due his biologically Jewish roots; behaviors such as alleged are the antithesis of Jewish ethos and sentiment and are unacceptable.

However it behooves a rational person to look at the matter without pre-judgment and emotions. More so it challenges the Jew to look at the matter from a legal and halachic perspective.  Furthermore recording of a conversation without consent is illegal and inadmissible as evidence.  Although a speedy trial is a desirable right of our democracy, being judge, jury and executioner without giving the defense time to respond is unconscionable. Ayn Rand might even posthumously decide to write a book on the totalitarian regime that has taken over the NBA. Of course we are entitled to form an opinion but to convict and condemn a person without the proper moral compass may be a more egregious a crime than the allegation of being racist (if indeed being a racist is a punishable offense).


The Torah states “Btzedek tishpot amitecha, judge your colleague fairly” (Leviticus19:15). Rashi in his commentary interprets this as the commandment to give everyone the benefit of doubt, or in colloquial terms innocent until proven guilty.

Rav Kahana in Talmud Sanhedrin 17 states that when all of the judges of the Bet Din unanimously decide that the defendant is guilty in a case of capital punishment, he is automatically exonerated from punishment. Maimonides in his codification of Jewish law enforces this legal treatise by ruling (Hilchot Sanhedrin 9:1) “whenever all of the members of the Sanhedrin (Supreme Court) agree to the defendant’s guilt in a case of capital punishment, the defendant is deemed innocent”.


Rabbi Judah Lowy the famed Maharal of Prague explains this ruling by saying a judgment must be a totally pure and straight matter. If all of the judges see that they and their colleagues have decided already that the person is guilty, than no individual judge will make a serious attempt to find a way to prove the defendant’s innocence. If the Torah asserts that without sufficient deliberation no decision can be adequately clarified then the defendant must be exonerated.


In my humble opinion perhaps what the Talmud is articulating is deduced from the biblical exhortation that a judge not be fearful of another man. The Torah commands that all rulings be based on solid evidence and not the fear of going against the popular opinion. If the majority of judges already publicly stipulated their opinion, one could easily assume that intimidation or fear was a factor in their unanimity and thus the judgment is flawed.


Do you or I have any independent knowledge to determine that Mr. Sterling is guilty of being a racist? Was his conviction and ‘execution’ a travesty of justice and something we would accept if we ourselves were the litigants? Even if he is a bigot and racist, is his crime more heinous than the mastermind of 9/11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? Yet in a free country even the most evil of people are granted a fair trial? Those same parties that gave each other the congratulatory pat on the back with the swiftness of punishment against Mr. Sterling, were adamant against assuming the guilt of Saddam Hussein and Omar Gaddafi. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are American values that make us the envy of other nations and we dare not allow the slippery slope of moral indignation to play havoc with our inalienable rights.


Being a Jew is much like being an American. Our laws are a package deal and not subject to our whim or personal agreement. As an American you can accept the law in its in totality or gain your total independence by renouncing your citizenship. We don’t get to pick and choose which laws suit us and which we would do without. I find racism morally repugnant but as a citizen of the United States I was not granted the privilege to unilaterally enact laws that I find to suitable or to my liking. I recall my father telling me if George Wallace would be elected President our family would leave the country.


We are always free to make choices, the question is only, are they the smartest ones?


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jack Engel

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