A Holy Shmatte on a Stick

While Standing (Six Feet Apart) on One Foot
June 8, 2020

As my congregants will tell you and for which they jokingly ridicule me, I am not a sports fan. Of course I have been to sporting events and enjoyed them – especially hockey. But I could not name the players on any team, its statistics and in most sports, I can’t eve list the different positions. I honestly don’t know the difference between between a safety and a tight end, for example. I joke that hundreds of trees gave their lives in vain in the days we used to have newspapers delivered to our house since the sports section was never, ever read.

For me to show any interest in sports is highly unusual. For my wife to do so, is downright bizarre. That is why when the NFL is so much in the news with its president Goodell uttering what sound like words of contrition and sorrow, I stood up and listened and what he said become breakfast conversation. These are unprecedented times, indeed!

The protests raging around this country are shaking institutions to the core. Police departments, which have fairly or unfairly often been distrusted by communities of color are confronting their own racial biases because, for the first time ever, so much that happens is videoed. How communities get remolded after this is anyone’s guess but there can be little doubt that in communities all across the country, tectonic shifts are happening.

No one would disagree that football is one of those institutions. Its patriotic themes, the martial expressions used (blitz, long-bomb, etc.), fighter jets flying over the stadia during the national anthem, is all very exciting and visually overpowering. The flag itself becomes the object of adulation and the feeling of solidarity rouses the senses. So when the President of the NFL says he understands how much work needs to be done to address racism and how peaceful protests will be acceptable from now on, he has felt the ground shift under him and he, as a businessman, is shifting with it. By saying it without saying it, he is taking a knee with Colin Kaepernick, admitting that he was right and that, more than anything, is astounding.

The debate over the flag is one that keeps coming up. Is Kaepernick disrespecting the flag or provoking us to confront what the flag has come to mean for so many people, especially people of color? Remember, African-Americans did not come to America. They were hauled here and, in a sense for too many of them, they are still in the belly of the ship. For too many people, that is what the flag represents. Or is the flag some kind of sacred object that deserves respect no matter what? Some believe that it is simply a shmatte on a stick. Others are sure that it is nothing short of a holy object.

Actually, I think both opinions are right. It is a shmatte on a stick and it is holy. It is a shmatte when the worst part of our American souls appeal to patriotism and the image of the flag to justify bigotry. It is a holy symbol when the ideals the flag is supposed to represent is actually the goal towards which we strive as a country. All flags, no matter where they come from, carry a unique load: both the past, present and future of a nation and are infused with individual meaning. No amount of coercion or acts of Twitter are going to force anyone to see the flag in a different way other than the way their souls resonate to it.

For the NFL to publicly state that it was wrong, is its admission that it now understand the consequences of ignoring – or even encouraging – what players have been talking about for a long, long time. While it is probably true that most bigoted and jingoistic fans may complain and eventually boycott the games as they have said they would, the perception of real change will attract more fans and, more importantly, more advertisers.

The NFL pins itself to the myth of American exceptionalism. The events of the past months – the pandemic that still rages and the country’s response to the singular racism too often ignored if not officially sanctioned by police – has thrown a shadow on our very sense of moral superiority. A nation that can’t or won’t confront its racism or whose elected officials can, with a straight face, tell the country that there is no real systemic racism in the country, is a country that has lost its moral compass. And in the midst of a pandemic which is still claiming the lives of thousands a day, how can we really speak about our moral superiority when officials act like its not there? Not speaking about something doesn’t make it go away. I learned that in Grade 2.

Jews have always had this dynamic tension between a symbol and its concrete manifestation versus its meaning. For a couple of classic examples, ever wonder why people kiss the Torah during the march around the synagogue before the reading? Every wonder why many of us kiss the mezuzah upon entering a home? And even though these are symbols of things greater than the object itself, the symbols are often infused with magical powers.

I heard a story from my wife that one of her colleagues tripped on the way into her house. Someone suggested that it was because her mezuzah was not kosher and she needed to change it. Think of that for a second: the mezuzah scroll has a consciousness or, rather, that God sees the scroll is trief and so decides to break this woman’s ankle just to show how upset He is. That is when symbols become talismen and what the Torah calls ‘festishes.’

Symbols are supposed to be just that, symbols. It is what they are supposed to represent that is supposed to inspire us. They are not supposed to become klei kodesh – holy objects – in their own right.

There are relatively few holy objects in Judaism and most of them are literally attached to the Torah. It seems the holiest thing in Judaism is a book. If dropped, it must be kissed. Some people extend this to all books, not just prayerbooks or other sifre kodesh, holy texts. But it is not the book we are kissing. It is the soul of the book we are apologizing to, not the paper and cloth it is made of. It’s not unlike kissing a boo-boo on our child that tripped. We are touching their soul with concern and love, not simply kissing skin and a bruise.

The protests against police brutality may very well be a pivot point in this country. They seem to be the birth-pangs of an emerging awareness that business will not go on as usual and that the everyday racism in the workplace, in the
supermarket, or anywhere else must be addressed. Businesses and individuals can no longer count on the silent acquiescence of the majority especially now when what you say may end up on Twitter completer with a full-colour and crystal clear video! As Bob Dylan said, ‘Times they are a’changin’.’

The emerging symbol out of this moment in American history may very well be George Floyd. But I think, rather, it is going to be a singular football player who took a knee and started a new phase of the conversation about racism that has turned into a megaphone with the broadcasted murder of a black man by the police. The NFL is beginning to confront this publicly.

“Shut up and dribble” (yes, I know that’s basketball, not football) is exposed for what it is: dominant racism implying that others are there for our entertainment and have no rights except the ones we give them. This is the thinking of the Roman Coliseum. And look what happened to Rome. Indeed, those who advocate ‘shut up and dribble’ have a choice: confront real racism and bigotry or be left dribbling nonsense on the side of the road in an evolving society. This is not about a flag and its inherent holiness or whether it is a shmatte on a stick. This is about the soul of this country and whether we will ever be able to put the authentic moral authority upon our shoulders once again.