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The rabbis vs. the Redskins: A religious case against offensive nicknames
Some religious leaders say that the Washington Redskins should drop their nickname.
November 6th, 2013
12:01 PM ET

The rabbis vs. the Redskins: A religious case against offensive nicknames

Opinion by Rabbi Aaron Frank and Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, Special to CNN

(CNN) - Should religious leaders care about a football team’s name? We believe the answer is yes.

Religious leaders have a mandate to inspire their communities to come closer to God. Sometimes this requires speaking out about even something as secular as a football team’s name.

We are so concerned about the name of Washington's National Football League team that we are encouraging our synagogues and our schools to become Redskins-free zones.

Synagogues and religious schools are places where we strive toward a broader awareness of the godly nature of all humanity. That's why the Redskins name has no place in our halls and walls.

The name represents a derogatory term and recalls a brutal history of genocide and torture - a past of racist dehumanization inflicted upon the American Indians of the United States.

The Bible's Book of Proverbs states: “Death and life are in the hand of the tongue.”

This means that the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me” is simply not true. Words are words and deeds are deeds, but words lead to deeds. That's why words are so dangerous.

When a name conjures up imagery of violence, oppression, and hurtful behavior, it is time for the name to go.

True, there is history and nostalgia in the name and history of the team.

Rabbi Frank's father has had tickets since the 1960s and has taken him to games since he was a child. They are part of his family history. He has fond memories of football moments and loves the generational bonding that takes place on NFL Sundays.

But after countless letters to The Washington Post and to Redskins ownership with no response, he now refuses to wear any clothing with the team logo or the team name.

When nostalgia and correcting past wrongdoing come in conflict, there is no doubt as to which side one must be on.

The Jewish Talmud attributes the blessing of a long life to those who are sensitive about the use of a nickname in referring to other people.

So too, the Talmud teaches that one who is not sensitive about the use of a derogatory nickname will never have the ability to ascend from the depths of gehennim - or hell, as Gentiles might call it.

We don’t believe that these statements are literal. But we do believe that they are here to remind us of the importance of being sensitive to the dangers of seemingly harmless nicknames.

These statements by our sages are meant to allow us to try to stand in the shoes of others and listen to those who are offended by insensitive language.

Dan Snyder, the owner of Washington's football team, knows this better than anyone.

In 2010, Snyder filed suit against the Washington City Paper. The suit claimed that the City Paper "featured an anti-Semitic depiction of Mr. Snyder with horns on his head, bushy eyebrows, and surrounded by dollar signs." The suit also claimed that no reasonable person would “tolerate an anti-Semitic caricature of himself.”

Now, the shoe is on the other foot.

This reminds us of another teaching from the Talmud: "That which is hateful to you do not do onto others. That is the basis of the Torah.”

We are calling upon rabbis and clergy of all faiths to join us and commit to the following actions:

1) Work to make our religious institutions Redskins-free zones. Refrain from using or displaying the name or derogatory logo in any public areas, public discussions, forums or institutional programs.

2) Teach our students in the classroom about why we have taken this position on a matter that doesn’t immediately present itself as Jewish.

3) Do not purchase any Redskins merchandise that displays the name or derogatory logo.

We look forward to the time when the name of the Washington football team will be changed and thus the sports team can again bring our city to a beautiful place, a place that represents the best of what a sports team can offer a city, a unifying force that brings us together and brings joy to our lives.

Until the team drops its logo and changes its name, we will watch with sadness as the potential for unity and harmony is blocked by a symbol of bigotry.

Rabbi Aaron Frank is high school principal of Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Baltimore. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld is rabbi of Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue in Washington. The views expressed in this column belong to them.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bible • Discrimination • Ethics • Judaism • Sports

soundoff (77 Responses)
  1. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    November 11, 2013 at 11:05 am |
  2. Gary W Sumlar BSCS, MBA

    Beautifully stated! Let us also be reminded that this name was given to this team when it was moved to Washington in 1937 by a owner who openly shared his racist views George Preston Marshall (Last team to integrate)

    November 10, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.