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. Abednego

    Zechariah 7:9
    “Thus says the Lord of hosts, show kindness and mercy to one another."

    November 7, 2013 at 8:36 am |
    • Meshach

      Be kind and compassionate one to another...
      Ephesians 4

      November 7, 2013 at 8:39 am |
    • Shadrach

      Proverbs 16 Pleasant words are a honeycomb,
      Sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.

      November 7, 2013 at 8:41 am |
    • Daniel


      November 7, 2013 at 8:42 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      "I will fill your mountains with the dead. Your hills, your valleys, and your streams will be filled with people slaughtered by the sword. I will make you desolate forever. Your cities will never be rebuilt. Then you will know that I am the LORD." (Ezekiel 35:7-9 NLT)

      November 7, 2013 at 8:48 am |
  2. Portland tony

    They are a professional football team for god-sake. Their name, although I grew up using it, makes no difference to me. However, in my life time even back in the day, I honestly never ever associated the "Washington Redskins" with a particular American Indian or Indian tribe. Perhaps I knew American Indians don't have red skin, I knew from the Boy Scouts some of their generic customs etc...and that none of there're games had anything to do with American football. I know their is no modern general usage of the word "redskin" when referring to the American Indian...ironically in America the "Skins" or "redskins" means Washington's football team. But I guess you could call them the Washington "Do-nothing's" and we'd all get used to it. And instead of a "Hollywood Indian" as a mascot, they could use a politician instead!

    November 6, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
    • Carol Valoris

      It isn't about red skin, it was the term they used to sell indian scalps when they cut them off. That is the sickening part. Go to the American Indian museum and see what they have about that and then make a knowledgeable decision. I grew up here all my life, loved them, went to games, had tickets – and now I have turned them in and don't wear the clothing any longer as I wouldn't want my ethnic groups slang name on a shirt either. I still love the team and football but in good conscience think this is so unkind. Think about it.

      November 7, 2013 at 10:08 am |
      • Indian heritage

        I really wish people would think before speaking or typing. because if you would, you would know that the Indians are the ones that created scalping. And to realize that what you see in most museums are not always correct and accurate because of who is funding that museum.

        November 7, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
      • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

        According to wikipedia:

        "The first use of red-skin or red Indian may have been limited to specific groups that used red pigments to decorate their bodies, such as the Beothuk people of Newfoundland who painted their bodies with red ochre. Redskin is first recorded in the late 17th century and was applied to the Algonquian peoples generally, but specifically to the Lenape or Delaware (who lived in what is now southern New York State and New York City, New Jersey, and eastern Pennsylvania). Redskin referred not to the natural skin color of the Lenape, but to their use of vermilion face paint and body pain.

        Whatever the origin, the word is deliberately pejorative and offensive.

        November 7, 2013 at 9:06 pm |
  3. Paul

    Rabbis, where were you before the hubbub? Were you not aware of the Washington Redskins prior to the media exposure? Seems to be a form of popular affrontery. Best wishes. pp

    November 6, 2013 at 9:56 pm |
  4. I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

    They are the Redskins and anybody who says differently can suck my balls.

    November 6, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
    • Tina


      November 6, 2013 at 9:37 pm |
  5. Reality # 2

    What these orthodox rabbis should be a lot more concerned about i.e. their bogus religion:

    origin: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482 NY Times review and important enough to reiterate.

    New Torah For Modern Minds

    “Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. (prob•a•bly
    Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell).

    The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

    Such startling propositions - the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years - have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity - until now.

    The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called "Etz Hayim" ("Tree of Life" in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine doc-ument.

    The notion that the Bible is not literally true "is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis," observed David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to "Etz Hayim." But some congregants, he said, "may not like the stark airing of it." Last Passover, in a sermon to 2,200 congregants at his synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe frankly said that "virtually every modern archaeologist" agrees "that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all." The rabbi offered what he called a "LITANY OF DISILLUSION”' about the narrative, including contradictions, improbabilities, chronological lapses and the absence of corroborating evidence. In fact, he said, archaeologists digging in the Sinai have "found no trace of the tribes of Israel - not one shard of pottery."

    November 6, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
  6. Fred

    Considering their nature, people have it too good under this form of government. They need a government that matches their nature.

    November 6, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
    • Sara

      Jackie Chan used this argument to claim that the Chinese weren't suited to democracy. Didn't do his career much good.

      November 7, 2013 at 6:56 am |
  7. bostontola

    "Words are words and deeds are deeds, but words lead to deeds. That's why words are so dangerous."

    That's why Christian Fundamentalists are so dangerous. They want to change history textbooks to say the US was founded on Christianity, change science textbooks to say that creationism is science.

    November 6, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
  8. Fred

    America needs a benevolent dictator with absolute power who can destroy the insanity of political correctness, punishing those who promote it. I'm sick of living under it perpetually.

    November 6, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
    • Maddy


      November 6, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
      • Maddy

        Fail. 🙄

        November 6, 2013 at 7:10 pm |
    • Portland tony

      Agree! Too bad god doesn't give a damn!

      November 6, 2013 at 11:31 pm |
  9. Fix it

    Who would be offended by the number 4? Red is offensive, so I think foreskins is appropriate for DC.

    November 6, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
  10. ME II

    Thanks Rabbis! It is good to hear from another group on here.

    p.s. I think the name should change.

    November 6, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
    • Sara

      One of the problems is that about 10 years ago a poll found the vast majority of native americans were neutral or positive on the name. Yes, there were polling controversies, but it isn't that clear cut.

      November 6, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
      • ME II

        I would err on the side of not offending anyone. However, I'm not a fan of pro sports in general and football in particular, so my opinion is of little import.

        November 6, 2013 at 4:46 pm |
        • Sara

          Yeah, me too. What I would probably do is create an advisory counsel of people in the native american community to look at the naming issue and see if there were name suggestions that they felt honored the community and join this up with a broader naming council, then pick the top 3 or 4 candidates and leak them to the public to test the waters...but hey, I don't care about football (football, right?) much either.

          November 6, 2013 at 7:13 pm |
      • nativealltheway

        I don't consider 768 Native Americans "vast majority."

        November 7, 2013 at 10:34 am |
  11. Guest

    I think the team could stand a name change. Lots of other options out there.

    November 6, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
  12. 29ers

    Change the name, make this fun, have a team naming compt.ition and call for suggestions.

    Here are a few name suggestions to get you started:

    Washington Cubs

    Washington Lions

    Washington Killer Whales

    Washington Oaks


    Washington Gentle Giants

    November 6, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
    • Patriot

      How about "Cherry Blossom"?

      November 6, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
    • Maddy

      The Cubs and the Lions have been taken...

      November 6, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Hmmm .... Washington Pandas?

      How about something more Congressionally inspired?

      Washington Muckrakers
      Washington Mudslingers
      Washington Filibusters
      Washington "Pawns of the monied interest" (a bit long winded perhaps)

      "DC United" has to be the most ironic sports team name ever coined.

      November 6, 2013 at 6:24 pm |
      • Maddy

        The Washington Pandas. Fantastic.

        November 6, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • Roger that

      The Washington Water Gators? No?

      November 6, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
    • demaris


      (no I'm not kidding)

      November 7, 2013 at 11:13 pm |
  13. George

    Most people are oblivious to an offensive statement as long as it does not affect them.
    Great to see the Rabbis stand up for this name change.

    Also, great quote from the book of Proverbs.

    November 6, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
  14. Sam S

    These rabbis have no place commenting. It is the latest political correctness run amok. Stick to teaching halacha guys not the latest bandwagon issue. Your congregants and salary payers would appreciate it.

    November 6, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  15. Gol

    Joseph Washakie- "You like the Redskins?"
    Sam Beckett- "Best da mn team in America!"

    November 6, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
  16. CommonSensed

    Call Palin so she can have a book ghost-written about it.

    November 6, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
  17. Ed

    This is another attack in the war on Christmas.

    November 6, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
    • Maddy

      I blame the failed policies of Calvin Coolidge.

      November 6, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
  18. John

    Minorities won't even obey written rules, but they expect
    whites to obey their unwritten rules about what can and cannot be said.

    November 6, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      how's the KKK treatin' ya?

      November 6, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
    • Maddy

      Sig Heil, John.

      November 6, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
  19. I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

    Oh p!ss off with your PC bullsh!t.

    November 6, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
  20. Jonathan

    Agree, Luke 6:31

    November 6, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
    • CommonSensed

      Disagree, The Return of the King 6:53.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
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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.