Anti-Black comments by Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles’ Clippers, have been heard and rejected far and wide. NBA commissioner Adam Silver defused the anger of players and coaches, the dismay of fans and withdrawals by Clippers sponsors by banning Sterling for life. But let’s consider another issue potentially more frightening than Sterling’s racist comments.

We gain some perspective with this week’s Torah portion, Emor (Speak), in the Book of Leviticus. In addition to key commandments relating to priests in the Temple and the food offerings they consume. Emor relates the story of a “half-Israelite” (Egyptian father), who fights with a full Israelite. The “half-Israelite” then profanes the name of God, although we don’t know what he says. God instructs Moses that the man is to be stoned to death, and the sentence is carried out.

The condemned man does not die for any act he performs. The fight is not an issue. Rather, his words prove offensive to the holiness of God and Israel. The Torah doesn’t reveal how many Israelites hear the condemned man profane God’s name, but he makes his statement publicly. His words could have incited some or even many in the Israelite camp to join him in rejecting God, thus his punishment.

There’s a parallel in Donald Sterling’s voiced rejection of African Americans and the firestorm that hit him. But the circumstances, God aside, also present serious differences. Sterling made his comments, wrong as they are, in private. It seems that only he and his girlfriend, with whom he spoke on the telephone, heard his remarks. It also seems that his girlfriend purposely recorded him, perhaps goaded him as they spoke then released the recording to embarrass him.

Let’s be honest. Sterling’s remarks were never intended to be made public or to sway anyone but his girlfriend. This should lead us to consider two ideas. First, hateful talk, even when private, can come back to haunt us. Second, we no longer enjoy any comprehensive freedom to express ourselves—including our prejudices. Who knows when we’re being recorded and by whom? And the means to air recorded comments abound. If private words are made public, we may be condemned not for what we’ve done but for what we’ve said. Our deepest feelings, misguided as they may be, can be used against us.

Are the thought police now out in force? If so, who has the right to determine which of our private utterances—even those we view as innocent or taken out of context—can be leveraged to take away our jobs and possessions not to mention our reputations?

I make no excuses for Donald Sterling. I also believe that Adam Silver did the right thing for the NBA. But someone recorded a private conversation without Sterling’s permission then used it against him. There’s something wrong about that.

The Rabbis cautioned against lashon hara—bad/evil speech or gossip. Their counsel is even more important today, in part because the Donald Sterling affair takes us towards, if not down, a slippery slope. Should Americans’ private statements condemn them not simply to disapproval or ridicule but also to some form of punishment? We as a nation say we revere free speech. Is this just words?

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

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  1. Ron Laupheimer on May 2, 2014 at 4:43 pm

    Lynn and I have discussed the “Donald Sterling” melodrama several times over the last week. Not supporting Sterling whatsoever, I have tried to articulate what I bothers me with this whole episode, but you have said it better. I do not believe that most people on focused on the “slippery slope” you described and questioned, rather focusing on the hateful words of Sterling. He is a little different than most of us, being a public figure who is subject to different legal rules and should always expect what he says to be recorded, filmed, etc. and broadcasted everywhere. Nevertheless, what has happened here can occur with any of us and unfortunately will likely restrict what we say to others in the future to avoid a similar result. That is a real shame since we will not be able to really know and understand how others feel about matters if they are reluctant or unwilling to express their true feelings to us.

    BTW: I heard that Sterling’s mistress swears she did NOT release the tape to TMZ or anyone else. If that is true, how did the tapes become public?

  2. Tracy on May 3, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

    Donald Sterling’s comments were double plus ungood, and the MiniSpeak will be rendering an announcement shortly.

    Clearly, if you want to keep a secret, you have to hide it from yourself.

  3. Carolyn Perlstein on May 16, 2014 at 7:46 pm

    A big mouth in today’s digital age is a big problem for anyone.

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