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How Does a Jew “Take a Knee”?

Colin Kaepernick knows what he stands for and he knows what he will not stand for.  He lost his job in 2017 for taking a knee in silent protest of police brutality against Black Americans.  Only now has the NFL Commissioner apologized.  Only now is the world waking up to better understand his silent statement and only now are there slow, but significant steps being taken in the direction of racial justice.

Sports fans know that at first, Kaepernick remained seated on the bench while the national anthem played, but after speaking with Retired Army Green Beret Nate Boyer he came to understand that kneeling would be more respectful of the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend the flag.  Why was Kaepernick punished for his peaceful, thoughtful, and just protest?

And why, more recently, was NFL athlete DeSean Jackson hardly censured for his blatant antisemitic Instagram comments?  Why were the other athletes and celebrities who defended his stance barely called out?  Many are now asking:  Why is Jew Hatred tolerated?  God bless NBA Hall of Famer, Kareen Abdul-Jabaar, who wrote: “Where is the Outrage?”

Black North Americans ought not be exonerated for their antisemitism just as committed Jews ought not be exonerated for their racism.   Yes, just as love is love is love, hate is hate is hate.  When we play the game of comparative suffering, everyone loses.  There is no justification for antisemitism and there must be no tolerance of racism in any of its ugly forms.  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King taught: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”

We need more voices to shout down hatred and call out injustice wherever is festers.  I invite you to consider this petition prepared by CIJA (Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs) to tell Premier Ford to pass the Combating Antisemitism Act into Law.  I invite you to join the teams of Holy Blossom’s new Anti-Racism Committee by reaching out to Rabbi Helfman and Jill Witkin, VP of our Department for Tikun Olam.

How does a Jew “take a knee”?

It often starts when the rabbi says, “Please rise.” or “We stand together.”  That’s the signal that the service is coming to conclusion and it’s time for The Aleinu prayer.  When we rise to stand together, we remind one another what we stand for and what we will not stand for.

“Aleinu” means “It is upon us.”  We rise and stand in solidarity with fellow Jews to pledge our allegiance to God on High, to praise the Author of all Creation.  And then we kneel and bow to Melech Malchei HaMelachim, to the Sovereign Ruler who rules over all human rulers, who are inevitably flawed.  The choreography is filled with reverence and humility in God’s majestic presence.   The simple melody doesn’t match the profound declaration. “Know then this day and take it to heart:  The Eternal is God in the heavens above and on the earth below; there is none else.”  (Deuteronomy 4:39)

But we don’t end there.  The Aleinu begins with Jewish unity and bended knee to devote ourselves to the One God, but the Aleinu is not complete until we expand our prayers to include a universal hope that one day all humanity will be united as one under God who is one.  We pray: “Soon may we behold the glory of Your power…. Mend the world with Your Sovereignty.  Then all humanity will call upon Your name and even the wicked will turn toward You.  All the inhabitants of the earth will come to know that unto You every knee must bend and every tongue swear loyalty.  Before You, Adonai, let them humble themselves.”

The Aleinu is not a prayer that one day everyone will be Jewish.  It is a noble vision that everyone, one day, will be human and humane.  It is a hope that hearts will soften and the false gods of hatred and hierarchy will give way to the truth that every human being is created in the image of God.  It is a longing for the day when the idolatry of bigotry will crumble and be replaced with devotion to God whose desire is for righteousness and justice.

Then and Now

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Martin Buber taught: “Fulfillment in a Then is inextricably bound up with fulfillment in the Now.”  The Aleinu binds the two together with urgency.

To be a Jew is to have our hopeful eyes always set on the horizon and our feet firmly planted in the here and now.  To be a Jew is to ask, “What does this moment demand of me?”  To be a Jew is to do my part in fulfilling God’s expectations of humanity as articulated by the Prophet Jeremiah: “Let not the wise glory in their wisdom, neither let the mighty glory in their might.  Let not the rich glory in their riches, but let them that glory, glory in this – that I am the Eternal who acts with love, justice, and righteousness on earth!”  (Jeremiah 9:22-23)

To be a Jew means to bend a knee and bow our heads to demonstrate to ourselves that when in God’s Presence, callousness and ignorance must give way to humility and discernment.  To be a Jew means to lift up our heads in pride in the distinct covenant we keep between God and the Jewish People.  To be a Jew is to embrace with gratitude every opportunity to bring humanity together as one, as God is One.

The late and great Congressman John Lewis was a man of faith.  He echoed the expansive and universalist theme of The Aleinu when he said: “We are one people with one family. We all live in the same house…Through books, through information, we must find a way to say to people that we must lay down the burden of hate. For hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”



Colin Kaepernick, September 2016.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King kneeling in prayerful protest in Selma, Alabama, 1965.
Aleinu in Jerusalem and in the Diaspora

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  • Michael Leese

    Rabbi Splansky:
    Your words truly resonated with me as someone who takes careful note of sports and celebrity figures. It’s what I would expect from our senior scholar at HBT, but the article by Kareem was shockingly eloquent from a former pro athlete and the GOAT NBA player in my humble opinion.

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