Friday, May 24, 2013

Striving to Be Human: Jason Collins's Coming Out is a Jewish Story

[Author's note:  This is slightly adapted from a sermon I gave on May 3, 2013.]

I don’t follow sports too closely. In fact, until attending Florida State University, I think it’s fair to say that I didn’t follow sports at all, but it’s hard not to be aware of football when your alma mater won the National Championship the year you graduated. Recently, though, a sports story rose to my attention and perhaps it did to yours, too, even if you don’t regularly follow sports. Jason Collins, a center on the basketball team the Washington Wizards, came out as gay. He is the first active male athlete in what’s known as the “Big Four” of team sports – baseball, basketball, football, and hockey – to come out.

The story first appeared on Sports Illustrated’s website on Monday, May 29, 2013 and is the cover story of their May 6, 2013 issue. Earlier in the week, the story sparked my interest, but not because it resonated Jewishly for me. Being part of the LGBTQ community, Collins’s coming out was a big deal, but I wasn’t sure it really mattered Jewishly. Then, as the week progressed, my thoughts changed. Later that week, a friend and colleague asked for advice in the rabbinic Facebook group. Having written a piece from a Jewish perspective about Collins, my colleague had gotten some nasty comments in a public forum. He was torn about whether or not to respond. As it turned out, the comments weren’t even related to Collins’s coming out. They were anti-Semitic comments because the article was written from a Jewish perspective. Our colleagues, rightly so, encouraged him not to respond.

It struck me how a story about a man speaking the truth about who he is was twisted into an attack on Judaism, even by people who claimed to understand and support the LGBTQ community, including one comment written by someone who identified as gay. I started wondering how much Collins’s public statement about being true to himself and leading the way for others resonated with what Judaism means for me.

In the Sports Illustrated article, Jason Collins begins: “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay. “I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different.’ If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”

To me, that sounds Jewish. Because no one else is stepping up, I must. In Pirke Avot (2:5), Hillel teaches, "B'makom she-ein anashim, hishtadeil lihiyot ish, In a place where no one acts like a human being, strive to be human." There were plenty of reactions to the news about Jason Collins that didn’t deem it noteworthy. With Piers Morgan on CNN, Ben Shapiro, a conservative political commentator, defended a tweet he sent. Shapiro had tweeted, “So Jason Collins is a hero because he’s gay? Our standard for heroism has dropped quite a bit since Normandy.”

In the interview with Piers Morgan, Ben Shapiro argued that Jason Collins’s coming out was no different than Piers Morgan’s speaking with a British accent or his own wearing a yarmulke on national television. All three are just being who you are and there’s nothing heroic about that. I would agree with Shapiro, except for Hillel’s point. In a place where no one else can be who they are – perhaps they lack courage; perhaps they are simply too afraid – being the only one acts like a human being, being who he is, is courageous, in my opinion. Where no one else like him can yet be a full human being, Jason Collins is striving to be human.

On the other end of the spectrum, there were those who compared Jason Collins to Jackie Robinson, which is timely given the recent release of the film 42, the biographical drama about Jackie Robinson and the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers season. David Stanley, a member of a Reform synagogue in Michigan and a teacher, athlete, and coach, made such a comparison in a piece for the Reform Judaism Blog. David Stanley argues that Collins’s coming out is a huge deal on the scale of Jackie Robinson. He parallels the two athletes, sharing that part of the reason why Jackie Robinson was signed was because it simply was the right thing to do. Like Collins, Robinson wished he hadn’t needed to be like the kid in class raising his hand to proclaim his being different, but he was, and so he stepped up to the plate. He compares the athleticism of the two, recognizing Robinson “as a tough, hard-as-nails second baseman who took [nothing] from no one. Collins has always been the guy who set the picks, takes the charges, knocks guys to the floor – in other word, a tough, hard-as-nails center who takes [nothing] from no one.”

If there’s a message in Jason Collins’s story for us, it’s the constant reminder that the world in which we live is not yet perfect and that we have before us the task of perfecting it. We can’t just sit around waiting for the world to perfect itself. In fact, reflecting on why he hadn’t come out until now, Jason Collins wrote, “The recent Boston Marathon bombing reinforced the notion that I shouldn’t wait for the circumstances of my coming out to be perfect. Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?” This reminds me, the world is not perfect; we are perfecting it. We can’t do everything, but when we recognize that no one else is stepping forward, we have a responsibility to do so. We don’t have to complete the task, but we can’t be content sitting on the bench, either. Whether or not you’re a sports’ fan, I encourage you to read Jason Collins’s piece in the current issue of Sports Illustrated. His coming out, in my opinion, is a Jewish story. Jason Collins knows that where no one else is able like a human being, being human is a heroic act.

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