The Zionist Conspiracy
Friday, May 05, 2006
Sports and Judaism
If my memory is accurate, sometime around the late 90's there was an exchange in the Torah U'Muddah Journal between Rabbi Mayer Schiller and Rabbi Yosef Bechhofer about sports and Judaism.
Unfortunately, it's been nearly a decade since this exchange was published, and it does not appear to be available anywhere online. Therefore, my memory of the exchange, as set forth in the next paragraph, may not represent the actual exchange with precise accuracy.
I believe that within a longer piece about another subject, Rabbi Schiller expressed positive sentiments toward going to baseball games. Rabbi Bechhofer wrote to object, essentially arguing that sports is a complete waste of time, and that high school students - presumably referring to Rabbi Schiller's own students at MTA - idolize athletes in a manner that is antithetical to Jewish values. In his response, Rabbi Schiller conceded that teens (and others) can take sports too seriously, but took the position that there was something valuable about a father and son spending the day together at a baseball game, and that memories of those days together remain cherished ones decades later. Indeed, I think Rabbi Schiller pointed out that a charedi rabbi expressed positive memories of watching the Brooklyn Dodgers play at Ebbets Field.
Other than this exchange, I cannot recall anything else of substance in an Orthodox publication about Judaism's views toward being a sports fan, and/or attending or watching sporting events.
This is unfortunate. We who are religiously observant believe that Judaism is an essential part of our everyday lives. And sports is something that, probably more than any other form of leisure, religious Jews take a strong interest in. Go any night to Shea Stadium or to Madison Square Garden, and you'll see a very disproportionate number of frum Jews.
Around a year ago, I briefly discussed this matter with a person for whom I have respect. He contrasted going to a football game with going to a movie. As he saw it, while a movie might have objectionable material, it could have artistic value, while football is merely a bunch of men attacking each other. Before I could really respond, he conceded that his view was based on his lack of interest in sports. Obviously, those of us who are sports fan would completely disagree with his take. While I don't claim to be objective on the matter, I can hardly see how going to a movie, which usually contains all kinds of curse words, sexual scenes, and violence, is less problematic than attending a sporting event. Certainly, watching a football game on TV would seem to be less objectionable than watching an uncensored movie on TV.
One rationale offered for people to watch sports is that G-d created pleasurable experiences, and there is nothing inherently wrong with partaking of something we find enjoyable. This, of course, may or may not apply to being a fan of teams like the Jets or the Rangers, who most years provide a lot more pain than pleasure.
Any analysis of sports and Judaism would have to deal with several issues. First, there is the issue of simply watching professional (or college) athletes play, whether on television or at a sporting event. Second, there is the matter of following and rooting for a particular team. Third is the question of being a big fan of a particular athlete.
Except for the most strident, watching a game should not be seen as objectionable. On the other hand, being a big fan of a particular athlete could be seen as inappropriate for a frum person, though even there, the matter probably needs to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. For example, one of the most inspiring sports stories has been the incredible feat of Lance Armstrong, who beat cancer and won the Tour de France seven consecutive times. Then again, some aspects of Armstrong's personal life may not make him a perfect role model.
Rooting for a team is tricky. Clearly there are people like me who take this to another level, obsessing about every aspect of a team even in the offseason, and going through year after year of angst and frustration at their teams' ineptitude. But perhaps there is value to this too. After all, after decades of frustration, in 1994, the Rangers had a stated goal of winning the Stanley Cup. At times things looked bleak, but they persevered, worked hard together, and achieved their goal. Isn't there something worthwhile in the experience of the '94 Rangers?
A better example might be the 1980 USA Olympic Hockey team. Even today, 26 years later, this incredible achievement by a group of college kids remains a fabulous story, and not only for sports fans.
Hopefully, before too long, someone with rabbinic ordination and a serious interest in sports will give this issue the thorough analysis that it merits.