The Zionist Conspiracy
Friday, May 12, 2006
Sports and Judaism Update
Rabbi Mayer Schiller kindly mailed me a copy of his 1997 exchange with Rabbi Yosef Bechhofer about sports and Judaism.
Rabbi Bechhofer's main point was that the adulation of athletes is antithetical to Judaism, and as a result, he expresses negative sentiments toward being a sports fan (he makes a point of stating that participating in sporting activity is generally something positive). While it's difficult to disagree with Rabb Bechhofer's views about adulation of athletes, I wonder whether his perspective was somewhat skewed by the fact that (i) he is presumably not a sports fan; (ii) he lives in Chicago; and (iii) he was writing in the late 90's.
I don't think most sports fans really idolize athletes. If anything, we care mainly about the team, and individual athletes can go from loved to the epitome of evil quite quickly. (See Boston's relationship with Johnny Damon.) However, it is no secret that in Chicago, Michael Jordan was the subject of just the sort of adulation that Rabbi Bechhofer is, not unreasonably, quite wary of. In the late 90's, Jordan had returned from his first retirement (an ill-fated attempt to play baseball), and was in middle of winning another three championships for the Bulls, to add to the three he had won from 1991-1993.
Most sports fans respect aspects of certain athlete's achievements. Wayne Chrebet, for example, beat the odds to go from a walk-on at Jets training camp to a mainstay who played 11 years for the Jets. Between 1999 and 2001, Mets fans were fond of Benny Agbayani, another player who seemingly overachieved and provided some memorable moments. Giants fans respected Lawrence Taylor for his enormous talent and desire to win, but few expressed adulation for LT, and while Phil Simms was well-liked even by non-Giants fans, he never became larger than life, not even after his MVP performance in Super Bowl XXI. The only New York player in recent memory who really was idolized was Mark Messier, but even that had less to do with Messier himself than with the fact that he brought the Rangers their only Stanley Cup since 1940.
Ultimately, Rabbi Bechhofer is right that it's problematic when Orthodox Jewish teens (and certainly adults) know more about sports and athletes than about Judaism and gedolim. But I think that to some extent, he exaggerates the role of sports in this regard. Sports is an easy scapegoat, but while it is not entirely irrelevant to the problem, there are surely ways to engage Jews in their religion without demanding that sports be shunned.