On Sunday night, many observant Jews will be among
the hundreds of millions of people watching the Jets fan’s nightmare as
the Giants play the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
Many Orthodox Jews are sports fans, as is evident by
the number of us at sporting events and the prevalence of kosher food
stands and even minyanim
(prayer groups) at numerous stadiums and arenas. Tamir Goodman’s high
school basketball feats were closely watched by Orthodox Jews, who
continued to follow him in college and in his professional play in
Israel and now with the Maryland Nighthawks. Last season, one of the
Internet’s most respected analysts of the New York Rangers was The
Hockey Rabbi, a self-identified "Chassidic Jew who loves my family, G-d
and the Rangers."
Clearly, sports, probably more than any other
leisure activity (if watching the Mets collapse and decades of Jets
futility can be called "leisure") is something that many observant Jews
take an interest in. This includes many people who take halacha and Judaism very seriously.
Of course, we who are religiously observant believe
– or should believe – that Judaism is the essential aspect of our
lives. Is following sports an acceptable form of recreation? Are there
positive aspects to being a sports fan? Is it bitul Torah (wasting time on a mundane matter), albeit perhaps in a benign form? Is it avodah zarah (idolatry)?
Rabbi Gil Student of Yashar Books and the Hirhurim
blog once said that "movies are often halachically objectionable but at
times they can have artistic value. Football is simply a bunch of men
pummeling each other." Those of us who appreciate a perfectly executed
slant pattern feel differently. Community leader Azriel Ganz wrote
about baseball, "There is nothing like a beautiful night at the ball
park, especially when you are with your kids." For those of us who are
sports fans, that rings true. In light of that, how does sports fit
into our lives as religious Jews?
As Dr. Jeffrey Gurock detailed in his book Judaism’s Encounter with American Sports,
nearly all of the Orthodox Jewish world has come to the recognition
that playing sports is beneficial, though there has been controversy
about yeshivas and day schools fielding competitive sports teams.
If my own experience is any indication, however, the frum
world is ambivalent about the idea of being a sports fan. When I was in
third grade, my yeshiva suddenly banned the possession of baseball
cards – a prohibition that I was soon surprised to learn was intended
to also cover hockey, basketball and football cards. A year or two
later, that same school took my class to a Harlem Globetrotters game at
Madison Square Garden.
For many in the Orthodox world, devoting time to watching and following spectator sports is anathema. My high school menahel
(dean) railed against sports, which he essentially saw as idolatry. One
night in tenth grade I went with two friends to a Mets game. In those
days, just catching the first glimpse of Shea Stadium from aboard the 7
train was a thrill for me. Exiting Shea after the Mets’ win was none
other than our assistant secular studies principal – who during
mornings was a 6th grade rebbe
in my former yeshiva and who had taken his class to the game. He
ordered us to be in his office the next afternoon. We may have broken
school rules, but suffice to say that the idea that sports is an evil
endeavor did not resonate with us – though I was impressed that our
assistant principal took his 6th grade students to the game.
When the hype about Tamir Goodman was at its peak,
Yishai Fleisher, writing in the YU Commentator, called sports a
"mindless endeavor" that perpetuates "material and base values" and,
referring to Jewish interest in sports, lamented that the "Greeks would
have been proud." Last summer, Mr. Fleisher wrote with similar
negativity toward the new (and now apparently defunct) Israel Baseball
League, when he called the idea of baseball in Israel "Kosher
When the Philadelphia Phillies moved one of their
minor league teams to Lakewood, New Jersey, all of the town’s leading
rabbis signed a letter banning attendance at Lakewood BlueClaws games
and directing the expulsion of any yeshiva student who was caught going
to a game.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein stated that one should not attend a sporting event because of the prohibition of moshav letzim (gathering among the scornful).
Others have offered different perspectives about
spectator sports than that of Rav Moshe. For example, according to
Rabbi Mordecai Kornfeld, Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Sheinberg holds that
attendance at a sporting event can be permissible. Further, as Dr.
Gurock and others have pointed out, Mesivta Tiferes Jerusalem, the
yeshiva Rav Moshe headed, participated in competitive sporting events
that included spectators. That would indicate that Rav Moshe did not
believe attendance at all sporting events falls within moshav letzim.
In the opinion of Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet, baseball, in
contrast to the many debased aspects of American culture imported by
Israel, would be a positive American introduction. Perhaps,
accordingly, those who believe moshav letzim
applies to attendance at sporting events would make a distinction
between spending a summer afternoon watching the Petach Tikva Pioneers
play the Modi’in Miracle – as two busloads of us did last summer on an
excursion arranged by the Orthodox Union’s Israel office – and what
they find objectionable about professional sporting events generally.
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, a longtime leader of the
rabbinate who led the growth of Atlanta’s Orthodox community, was
invited by a congregant to attend a Braves World Series game in 1995
and recalled: "I hesitated, because there are many more important
things to do with one’s time. But the sports juices of my youth began
to stir within me."
In the 8th inning, a foul ball headed Rabbi
Feldman’s way and, he remembered, "suddenly I am eighteen years old
again, and instinctively I find myself on my feet. I leap from the
ground, reach backward for the ball, and feel the satisfying slap into
my outstretched palm. I clutch it and tumble down into the row of seats
behind me, where a dozen hands and arms break my fall."
The crowd cheered Rabbi Feldman, as did people in his shul
and community, and indeed around the world, as it became evident that
even in his Jerusalem neighborhood, Rabbi Feldman’s catching a ball
during the World Series had become a renowned event.
Yet Rabbi Feldman could not help but be concerned
that in his Jerusalem neighborhood, where "ball games are for the
vulgar," people will "wonder how it can be that the selfsame person can
say the Shema with tallit over his head, listen attentively to the rav’s divrei Torah, never talk during davening – and then go to the USA and attend sporting events and catch baseballs on television?"
In a 1996 article in the Torah u’Maddah Journal,
Rabbi Mayer Schiller recalled sitting with a "Rosh Yeshiva who waxed
rhapsodic over Ebbets Field," yet "felt obligated to declare those
wondrous memories of his youth ‘shtusim’ [nonsense]."
Rabbi Schiller argued that to the contrary,
"knowledge, beauty and experience of a non-explicitly sacred nature is
good (provided that it is no way sinful)" because they too are
creations of God. Later, Rabbi Schiller explained that "the article put
forth my belief that non-prohibited aspects of the beriah [creation] were given to us by God to bring us joy, and uplift and insight and that all three must make us better ovdei Hashem [servants of God]."
Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer took issue with Rabbi
Schiller’s inclusion of spectator sports as among experiences with
religious value and meaning, particularly given that many high school
students have come to idolize athletes in a manner that is antithetical
to Judaism. In response, Rabbi Schiller agreed with this concern, but
disagreed that it means that being a sports fan is inherently
antithetical to Judaism.
Later, Rabbi Bechhofer explained that while avid
sports fans can be found in various Orthodox groups, the adulation of
athletes is a particular problem in the Modern Orthodox world, in
which, he said, "kids have very few, if any, role models or heroes that
are exemplars of Avodas Hashem [service of God], Torah and Yiras Shomayim [fear of heaven]."
Rabbi Bechhofer’s concerns are certainly well
placed. But as Rabbi Rakeffet recently said, "over the years my
knowledge of baseball made hundreds of kids into bnei Torah ... you have no idea the effect it has on younger students when the rebbe knows baseball… In the kid’s mind, who can be like the rebbe? He’s from a different generation. Suddenly the rebbe opens his mouth to talk baseball and he’s one of the kids. Now he can teach Torah."
Perhaps more realistic than hoping that students
stop watching sports is for their rabbis to relate to them (possibly,
but not necessarily or exclusively, via sports) so that they become
role models who exemplify Avodas Hashem, Torah and Yiras Shomayim.
Similarly, as Azriel Ganz wrote, while ideally
"fathers and sons could talk in learning, that is not often the case,
nor are the sons always interested." Instead, he said, "sports is one
of the few areas where fathers and sons can relate all through their
teenaged years. Even if your kids think you are from Mars, they have derech eretz [respect] for a father who can discuss sports intelligently and who cares enough to take them to ballgames." That derech eretz can, even if not immediately, lead teenagers to respect the path of Torah if it is followed by their father.
When I spoke with him last week, Tamir Goodman emphasized that one must be a Jew both in shul and at the game, and a religious Jew’s actions must be in furtherance of Avodas Hashem.
Taking pains to emphasize that he is not a rabbi, was not offering a
halachic opinion, and has no interest in controversy, Goodman noted
that not everyone has the ability or stamina to learn Torah all day,
that God "created us with a need for recreation," and that if a person
sets time for prayer and Torah study (as he does each morning beginning
at 5:50), and acts at a game in a manner that is a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God), his behavior is laudable.
Unquestionably, the proper balance and perspective
must be maintained. Sports certainly cannot take precedence over, or
interfere with, one’s religious obligations.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, who leads a Conservative
synagogue in Potomac, Maryland, told his congregants in a Rosh Hashanah
sermon that "parents who would never dream of missing a kickoff or the
final seconds of a Redskins game don’t give a second thought to coming
to services late, or leaving early." This criticism is applicable to
some Orthodox Jewish sports fans too, and while none of us is perfect,
that is clearly the wrong approach for an observant Jew, and the wrong
message for a parent to send to a child.
A few months ago at MTA (Yeshiva University’s high
school), Rabbis Bechhofer and Schiller renewed their discussion about
sports, considering whether sports could play a role in Avodas Hashem.
Rabbi Bechhofer agreed that listening to Beethoven or reading fine
literature is of value, but contrasted attending a classical music
concert among a "refined" audience with going to a sporting event
attended by a different kind of crowd.
While acknowledging that Rabbi Bechhofer’s concerns
are well-founded and that interest in sports can be excessive, Rabbi
Schiller argued that watching and appreciating the "exquisite talent"
of great players like Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan is a way to
appreciate God’s creations and gifts, and to thereby be led to Torah.
Those who are not sports fans, he argued, are "tone deaf" in their
inability to understand the value and meaning of sports for those who
In a recent interview with the YU Commentator, Rabbi
Daniel Rapp recognized that spectator sports may "have a place in terms
of relaxation" and as a permissible diversion. However, while noting
that attending movies often has halachic implications, Rabbi Rapp
believed that "a movie can have the potential to effect spiritual
growth," while sports probably could not.
But this need not be the case. A fictional movie can
hardly offer the real life lessons presented by sports. The present
status of Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens demonstrates that
while cheaters often unfairly prosper, there can be severe consequences
to improper behavior. Those of us who enjoyed watching Dwight Gooden
and Darryl Strawberry display their immense God-given gifts for the
1980’s Mets teams saw how quickly and destructively everything can be
lost and one’s abilities can be wasted.
On a more positive note, Cal Ripken’s streak of
playing in 2,632 consecutive games, even when he was injured or
fatigued, is surely a lesson for observant Jews who sometimes feel
tempted to take a break from the rigorous requirements of a halachic
life. Many who knew and still know nothing about hockey find
inspiration in the improbable gold medal victory of the 1980 United
States Olympic hockey team.
While I was in beis medrash (post high-school yeshiva), a rebbe
overheard me and another student in an animated discussion that did not
relate to Gemara. We told him we had been discussing Jim Abbott, who
the day before had pitched a no-hitter. "Nu, so nobody ever threw a
no-hitter before?" our rebbe responded. We explained that Abbott did not have a right hand, making his no-hitter particularly significant. When the rebbe
realized we were serious, he could not help but exclaim, "That’s
incredible!" and emphasize that this shows that with hard work,
obstacles people face can be overcome.
* * *
The thoughts presented in this article are hardly
intended to be comprehensive, let alone in any way conclusive. I hope
others more competent to offer an analysis based upon halacha and hashkafa will submit their own considerations of this subject.
Joseph Schick looks forward to one day witnessing a New York Jets
Super Bowl victory. In the meantime, he writes The Zionist Conspiracy
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