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March 29, 2015 / 9 Nisan, 5775
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Sports and the Orthodox Jewish Fan

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 Hellenism.”

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 are fans.

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 blog (www.jschick.blogspot.com)  and can be contacted at josephschick@hotmail.com.

About the Author: Joseph Schick is producer of “Jerusalem ’67” (www.jerusalem67.com), a narrative feature film currently in development. He can be reached at jschick@jerusalem67.com.

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