Why the Olympic Spirit Lacks a Jewish Neshama [1]

News Item:

February 1988--Calgary hosts the Winter Olympic Games.

Some time ago a note was circulated to various lecturers at the University of Calgary, including members of my own Religious Studies Department, requesting articles that would reflect the close links between our respective fields of expertise and the values embodied in the ideals of sportsmanship and the "Olympic Spirit."

The simple request made my very uncomfortable. This was not only because of the impossible deadline that would have had to be met (it wasn't), but also because of a gut feeling that, whatever might be the case with respect to other cultures, religions and academic disciplines, there exists an essential conflict between traditional Judaism and the world of athletics. And the conflict becomes more exacerbated when the pursuit of athletics is translated into a value system.

After giving the matter some more thought, I decided to subject my gut feelings to the scrutiny of scholarship.

Greeks vs. Jews

The earliest association I can think of between Jews and athletics is part of the Hanukkah story (the archery practice through which Jonathan signals to David to escape in I Samuel 20 hardly qualifies as a sports event, especially during war time).

When the author of the First Book of Maccabees, our main source for the events, wishes to characterize the wicked Jewish accomplices of Antiochos' Hellenization program, the first act he sees fit to describe (I:14ff.) is how the traitors "built a gymnasium in Jerusalem in the heathen fashion, and submitted to uncircumcision, and disowned the holy covenant; they allied themselves with the heathen and became the slaves of wrongdoing."

E. Bickerman, in his classic study of the issues behind the Maccabean revolt, writes:

The "gymnasium," i.e., the sports-stadium, during the Hellenistic period formed the symbol and basis for the Greek way of life. Physical education was something alien to the Oriental, but a natural thing for the Greeks. Wherever Greeks came together, or people who wanted to be counted as Greeks, they started athletic exercises....That meant that when native people participated in the athletic contests, they were accepted into the ruling class, and they acknowledged the hegemony of the Greek way of life.
Simply put, indulgence in athletics was viewed by the "good guys" of the story as tantamount to a denial of one's Judaism. The fact that this episode has not been universally included in the teaching of the Hanukkah story results in the historical irony that the name "Maccabee" came to be applied today to (of all things) a Jewish athletic organization!

In a similar vein, Josephus Flavius described at length the Hellenizing activities of King Herod (that arch-tyrant of Judaea who succeeded in perpetuating his rule by currying the favour of the Roman rulers at the expense of the sensibilities of his Jewish populace). Among other things, Josephus also reports that Herod established his own five-yearly games on an international scale in honour of Caesar, to be held in Jerusalem and elsewhere. He even named one of his daughters Olympia.

Josephus' account of Herod's own Olympic games reveals to us a new phase in the development of the athletic world-view of antiquity. Whereas Jewish objections to Greek sports were primarily due to their inherently pagan character (as well as to their immodesty and frivolity), the Romans introduced a new dimension to the arena: cruelty which even surpassed that of professional hockey.

The classic examples of Roman viciousness were the throwing of prisoners (among whom were probably numbered many captured Jewish freedom-fighters) before wild beasts, and gladiatorial combat. Herod included such displays in his own games, to the delight of the pagan tourists and to the indignant shock of his Jewish subjects.

This sadistic side of athletics seems to be the one that figures most prominently in rabbinic writings.

Thus "theatres and circuses" are commonly condemned in the Talmud as places of idolatry and evil, though Jews are permitted to attend the events even on the Sabbath, because they might be able to save the lives of victims (by indicating through the "thumbs up" gesture their wish that the victim's life be spared).

One noted rabbi, Simeon ben Lakish, was forced by economic difficulties to take up the life of a gladiator. The talmudic legend describes how his eventual opting for the life of Torah was at the expense of his physical prowess--the two worlds were perceived to be inherently antithetical.

Reprinted from the Calgary Jewish Star

Medieval Frivolity

As we move into the medieval period, most of the aspects of ancient athletics which had aroused the objections of the Jewish authorities--especially the pagan connections and the cruelty--were no longer in force. Most of the writings which discuss sports seem to bundle them in with other frivolous pursuits. As such they are generally frowned upon, though the sources allow for situations when frivolity is sanctioned.

A homily on the word ke-dorbonot ("The words of the wise are as goods") in Ecclesiastes 12:2 presumes the existence of "girls' ball-playing" (kaddur banot) to which the transmission of the Torah is compared. This probably reflects a belief that such pursuits as games were more appropriate to women. Men indulged only at special times.

For example, even as the talmudic rabbis had outdone each other in feats of juggling and so forth during the festive Rejoicing of the Water-Drawing (Simchat Beit Ha-She'uvah) on Sukkot, medieval sources speak of jumping competitions on Purim and of mock jousting and fencing at weddings. These were occasions when frivolity was acceptable.

Rabbinic writings that discuss the fine halakhic issues involved in ball-playing on Sabbath serve to remind us that the solemnity of the rabbis was rarely realized in the practice of ordinary people. Maimonides in his medical writings recommends (though not necessarily for Jews) an occasional game of football as a beneficial form of exercise. These seem to be the only concessions allowed for sports activities in traditional rabbinic literature.

An argument might be made for the claim that the demand for competitiveness and play was filled in traditional Judaism by the aggressive debate that characterizes Talmud study. Conversely, the fact that the Talmud did succeed in satisfying these needs may account for the unlikely popularity of Talmud as against such subjects as Bible or theology.

"Physical Repentance"

A radical departure from the normative Jewish antipathy towards athletics is to be found in the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the revered Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel during the formative years of the Zionist revival in Eretz Yisrael.

Rav Kook's Zionist outlook saw that the life of Torah must exist in harmony with nature, and the spiritual redemption promised by the re-establishment of Jewish independence must be accompanied by a corresponding physical rebuilding of Jewish bodies. He even cites the Hebrew equivalent of Juvenal's famous dictum. Mens sana in corpore sano ("A healthy mind in a healthy body").

Unique among Jewish religious thinkers, Rav Kook viewed "physical repentance" as an essential condition of the ideal of teshuvah which permeated all his writings. The traditional negation of things physical was according to him the consequence of the anomalous conditions of Exile and the influence of alien religious values, a symptom of a general spiritual imbalance which had to be undone before true redemption could be achieved.

"When the holy people will be physically firm and strong," Rav Kook wrote, "holiness will prevail in the world. When Jewish children will be strong, sound and healthy, the air of the world will become holy and pure." Clearly, physical achievements (or, for that matter, military heroism) cannot become ends in themselves. They must always be employed as a means to a spiritual goal. Rav Kook insisted that physical education should be an important part of the curriculum of the yeshivah.

In his study at Rav Kook's thought, Zvi Yaron summarizes the issue:

Since one of the factors that makes possible the fulfilment of "our physical duties" is athletic activity, the Rav comes to the conclusion that there is a great spiritual value to sports. The strengthening of physical prowess is a form of worship. The spiritual power of the most righteous becomes improved through the "exercises practised by the youth of Israel in Eretz Yisrael in order to strengthen their bodies to make themselves courageous sons of their nation."
Accordingly, Rav Kook made a special request to the 1927 Zionist Congress in Basle that care should be taken to hold all athletic events, including football games, on weekdays, so that religious youths could participate freely.

As in other aspects of his work and teachings, Rav Kook was going firmly against the grain of the religious establishment of his time.

Just as the distinguished rosters of modern "great Jewish sports heroes" did not pay much attention to Orthodox Jewish law (since their activity was inherently a symptom of non-Jewish cultural influence), so too, traditional Orthodoxy has never really called for the abolition of Sabbath sports events. This is probably because they presumed that their own youth had no practical interest in sports.

Nonetheless Rav Kook's ideas have proved influential in parts of the Israeli religious community. They also help to place in clear focus the borderlines within which traditional Judaism could relate to athletics.

On the one hand, Rav Kook realized well that the objections raised against athletics in the ancient world--the heathen connotations and the sadistic cruelty--no longer applied to most modern manifestations.

On the other hand, he does not really extend his favourable attitude to sports substantially beyond the parameters allowed by the medievals. Athletic endeavor is justified as a means towards physical fitness. Physical fitness is, in turn, a legitimate instrument for the better performance of a Jew's religious duties, as well as part of the process of national redemption.

We should not however allow Rav Kook's enthusiastic phraseology (which is typical of his admiring reactions to the achievements of the Zionist pioneers) lead us to ignore a fundamental feature of his position: Even he would deny that there is any legitimacy to the concept of a "spirit" or "value-system" attached to sports.

For it is the belief of traditional Judaism that there is only one value-system: the religious world-view of the Torah. Other areas of human life may or may not be in harmony with the teachings of the Torah. Where an essential conflict must exist is when these areas (and this would apply to fields such as art, patriotism, or science, as much as to the "Olympic Spirit") claim to make up autonomous ideologies.

Traditional Judaism--or for that matter, any religious world view--does not recognize rival value systems.

Thus, speaking from the perspective of Jewish sources (I emphasize that I am writing as an historian, not as a rabbi or theologian), it would be difficult to point to much affinity with any approach which sees athletic activity as more than part of a fitness program.

This premise would tend to discourage spectator sports altogether, except insofar as they arouse our admiration for God's masterful creation of the human body. It would also tend to limit the amount of time a Jew should be devoting to such pursuits.

Professional or full-time athletes (unless it is with a view to teaching or some other justifiable end) would be frowned upon as avoiding their legitimate functions of "habitations of the world," a charge which would also be brought against professional gamblers and other unproductive types.

It is when people begin to attach an inherent value, or "spirit," to athletic achievement that Jewish tradition must find itself at odds with the secular environment, forced to stand at some distance from the Olympic arena.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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My e-mail address is elsegal@ucalgary.ca

First Publication: JS, Sept. 1 1987.