Sermons and Parsha'iot                     Baseball and Jewish Values                             

A “wild American game”

There’s an old story about a little Jewish boy on the lower East Side of New York who came home from school and with great excitement told his immigrant grandfather:  “Zayde, Imagine!  Babe Ruth has hit sixty home runs!”  The old man looked up from his Yiddish newspaper, and beckoned to the boy to come close.  “Tell me yingele,” he asked gently, “what this Babe Ruth did – is it good for the Jews?”

I doubt that the boy’s zayde was a regular reader of the “Bintel Brief” – the advice column that ran for more than 50 years in the Forward newspaper. In one column, the paper’s editor urged a parent to let his child play the “wild American game” of baseball. “Don’t let your child grow up a stranger in his own country,” the editor urged. Many immigrant writers have described how they studied Talmud in the morning and baseball players’ “stats” in the afternoon.

And the lore at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York has it that Solomon Schechter advised the young Louis Ginzberg, when he joined the faculty, to master the game of baseball. “You can’t be a rabbi in America without understanding baseball.” Destined to become a legendary scholar of Talmud, Ginzberg also amassed a vast knowledge of America’s national pastime.

Everywhere we have lived in this country, Jewish communities have managed to take local teams to their hearts and to bind the team’s identity into their own particular world view. For the most part, that meant that immigrant Jews who had arrived on these shores as underdogs, despised by the ruling elites in the new land as well as the old, tended to identify with unsuccessful teams. Baseball is a game that can break your heart, and to a people whose history has had more than its share of heartbreak, it was a perfect fit.

In Philadelphia, that created a tradition of rooting for the Phillies as opposed to the more upscale and generally more successful A’s. In Boston, it often meant a love for the downtrodden Braves rather than for the Red Sox. In New York, rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers (who in 1947 were the first major-league team to have a black ball player) was depicted as a blow struck for a progressive society. Especially when placed against the notion of rooting for the Yankees, who were seen by some as the baseball incarnation of an inhumane and intolerant ruling class! Even today, you can run into old-timers who will try to sell you on the idea that rooting for the Bums was somehow Jewish, while supporting the Bronx Bombers was a non-Jewish thing to do.

American heroes

The most outstanding example of this phenomenon was in Detroit during the 1930’s and 40’s, where the Tigers were led by the man who was arguably the greatest Jewish player of all time: Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg. Greenberg understood his importance to American Jews as a symbol of strength. He played during the rise to power of Hitler and his Nazi party in Germany. Let us never forget that Detroit was also home to Father Charles Coughlin, whose viciously anti-Semitic Golden Hour of the Little Flower radio show was the most listened to program in America, and Henry Ford, who saw it as his mission to warn Americans of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. Hammerin’ Hank endured much name-calling and used his anger to fuel his strength.

In 1934 he won praise for his decision not to play baseball on Yom Kippur. Bud Shaver of the Detroit Times wrote that “his fine intelligence, independence of thought, courage and his driving ambition have won him the respect and admiration of his teammates, baseball writers, and the fans at large. He feels and acknowledges his responsibility as a representative of the Jews in the field of a great national sport and the Jewish people could have no finer representative.”

A generation later, Greenberg’s precedent was matched by Dodger great Sandy Koufax, perhaps the greatest left-handed pitcher in the history of the game. On October 6, 1965, he did not pitch in the opening game of the World Series against the Minnesota Twins because that day also fell on Yom Kippur. And on Yom Kippur of last year another Dodger, Shawn Green, also sat out a game with post-season implications so that he could attend shul. Fittingly, Greenberg and Koufax are the only Jews who have, to date, been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. And Shawn Green seems well on his way to joining them there.

Baseball and Jewish Values

Many people have noted the various parallels between Judaism and baseball: both venerate tradition, both emphasize community, both attach importance to special foods (think of ballpark franks, and don’t forget the peanuts and Cracker Jacks). Both have their rituals – e.g., the ceremonial throwing out of the first pitch, the seventh-inning stretch. There are even baseball “holidays,” such as the All-Star game and the World Series. Some people even find an almost halachic quality to baseball: Its rules are sharp and defined – as to what’s fair and what’s foul, as to where the players must stand, and as to what they must wear (baseball, too, requires that you keep your head covered!). There are even rabbi-like umpires to keep you on the straight and narrow, telling you when you have transgressed the rules and meting out penance for the sinners.

Baseball, at its core, is what Judaism is at its core. Each player strives to do the best he can, always to improve and to work on himself. And yet each one does it in the context of a team, in the context of a community. Even the greatest player is nothing without his teammates. Even the greatest Jew needs to be part of a community to be most fully Jewish.

Exile …

And then there are some teams – the Orioles or the Red Sox come to mind – whose fans, Jewish and Gentile alike, live an especially Jewish experience. Following a losing team teaches you faith, patience, humility – and above all, the hope and prayer that the pennant will be here … next year.

Every year’s opening day brings with it the promise that anything can happen. All the disappointments and under-achievements of last season are now “history.” On opening day anything is possible; everything starts fresh; all the season stats go to “0.” Once a year, it’s at least theoretically possible that the home team will post a perfect 162-win season, capped by a four-game sweep of the World Series.

Spring is also the time of the Jewish people’s renewal, reawakening and rebirth. It is the time of our Exodus from slavery to freedom. It is the season in which we became a nation. Like a new team coalescing during spring training, we feel that we can achieve everything. The cold frigidity of winter has passed like a season of unfulfilled promise and another fourth-place finish. The earth turns on its axis and the warmth of the sun blankets us again.

The Talmud instructs us to view ourselves as if we actually left Egypt. Judaism believes that time moves in a spiral. Each year we move up that spiral, always returning to the same points of yesteryear, but moving upwards nevertheless, learning from the past and always returning to it to draw strength in our continued push up the ladder. Each Pesakh, we have the opportunity to relive that great season where our team went all the way – and to hope that this year will bring the same success. Each year, as spring training arrives and the new baseball season is about to begin, hope is similarly renewed. We express our blind faith that this year, at last, the Orioles will finally reach the Promised Land. The ongoing statement of faith – “There’s always next year” – directly parallels the Haggadah’s “Next year in Jerusalem.” In fact, it has long been accepted that, were a miracle to occur and were the Red Sox to actually win the World Series, Mashiah would come immediately!

… and Coming Home

Maybe, too, baseball is so Jewish because the object of the game is to score by “coming home.”

The Torah is the core of the Hebrew Bible. The outline of its five books is clear: Humanity begins in Eden – in a perfect, promised place that humanity loses. Paradise is gone, but not forgotten since another paradise beckons us at the other end of the journey. God will guide us through the desert so that we can inherit the Promised Land. The promise begins with Abraham and is reiterated in each generation. Like Abraham, we are born in exile, dreaming from the first of a land we have not seen. Indeed, the Promised Land takes on a special character precisely because we are not born there.

In the final book of the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy, Moses glowingly describes the wonders of the new land. It will flow with milk and honey. It will be a perfect, lovely garden. But when we reach the conclusion of the Torah, when the last verses of Deuteronomy are read, we are still in the wilderness. The Torah is a book without an ending.

To be sure, the book of Joshua does describe the arrival of the Israelites into the land of Canaan. But the book of Joshua is far less important, less read, less venerated than the initial five books. Although it was almost certainly written by the same hand that gave us Deuteronomy, Joshua is not included in the scroll of the Torah, perhaps because when the people do enter Israel, they find none of the promised perfection. Joshua is a book that chronicles a struggle – a difficult and often bloody struggle – to conquer the land. The counterpart to Eden, which has been promised, is nowhere to be found. The land does not flow with milk and honey.

Why does the Torah, which assured us for so long of a glorious entry into Israel, deprive us of the consummation we expect and desire?

We end in the wilderness because there is no perfect land – except in the realm of promises. A promised land is ideal, untroubled. A promised land is free of the strife that darkens and afflicts even the most serene life. Such a place does not exist in this world. Immigrants were told that America was the ideal land, that its streets were paved with gold. They came and found that the streets were lined with sweatshops. America proved to be a land of opportunity, which is a far more ambiguous and difficult gift than a land of gold-lined streets. Similarly, the Israelites did have triumphs in their new home, but also catastrophes. They discovered that an idyllic home is a dream; for they lived in the world, and the world is a wilderness.

There is no place in this world that is free of suffering, because exile touches everyone. Each year on Passover, we conclude the seder with the incantation “Next year in Jerusalem!” However, if the seder takes place in Jerusalem, the incantation is not “Next year here!” Rather, Jerusalemites conclude with “Next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem!”

Shawn Green Comes Home

The opposite of exile is redemption. If exile is the loss of home, then redemption is the finding of a home.

Which leads me back to Shawn Green, the best Jewish professional baseball player in a generation. His six-year, $84 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers makes him the second-highest-paid player in the sport. Green played five years for the Toronto Blue Jays, five years during which he established himself as a powerful hitter and a top fielder. As his skills became too pricey for  the Blue Jays, Green put a remarkable condition on any trade: it would have to be to a city with a large Jewish population. Los Angeles, with over a half-million Jews, fit the bill.

And in going to the Dodgers, Shawn Green was also coming home. He grew up in a mostly non-Jewish suburb of LA. His father, a gym coach who later became the owner of a baseball training facility, worked closely with him to improve his baseball skills. At the same time, his parents did not neglect his formal secular education. Green was a top student in high school and was admitted to Stanford University, one of the best schools in the country. He attended Stanford until the demands of his professional career made attending classes impossible.

But for most of his life, Shawn Green had little connection to the Jewish community. He knew he was Jewish, but that was about it. For example, he never was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah. But a wonderful thing happened after he started playing for Toronto. When it became known that he was Jewish, the local Jewish community in every city he visited welcomed him.

Shawn Green came home to Judaism. As he learned about his religion, he realized he was a role model for many Jewish children. He embraced the traditional Jewish value of “tikkun olam” – of repairing the world. Accordingly, he has already committed himself to giving $1.5 million to a charity for poor children in Los Angeles. He plans to set up charitable foundations and has expressed a particular interest in Jewish charities, including “Jewish Big Brothers” and a Jewish community sponsored literacy program that sends volunteers into the LA public schools.

And last September 26, he joined Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax in sitting out a game in order to observe Yom Kippur. This was not just any ordinary game, a wildcard berth in the playoffs rode on its outcome. And Green was making a personal sacrifice, too: with 46 home runs he was poised to set a franchise record. And then there was the matter of his streak of more than 400 consecutive games played – the longest active run in the major leagues. Only Shawn Green himself knows whether he ever entertained thoughts of surpassing Cal Ripken, Jr.’s record of having played in 2,632 straight games, a monumental run that many think will never be equaled. Nevertheless, a 400-plus game streak isn’t exactly chopped liver.

What made him do it? He explained to The New York Times that, as a role model for Jewish kids, he’s trying to convey a message “that baseball, or anything, isn’t bigger than your religion and your roots.” In the America of 2001 – in the America of the “Me Generation” – that’s quite a statement. In modern America, there is nothing bigger than yourself. Viewed from a secular perspective, Judaism’s ideal of being other – rather than self – directed is hopelessly out of date. Yet, the Jewish worldview posits that society’s good and one’s own self-interest always converge rather than diverge. That’s because by doing for others, one emulates and draws nearer to God, which itself is the ultimate self-fulfillment. In fact, there is no term in biblical Hebrew for the concept of sacrifice; the word korban, usually translated as “sacrifice,” more accurately means “that which is brought near.”

And yet, if Sandy Koufax is any indication, a person who places his obligations to others – to team, to neighbor and, most important, to the Other who is the source of all the others – before his personal agenda may well “finish first.” After all, when in July, 1999 Sports Illustrated featured its 20 favorite athletes of the 20th century, heading the list was none other than Koufax. And the reason for ranking Koufax No. 1? “Unfailingly true to his ideals, he always put team before self, modesty before fame, and God before the World Series.” Almost sounds like the Torah talking, doesn’t it?