Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Love That Matters- Is there room for sports fandom in the life of an oveid HaShem?

There is excitement in the air. A big event is happening for the first time in over 100 years. The long wait is over, and fans like myself are ecstatic. Today is the day that...Hillel Zeitlin’s book HaTov V’HaRa, last published in 1911, is being republished. I’ll forgive you of course if you thought I was talking about the Chicago Cubs, those lovable losers, who appear to be on the brink of winning the World Series for the first time since 1908. After all, it’s been front and center in the news. Still, in thinking of the contrast between these two events, I can’t help but revisit an old disagreement between two of my mentors, who ultimately became my friends and colleagues.

I believe I first heard of Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer in the mid nineties when he was living in Chicago and wrote an article not long after the passing of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In the article, Rabbi Bechhofer bemoaned the fact that the average Modern Orthodox teenager in Chicago was much more distraught about Michael Jordan’s retirement from the NBA, than by the passing of The Rebbe. As much as I agreed with the thrust of Rabbi Bechhofer’s article, it didn’t completely sit well with me. Even as I knew that my priorities were not the ones under attack in the article, if one read the article carefully, it was a critique not just of values that are out of whack, but upon sports fandom in general. This hit close to home, as I was a pretty serious fan of a number of sports teams.

Fortunately, Rabbi Mayer Schiller responded to the article and made the distinction I was looking for. Yes, too many of our teens are significantly more passionate about sports than about Torah, but a thinking person can still be a Ben Torah, oveid HaShem and be a sports fan. Essentially, Rabbi Schiller suggested that watching a great athlete perform was somewhat akin to watching a great musician perform. Just as one can appreciate HaKadosh Baruch Hu through his creations, one can appreciate him through his creation’s creations. I read the article and immediately felt at ease.

It’s now more than twenty years later and I’ve had the all too brief pleasure of working with both Rabbis Bechhofer and Schiller, and engaged in many thoughtful and spirited conversations with them. I have students of my own, and I now find myself wondering about the balance which I once thought possible. In fact, I remember once asking Rabbi Schiller, who at one point was a pretty serious hockey fan, why he seemed to no longer seemed to be so into it. His answer, which I remember as if I heard it yesterday, was “There’s only so much love the heart can hold”.

There are many reasons why my own interest in sports has declined. My beloved Red Sox have won the World Series (three in fact!) after an 86 year drought of their own. Ticket prices have risen to the point where I can’t afford to go to games too often. I’ve read enough about the business side of the sports equation to not view the whole enterprise in the same romantic light. Most of all, I believe that Rabbis Bechhofer and Schiller are correct. In a world which pulls at us in so many ways, there are only so many things a person can truly love and aspire to.

Over the years, I’ve watched my students become enamored with fantasy sports, where one pretends to own a team, and competes with other owners. The excitement they feel when “their” players do well, and “their” team wins, causes me to wonder whether I have what it takes to help bring them to a passionate enjoyment (dare I say love?) of things more eternal. I think of my own fandom and how I can still be drawn into a game when “my” team is playing in a way that feels like misplaced concern. Finally I wonder whether something that we have loved can ever become something we merely enjoy, leaving room for the loves which really matter.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Responsibility We Surrender- What I learned from Dostoyevsky on Rosh Hashana

As I prepared for Rosh Hashana and decided which sefarim I wanted to learn, it did not occur to me to add Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to my reading list. However, when a friend for whom I have deep respect,gave me the book on the first night of Rosh HaShana, I decided to take a look at it during the times when I would not be learning or davening.

He didn’t hand me this novel out of the blue. A few days earlier we had been talking and he told me that I had to read the chapter “The Grand Inquisitor”. Thus, in addition to learning Rav Kook, Rav Hillel Zeitlin, Rav Amital and more over Rosh Hashana, I read some Dostoyevsky.

To offer a brief summary for those who are not familiar (from Wikipedia):

The tale is told by Ivan with brief interruptive-questions by Alyosha. In the tale, [Jesus] comes back to Earth in Seville at the time of the Inquisition. He performs a number of miracles (echoing miracles from the Gospels). The people recognize him and adore him, but he is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burnt to death the next day. The Grand Inquisitor visits him in his cell to tell him that the Church no longer needs him. The main portion of the text is devoted to the Inquisitor explaining to Jesus why his return would interfere with the mission of the Church.

To say I was captivated and disturbed, would be an understatement. I immediately found myself thinking of the world with which I am most familiar. While there was nobody who came to mind to whom I would dare to compare to the evil Grand Inquisitor, the parallel to the people who could one day think they are waiting for their messiah, and even meet him, and be ready to watch his execution, had my mind racing.

I can’t speak for others, but one of the things that makes Judaism meaningful for me, perhaps the most significant factor, is the idea of searching for a connection with God. While I was born into an observant family, friends who are ba’alei teshuva or converts have told me about how this factor led them to Judaism. Still too often, maybe even most often, Judaism gets reduced to something smaller. At some point, it starts being only about following halacha, and learning what, for lack of a better term, I’ll call Litvish Torah (a friend recently told me that God is best found in a Ketzos). It is not that I think these things are not part of serving God. It’s just that at a certain point, those who are looking for the proverbial forest are too often spiritually neutered, and given narrow borders in which to conduct their search.

It seems to me that in order to gain comfort and standing in the community, we give up on the control that we ought to have over our religious lives, and allow others to dictate the boundaries. The Grand Inquisitor seems to be correct. It is much easier to let our religious ideas be controlled by others than to live with the responsibility of making decisions for ourselves.

Of course, at moments like this, I remind myself of what Rav Amital and others warned about the dangers of trying to find spirituality outside of the system, but I’m convinced that within the broadest boundaries of our tradition, there is tremendous room to explore, and we give up those places at our own peril.