How Super is the Super Bowl?

What are you doing during the Super Bowl?
Echoes of Ancient Rome?

There’s something interesting cooking in the American Jewish zeitgeist right now. Two rabbis I respect are independently raising questions about football in general and the Super Bowl in particular.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz points out that homeless people and services for them have been displaced in downtown Phoenix, AZ by something called “The NFL Experience,” a shopping venue offering NFL and Super Bowl merchandise. (Boycotting the Super Bowl, Standing With the Homeless! in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles) He raises the ethical issue: in what sort of society are human beings treated like so much garbage to be pushed aside for sports memorabilia? He raises the image of the gladiatorial battles in ancient Rome, something our sages held in contempt. Rabbi Yanklowitz therefore calls for a boycott of the Super Bowl.

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs writes of his own change of heart regarding both college and pro football in Will You Bow at the Altar of Football Violence? on his blog, Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. He writes, “the combination of limitless violence and limitless adulation for student athletes is a lethal combination” resulting in shameful sexual and domestic violence off the field and the cumulative damage done by “routine” football injuries. He, too, calls for a boycott of the Super Bowl.

I’m an alumna of the University of Tennessee and have been a fan of the Vols for 40 years. However, I see now that there was a disconnect in my thinking. I’d walk to class Monday mornings in the fall of 1973, and see star quarterback Condredge Holloway hobbling to class. The guy would play brilliant, full-hearted football on Saturday and Monday morning he moved like a little old man, he was so beat up. Also, there was a definite hierarchy on campus: football took precedence over everything else, including the education of football players and everyone else. Even knowing all that, I never considered the ethical questions until recently, as scandals have proliferated both on the college and pro levels.

Here are some questions I’m pondering, and that I invite you to consider:

  1. Why support football, as it exists today, which is so destructive of the health of its players? We are commanded, as Jews, to preserve life and to view bodies as precious gifts.
  2. Why support an organization (the NFL) that is so cavalier about violence towards women that it took months and a video of a man beating his fiancé to unconsciousness to get more than a slap on the wrist? As a Jew, can I give those people the support of watching a game, much less buying a ticket to any NFL game?
  3. Why are we pouring millions into a single entertainment event when so many people in the same city are homeless? We are the same nation to whom the prophet Amos said, “Thus said God: … I will not revoke [my wrath]. Because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of sandals. Ah, you who trample the heads of the poor into the dust of the ground, and make the humble walk a twisted course!” Amos 2:6
  4. What does it say about us that we’ll pay astronomical sums in salaries and endorsements for star athletes to bash each others’ brains out, and we will encourage our children to see them as heroes? Our sages viewed the Roman games with such contempt that they taught that one could only attend in order to save a life or give evidence as to a death, in order to obtain legal rights for a widow. (Avodah Zarah 18b)

Every Jew has to make up his or her own mind about these things. However, it isn’t sufficient to reply, “It’s fun!”  We have a sacred duty, as Jews, to speak up when something is wrong.  We have it in our power, as consumers, to (1) stay away, as the two rabbis above are doing or (2) protest via op-eds and letters or (3) demand change in the NFL, college football, and other venues.

What do you think? What will you do?

After I posted this piece, I received a tweet from Rabbi Avraham Bronstein of Great Neck Synagogue in Great Neck, NY. He’s interested in these issues as well: @AvBronstein: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/what-and-who-we-sacrifice-on-the-gridiron/

Beshalach: The Road Not Taken

ShoreRoad
The red line is the shore route through Philistine lands. The Israelites took either the blue or green routes instead.

 

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was near. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” – Exodus 13:17

Who were the Philistines? Theories vary, but most scholars believe that they were originally from Greece and/or Crete, since their pottery looks very much like that of Mycenae. They were a non-Semitic people, city dwellers who lived in five cities along the coast: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron.

They were known as iron-workers, and if they were the descendants of Mycenae they were the heirs of Agamemnon, the victor-king in the Trojan War story. They would have been scary opponents for a gaggle of runaway slaves traveling with elders and children.

The Exodus writer tells us that the Israelites were not ready to face such formidable opponents, so instead God sent them home by an indirect route. Midrash suggests the Israelites needed time in the wilderness to toughen up before they faced their ultimate challenges in the land of their ancestors. Another midrash suggests that without Torah, they would have been unequipped to live in the Promised Land, so the apparent “detour” was actually the best route.

Somewhere around middle age, many of us look back over our lives and wonder what we were thinking as young people. Why the youthful marriage that was doomed from day one? Why the unfinished education? Why the “wasted time” and the “false starts?”

Maybe we weren’t ready. Maybe there were lessons to learn without which we could not become our best selves. Maybe something we did along that circuitous route was very important, as it was important for the Israelites to visit Sinai and accept the Torah.

Perhaps, as the poet Robert Frost wrote. the road we took “has made all the difference.”  I would not be the person I am today without the twisting path of my life. You would not be the same person had you made different choices in your youth.

We can’t redo the past and take a different route, and who is to say that it would truly have been better?

What we have is today. What we have is the person we have become. The question is, what are we going to do now?

 

Praying for Rain, Drowning in Snow

New England has been hit with a huge snowstorm. I’ve seen it on the news: multiple feet of snow, snow billowing in the wind, filling up the screen. I know that it is causing a lot of suffering; I shudder to think what homelessness or poverty mean in weather like that.

And yet I have to confess that one of my emotions watching this news is envy.  I’m in California. The East is having biblical storms, and we are having biblical drought. As awful as that blizzard was, we’d need a few of them up in the Sierras before we could quit worrying about water here.

The phrase in Hebrew in the tweet is “who sends wind and causes the rain to fall.” It’s a prayer we say daily as part of the Amidah from Sukkot to Passover, asking for rain to fall, asking that winter be winter. So far, winter in California has been more like fall or spring: cool and breezy, but not much rain since December.  And winter “back East” and in the Midwest has been brutal and wet.

Our climate is out of whack. There’s a section of the Shema I think about a lot lately, one that the early Reformers ditched back in the 19th century because they felt it too “superstitious:”

And if you obey My commandments which I enjoin upon you this day, to love the Eternal your God and to serve God with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give rain for your land at the proper time, the early rain and the late rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Take care lest your heart be lured away, and you turn astray and worship alien gods and bow down to them. For then the Eternal’s wrath will flare up against you, and God will close the heavens so that there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish from the good land which the Eternal gives you. – Deuteronomy 11: 13-17

Let’s leave the traditional understanding of that passage aside, just for a moment. Try this paraphrase of the last bit:

Take care lest your heart be lured away, and you turn astray from the commandments and worship alien gods (like power, money or convenience) and bow down to them (give them priority over the commandments.) For then there will be no rain and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will swiftly perish.

The last several years have been the hottest on record. Drought plagues the breadbasket of the nation and the eastern cities are awash in floods and snow. Perhaps, just perhaps, greed might have something to do with this. Convenience might have something to do with this. A desire to ride in my own car all by myself, no matter the cost, might have something to do with it. That’s what the scientists are saying; so much for “superstition.”

I have lost count of the number of my friends with cancer. I’m a baby boomer. We’ve been swimming in toxic chemicals all our lives, from dyes to food additives to pesticides and plastics. DDT wasn’t banned for agricultural use until 1972. Questionable stuff abounds in our air, our food, our water, and in our bodies. All of those things make money for someone, give power to someone, are convenient for someone. When “someone” is myself, it’s still cold comfort when the diagnosis comes.

Are money, power and convenience bad? Of course not, not in and of themselves. In excess, though, they can be a problem. When we put them before our ethics, yes, a problem.

One of the purposes of Jewish prayer is to make us more aware of the contradictions in our lives. If we say the Shema and pay attention to the meaning, every word of it will transform our lives. Same with the daily Amidah: say it and pay attention, and suddenly life will look different.

As for this one prayer for rain, I suggest to anyone who feels waterlogged that they might quietly add “b’California” (“in California”) to the line. We’re mighty dry.

Do You Tu B’Shevat?

IMAG0870Tu B’Shevat is coming soon, starting on Tuesday, Feb 3, 2015 at sundown.  If you look closely at the photo to the left, you can see that my little fig tree is getting ready for the New Year of the Trees by dropping all its old leaves and playing dead.

If you look even more closely (maybe with Photoshop) you’ll see that there are the tiniest beginnings of buds on the tips of those bare branches. The tree isn’t dead; it’s preparing to leaf out.

I’ve been looking dead lately myself. A series of ailments has laid me so low that writing blog posts has had to take a back seat. I hope, like the tree, to leaf out and bear fruit in the near future.

In the meantime, what if anything are you doing for Tu B’Shevat? A seder? A tree-planting? Gardening routines and rituals? Since the holiday has strong Zionist resonances, perhaps you are going to vote in the World Zionist Congress elections. Whatever you do, I hope that you are healthy and that any new beginnings in your life bear lovely fruit!

 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi and Dog“People plan, God laughs” – there’s an old Yiddish saying to that effect. It can happen to your Shabbos, too.

This afternoon I was on the back patio doing a bit of work from home when I suddenly realized there were only two little dogs playing around my feet. Where was Gabi?

I spent the next two hours frantically trying to find her. I am happy to report that a neighbor found her  – the chip company number was on her collar, so he called them, and they called me.  WHEW.

And now Shabbat dinner is not cooked. So I’m getting takeout.

There will still be Shabbat here at Beit Adar. There will still be candles, and wine, and rejoicing, even more so because a certain little wanderer has been found. And after Shabbat, I am going to find that hole in the fence and FIX IT!

 

A Matter of Great Urgency

(photo credit Associated Press)
(photo credit Associated Press)

There are many different things I want to write about tonight, but there’s an urgent matter I want to discuss with you.

Yesterday I re-posted Rabbi John Rosove’s article about voting in the World Zionist Congress Elections. He does an excellent job of explaining what it is about. I want to explain to you why this is important to me, and why I hope you will vote.

Jews everywhere in the world have a stake in Israel, not least because it is where Jews go when they can’t stay where they are. That was true in 1492, when Jews moved to the land of Israel after we were expelled from Spain. That was true when violent anti-Semitism wracked Russia and Eastern Europe, and the first modern settlers went to Israel. In the 20th century, when the Holy Land was ruled under the British Mandate, the British closed the area to Jewish immigration because “too many” Jews wanted to move there, fleeing Hitler.  The feeling grew among Jews that we needed a state of our own, under our own control, where we would not be persecuted or exterminated. That’s what the idea for an independent State of Israel is about.

(If you are thinking we could have gone to the UK, or to the USA, or to Canada, or to X, Y, or Z, know that all of those places had tiny quotas in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Check out the film Shanghai Ghetto to learn about the one place in the world where there were no quotas, and why it was a fluke.)

The State of Israel, as it exists today, is not a perfect place. (If any of you live in a perfect nation, please tell me about it in the comments!) Diaspora Jews do not get a vote in Knesset elections (nor should we!) However, we can influence how things go in Israel through the World Zionist Congress election, because this election influences how the funds controlled by the WZO are spent. When you register to vote, first you have to pay a small fee. That’s because these elections are self-funded – we pay the fee to make the election happen, so that WZO funds go only to WZO projects, not to the election itself. Then you are taken to the site for the election and you will be shown a slate of parties. Each of those parties has a platform – you can read them if you like. (And yes, Israelis get to vote for their own seats in the Congress.)

I voted for the ARZAUS slate because they stand for, and will fund, projects that I want Israel to have. They are “for” a democratic, pluralistic Israel. That means an Israel that respects all its citizens: Jewish, Arab, Druze, Bedouin and Christian. That means an Israel that recognizes and funds all expressions of Judaism: Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, and secular. It means an Israel with equal rights for women. It means an Israel that respects the rights of its LGBT citizens. These things are important to me.

Keep in mind that not voting is also a vote. Not voting gives more weight to the other slates, which means that if you are eligible and you don’t vote, you are one less vote for the Israel you would like to see, whatever that might be. In my case, that means if I didn’t vote, it would be more funding for the programs and policies that think I should ride in the back of the bus, and many other things I don’t want.

Voting is open now through April 30. To learn more, read Rabbi Rosove’s excellent piece, or go to the ReformJews4Israel site to read about it. (Note: Going to the website is not voting. You can go to the website just to learn. Nothing will happen if you just go and read. From there, you will follow a link to vote, and even then, you will vote for whomever you choose.)

If you care about Israel – even if there are things you don’t approve of right now – this is the appropriate way to voice your opinion, if you are a Jew. This is your right, as a Jew.

Kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh – All Israel is responsible one for another. Be responsible. Vote.

Register to Vote in the World Zionist Congress Elections and Vote ARZA Slate

rabbiadar:

Rabbi John Rosove has said this all so well that I’m just going to repost. Please read!

Originally posted on Rabbi John Rosove's Blog:

One of the most important steps that Diaspora Jews can take to support Israel’s democracy, pluralism and bond with world Jewry and the state of Israel is to vote in this year’s World Zionist Congress election that is now open for registration and voting through April 15, 2015.

The only requirements for voting are that you must be Jewish and at least 18 years of age.

I ask you to click now onto the link below, register and vote for the ARZA Slate (i.e. the Association of Reform Zionists of America). Please do not delay.

I ask for your vote as a delegate on the ARZA Slate (I am #25) that includes many distinguished America rabbis and leaders of the Union for Reform Judaism representing 1.3 million American Jews.

All the information you need to know about ARZA’s platform can be found on this website. You can also register to…

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