Monday, December 10, 2007

Fighting yesterday's battles today

Rabbi Naphtali Hoff published a front-page essay in last week's Jewish Press seizing on Hanukkah to knock the Maccabiah, the Olympic-style Jewish sports extravaganza held every four years (the year following the real Olympics) in Israel. I published a reply on the site that might appear as a letter to the editor in the next issue:

Fighting yesterday's battles today(12/9/2007)
Regarding Rabbi Naphtali Hoff's front page essay in last week's issue, the superficial irony of a Jewish Olympic-style athletic festival bearing the Maccabees' name did not escape my notice. However, closer examination shows that Rabbi Hoff is barking up the wrong tree. As a student of history, Rabbi Hoff certainly knows that we and the Greeks got along quite well under Alexander the Great (to this day we name baby boys for him), the Ptolemies and the early Seleucids. Only when Antiochus IV Epiphanes set out to obliterate Torah observance did the Maccabees rise in revolt. As Rabbi Hoff correctly states, the name Maccabee is made up of Hebrew initials for "Who is like You among the mighty, Hashem?" However, another meaning is "hammer of God." One does not become a hammer of God by cultivating physical weakness. Certainly in our time, when our way of life was nearly obliterated two generations ago because we were too weak to defend it, and we continue to be beset with enemies intent on our destruction, the Maccabiah's fostering of Jewish strength and pride is to be encouraged.Today's athletic contests are not those of Antiochus. There are no sacrifices to idols and athletes do not compete naked. No Jewish athletes today are having themselves decircumcised. The demise of Hellenistic paganism is so complete that a Greek-American Congressman (and decathlon champion) was named Bob Mathias, i.e. Matityahu. We gain nothing by fighting yesterday's battles today. The Maccabiah serves as a stepping stone for many Jewish athletes on the way to greater success; Mark Spitz swam in the Maccabiah and went on to win an unprecedented seven medals in the Munich Olympics in 1972. More to the point, for many Jewish athletes the Maccabiah is their first visit to Israel and their first connection with Judaism. We can extinguish the spark or we can fan it. I prefer to fan it.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

The fact that the games are named after the Maccabees is ironic in a beautiful way. At this point in our history, we can take from the secular world and bring it to our Judaism without feeling that Torah values are threatened. The 2005 Maccabiah games in Israel were infused with Judaism and Zionism and national identity for myself as well as my teammates. The Maccabiah gave us an opportunity to meet, compete with, and unite with Jews from all over the world. To witness strength of body and spirit among our own people and to share our love for sport and the excitement of competition with our families and communities. The dedication and discipline involved in training for this event was something uniquely Jewish. I wish all people could at one point in their lives feel the sense of belonging and pride experienced by everyone who heard Hatikvah played at the opening ceremony in Ramat Gan.

Tue Dec 11, 12:36:00 AM EST  
Blogger Zev Stern said...

Judith - That was beautiful. What sport did you compete in?

Tue Dec 11, 12:55:00 AM EST  
Blogger Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

To play devil's advocate:

I recall an Israeli friend remarking about the Maccabiah: "When the Jews figured they'd never win in the real Olympics, they made their own so they could finally have some medals. And even today, what do they do? They bring in non-Jews to help them win."

The problem with Maccabiah is not the concept. I will not argue that Judaism demands fitness in both mind and body (cf. the Rambam's many textbooks on this subject). I think the problem a lot of people have with the event is that, for many of the participants, the Maccabiah is the sole connection they have to Judaism. Far from participating as a Jew in the Jewish Olympics being part of their identity, it is the sum total. A page of gemara is foreign to them and when they go to shul once a year they have no idea what's going on. But they beat their chest with pride when it comes to the Maccabiah. "We're not like those old Jews in Poland" went the Zionist refrain. "We're new Jews who can compete with the nations of the world."

Except that's not what Judaism is about. We're not mean to be "better than the goyim at their own game". We have a system of our own and we must remember that about all else.

Sun Dec 16, 04:33:00 AM EST  
Blogger Zev Stern said...

Our system does not include hiding under our beds when pogromchiks come to kill us, nor does it include walking into gas chambers. That is what R. Meir Kahane and others referred to as the corrupt Torah, distorted by centuries of a crime against nature called galut. I too would have been alienated by such a Torah, and the only reason I remain observant is that I was taught the authentic Torah in Yeshivah of Flatbush. It was indeed true that a culture that devalued physical pursuits of any kind, that turned us into holy ghosts (or, as Nietzsche would put it, turned our men into women), did not produce athletes who could hold their own. How good a basketball player would Shaquille O’Neal have been if he’d grown up under Jim Crow and never been allowed near a basketball court? Today, praise God, things are better for both Jews and African-Americans. They are normal.
If the Maccabiah is someone’s first connection with Judaism, then by definition it starts out as the only one. What happens next is up to us. When I was staying with my tour group at Kfar Ha-Maccabiah back in 1974 there was neither a shul nor a sefer Torah. That needed to change and I think it did. Do the athletes ever get to see the beauty of Shabbat? Are they ever introduced to basic Hebrew? Do they get to see Israeli soldiers in full uniform and kippot davening at the kotel? That Judaism, if it doesn’t attract them at first, at least won’t disgust them. And if they end up more attracted to Tanakh than to gemara, so be it. Not everybody is destined to be a gadol. Another quote from R. Kahane: The Jews wrote the Bible and the Protestants study it. That too has to change.

Tue Dec 18, 07:44:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thu May 29, 05:30:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Zev Stern said...

Terrific site! Who made it?

Thu May 29, 06:32:00 PM EDT  

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