My column last week, “Orthodoxy On Ice,” raised a handful of eyebrows. From the few critical or questioning comments I received, I think it was understood and appreciated by most but misunderstood by some. I would like to clarify my position on sports in Orthodox life, as I believe the subject is an important one.
First, I would like to correct an error. I had referred to a female “chareidi” Olympic ping pong player who was not going to be playing on Shabbos. My point was not that she was chareidi but that she is to be admired for not playing on Shabbos despite the difficulties in scheduling it might pose. It turns out that the woman, Estee Ackerman, is not chareidi as far as the political/religious definition goes. She grew up in Modern Orthodox circles. From a technical standpoint, I did mischaracterize her. My main point, however, was to refer to her as an example of an athlete of whom we can all take pride, as she will not be violating any aspect of Shabbos.
Sports in Orthodox life is vital, whether as a participant or as a fan. The challenge is not to let it consume our lives, especially as it conflicts with halachah. I was a huge Knicks fan in high school. I (used to) like the Yankees, as well. But I remember telling my boys as they were going through high school, “It’s okay to admire Patrick Ewing; just don’t worship him.” The problem we have today is that so many young and not-so-young put sports over everything. It really rubs me the wrong way when I attend a bar mitzvah and I see that the entire banquet has a sports theme. Sometimes a favorite team will be highlighted, or sometimes each table is named after a different team. How about yarmulkas with team emblems or a superhero printed on the fabric? A yarmulka represents Hashem above us, and we replace Him with Spiderman!?
Indeed, in America, most yeshivos have a healthy attitude towards sports. From the lowest grades, kids are playing ball at recess and root for their favorite professional team. If you read the ArtScroll book on Rav Dovid Trenk zt”l, master m’chaneich (educator), you will see what a fan he was of baseball and basketball. Sports can truly serve to create a wholesome environment in which a Torah child can grow. But it cannot consume our lives to the point that we will compromise our Yiddishkeit.
It was told of Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg zt”l, the centenarian author, dayan, poseik, mashgiach, and rosh ha’yeshivah, who grew up in Brooklyn before immigrating to Israel decades ago, that he once remarked, “I have been a rosh ha’yeshivah and mashgiach for 50 years, but don’t think it doesn’t bother me when I hear that the Yankees lost.” Sports was truly part of American yeshivah culture, and it was quite healthy.
My father once took the P’nei Menachem, Rav Pinchas Menachem Alter, before he ascended to becoming the Gerrer Rebbe, to visit Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University. While the P’nei Menachem was strolling through the campus of YU, he noticed some boys running about with a basketball in hand while their tzitzis were flopping through their shorts. He turned to my father and said (in Yiddish), “That is terrific! Too bad we can’t do that in Yerushalayim.”
Yes, we are very fortunate that American Orthodoxy has produced Torah stars who were great on the court, as well. And so it should be. But let’s just keep it in perspective. Our champs will always be the Torah observant. Sports is great, but at best it takes second place.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.