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A few years ago, a friend and I left our yeshiva in the Judean hills to spend Shabbat with some acquaintances studying in Jerusalem’s enormous Mir Yeshiva. We prayed, we sang, we drank and ate and talked of many things, and at about midnight we visited the man known as the tzaddik––the “righteous one”––of the Mir. 

The tzaddik was about seventy. He lived in a modest, badly lit apartment with his wife and thousands of books, and he spoke in short bursts, as though scared of what his sentences would contain if they lasted too long.

Life was better in Jerusalem than in New York, the tzaddik said. More spirituality, less Jew-hatred, no sports. “No sports?” I asked.

“In New York, the boys played baseball, basketball,” he replied. “In Jerusalem our children never played sports. We worried it would take them away from Yiddishkeit––the Yiddish word for the whole of Jewish belief, practice, learning, and community.

I asked one of my hosts to explain the tzaddik’s meaning. “Sports are tarbus yevanis,” he said––Greek culture.

Maybe Plato couldn’t throw a knuckleball, but the Book of Maccabees––which records the events celebrated each Chanukah––confirms my host’s basic point. In the mid-second century b.c.e., some Israelite subjects of the Seleucid king who was ruling a remnant of Alexander of Macedon’s empire decided they wanted better relations with their pagan neighbors. The Seleucid king welcomed the sentiment, and so the Jews built a “gymnasium according to local custom, and did not circumcise their children, and left the holy covenant for heathen practices, and did wickedly in the eyes of God.”

Everything after that first item makes sense––but what’s with the gym? It probably wasn’t for military training. The Jews of the era already had access to that and many proudly used it. The eponymous heroes of the Book of Maccabees were faithful Israelites who defeated the Seleucids and their apostate Jewish allies in a long guerrilla war. After hearing that some pious Jews hadn’t defended themselves against attacks on Shabbat, the Maccabees declared that “if our enemies attack us on the Sabbath, we will stand fast, and not die like our brethren hiding in caves.”

The pagan Jews thought sports an intrinsically lofty pursuit. Which may seem like it shouldn’t even factor into a kulturkampf, much less an armed kampf. Throwing a discus can surely divert you from prayer and Torah study, but other things can do that also, and so I have to think the problem with this Jerusalem athletics center was more basic.

Raising physical prowess from a military necessity into a society’s main form of nobility can teach contempt for the small, the fragile, and the sick. If muscles and speed is how your community says you ought to flourish, the frail among us will be absorbed into a spectating mass useful only as an audience for a mighty few.

Which is a shame, because one of the very best things about civilization is that it gives vulnerable people a chance at decent, dignified lives. Without walls, cops, and laws, everyone is a tribal warrior, or beholden to tribal warriors, or a victim of tribal warriors. The pagan Jews wanted to restore the warrior virtues to a softer form of the dominance they enjoy without restraint in savage times.

The Maccabees fought with heroic strength against the total exaltation of heroic strength. Their ferocity was apt to the pagan total war against Judaism, though I suspect in our own day there is a moral compromise between abhorring sports and idolizing them (especially if the sport in question has the metaphysical grace of baseball rather than the gratuitous violence of football). The test of any value placed on sports––as military prep, as needful for health, as recreation––is whether it advances the Torah’s teaching that everyone great and small is made in the divine image, and whether it cultivates a society that esteems all who fear God and love their fellows.

Like its Maccabee predecessor, today’s Jewish state combines martial with moral excellence. After centuries of impotence and pogroms, men like Joseph Trumpeldor, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and Aaron Aaronsohn (no relation to the present author) helped the Jews earn their claim to a new life in their homeland by fighting with the British in World War I against Ottoman control of Palestine. Over seven decades of Israeli military strength has finally earned the respect of the Arab world, which is steadily making peace in letter and in spirit with Jewish sovereignty on Jewish land.

Israel is an armed society. And a remarkably kind one. I’m writing this piece from a Jerusalem café which employs several people with mental and physical disabilities. They work alongside their colleagues, many of whom either have served or will serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. Such businesses aren’t rare in Israel. They do their good work without ceremony.

The yeshiva where I spent four years sends dozens of students annually to the IDF’s combat units. The yeshiva also houses what a friend of mine dubbed “the least politically correct special needs program in the world.” Young men with communicative autism and Down syndrome study and pray with the rest of us. We help them self-regulate. They help us be more human. They’ll never see combat, but they’re as much a part of the yeshiva as the sharpshooters and the tank commanders.

Israel offers a humane answer to two tough questions: how to defend a country, and how to get those who bear the heaviest burdens in defense of a country to see that they do so for others, especially those who can bear only very light burdens. This Chanukah, I hope the nations take note of this bit of Jewish wisdom and discernment.

Cole S. Aronson is an MA candidate in philosophy at Hebrew University and a Krauthammer fellow with the Tikvah Fund. 

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Original image by Metropolitan Museum of Art via picryl licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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