The Halachah of Halftime: Judaism and Spectator Sports

The Halachah of Halftime:  Judaism and Spectator Sports
The Gladiator Rabbi
Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 84a
One day R. Johanan was bathing in the Jordan, when Resh Lakish saw him and leapt into the Jordan after him. Said he [R. Johanan] to him, ‘Your strength should be for the Torah.’ — ‘Your beauty,’ he replied, ‘should be for women.’ ‘If you will repent,’ said he, ‘I will give you my sister [in marriage], who is more beautiful than I.’ He undertook [to repent]; then he wished to return and collect his weapons, but could not.  Subsequently, [R. Johanan] taught him Bible and Mishnah, and made him into a great man. Now, one day there was a dispute in the schoolhouse [with respect to the following. Viz.,] a sword, knife, dagger, spear, hand-saw and a scythe — at what stage [of their manufacture] can they become unclean? When their manufacture is finished.  And when is their manufacture finished? — R. Johanan ruled: When they are tempered in a furnace. Resh Lakish maintained: When they have been furbished in water. Said he to him: ‘A robber understands his trade.’  Said he to him, ‘And wherewith have you benefited me: there [as a robber] I was called Master (Rabbi), and here I am called Master (Rabbi).’ ‘By bringing you under the wings of the Shechinah,’ he retorted. R. Johanan therefore felt himself deeply hurt,  [as a result of which] Resh Lakish fell ill.

  • How does this passage show us how the rabbis viewed gladiators?

Tosefta Avodah Zarah: 2, 2
תוספתא עבודה זרה: ב, ב
One who goes to the theaters of the idolaters, if he yells because of necessity, it is permitted, but if he intends to yell, this is forbidden.  One who sits in the amphitheater (of the gladiators) is like a murderer.
Rabbi Natan permits it for two reasons: Because he may shout and save lives, and because he may give testimony enabling a woman to remarry.
העולה לתרטיאות של עובדי כוכבים אם צווח מפני צורך מותר ואם מתחשב ה"ז אסור. היושב באסטרין הרי זה שופך דמים ר' נתן מתיר משום שני דברים מפני שצוח ומציל את הנפשות ומעיד על האשה שתנשא
Commentary by Rashi
Because he may shout and save lives - if you see a Jew being attacked, you should scream, have compassion for them and save him.  
שצווח ומציל - אם רואה שיגיחו שם יהודי צועק ומתחנן להם ומצילו.
  • What is the overall picture that is being painted in this text?  
  • Why did the rabbis want to discourage Jews from attending the theater or gladiatorial games?
  • How is one who sits in the amphitheater ‘like’ a murderer?
    • Are spectators responsible for what goes on in that sport?  Why or why not?  
    • What about television audiences?
  • How do you interpret, if he yells out of necessity versus intending to yell?  What are some possible scenarios.  
  • How are modern sports games, especially football, similar to and different from the events mentioned in this text?
    • What are the major differences?
  • Rabbi Natan’s permission might be read as grudgingly permissive or as an overall endorsement.  How do you read it?  Explain why.  
  • How can ‘shouting’ save lives?  
    • What can shouting look like in our time?  
  • Does it matter if one watches the sport in the stadium or at home on television?

Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5
משנה סנהדרין ד:ה
How do we press the witnesses in a capital case? We bring them in (to the court's chambers) and press them: "Perhaps what you say (isn't eyewitness testimony) is but your own assessment, or from rumors, or your witnessing an actual witness testify, or your reporting what a trustworthy said. Or perhaps you were unaware that by the end we'd interrogate you, with examination and inquiry. Know that capital cases are not like monetary ones. In monetary cases, (a false witness) can return the money and achieve atonement. But in capital cases, the blood of (the victim) and all his future offspring hang upon you until the end of time. For thus we find in regard to Cain, who killed his brother, "The bloods of your brother scream out!" (Genesis 4:10) - the verse does not say blood of your brother, but bloods of your brother, because it was his blood and also the blood of his future offspring (screaming out)! [Another explanation of the verse: for his blood was splattered over the trees and rocks (i.e. there was more than one pool of blood).] (The judges' speech continues:) "It was for this reason that man was first created as one person (viz. Adam), to teach you that anyone who destroys a life (some editions: from Israel) is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; any any who saves a life (some editions: from Israel) is as if he saved an entire world." [And also, to promote peace among the creations, that no man would say to his friend, "My ancestors are greater than yours." And also, so that heretics will not say, "there are many rulers up in Heaven." And also, to express the grandeur of The Holy One [blessed be He]: For a man strikes many coins from the same die, and all the coins are alike. But the King, the King of Kings, The Holy One [blessed be He] strikes every man from the die of the First Man, and yet no man is quite like his friend.] (The judges' speech continues:) "Maybe you (the witnesses) will now say, 'What do we need this, and all this anxiety for (let's not come forward even with true testimony)!' But Scripture has already spoken: "If he be a witness - having seen or known - if he does not express it, he shall bear his sin." (Lev. 5:1) Maybe you will now say, 'What do we need this, to be responsible for another man's death?' But Scripture has already spoken: "When the wicked are destroyed there is rejoicing." (Prov. 11:10)"

כיצד מאימין (את העדים) על עדי נפשות. היו מכניסין אותן ומאימין עליהן. שמא תאמרו מאמד, ומשמועה, עד מפי עד, ומפי אדם נאמן שמענו, או שמא אי אתם יודעין שסופנו לבדוק אתכם בדרישה ובחקירה. הוו יודעין שלא כדיני ממונות דיני נפשות. דיני ממונות, אדם נותן ממון ומתכפר לו. דיני נפשות, דמו ודם זרעיותיו תלוין בו עד סוף העולם, שכן מצינו בקין שהרג את אחיו, שנאמר (בראשית ד, י) דמי אחיך צעקים, אינו אומר דם אחיך אלא דמי אחיך, דמו ודם זרעיותיו. דבר אחר, דמי אחיך, שהיה דמו משלך על העצים ועל האבנים. לפיכך נברא אדם יחידי, ללמדך, שכל המאבד נפש אחת מישראל, מעלה עליו הכתוב כאלו אבד עולם מלא. וכל המקים נפש אחת (מישראל), מעלה עליו הכתוב כאלו קים עולם מלא. ומפני שלום הבריות, שלא יאמר אדם לחברו, אבא גדול מאביך. ושלא יהו מינין אומרים, הרבה רשויות בשמים. ולהגיד גדלתו שלהקדוש ברוך הוא, שאדם טובע כמה מטבעות בחותם אחד וכלן דומין זה לזה, ומלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא טבע כל אדם בחותמו שלאדם הראשון, ואין אחד מהן דומה לחברו. לפיכך כל אחד ואחד חיב לומר, בשבילי נברא העולם. ושמא תאמרו מה לנו ולצרה הזאת, והלא כבר נאמר (ויקרא ה, א) והוא עד או ראה או ידע אם לוא יגיד וגומר. ושמא תאמרו מה לנו לחוב בדמו שלזה, והלא כבר נאמר (משלי יא, י) ובאבד רשעים רנה.

  • This text specifically speaks to those who are witnesses of crimes and who testify.  In capital cases, why is a witness taught these specific teachings?  
  • “But in capital cases, the blood of (the victim) and all his future offspring hang upon you until the end of time.” We see here that the text can be read with or without the words, the victim.  Who else can be included other than the victim?  
  • How do we reconcile the first half of the text that reminds us of the sanctity of human life, with the second half that encourages us to punish the wicked appropriately in order to derive joy?
    • Does this say anything about humanity and our tendency to violence?
  • What is the significance of adding or subtracting the word, ‘from Israel’?  Referring, back to Rashi’s commentary, how can this relate to our case?
  • What does this text teach us about human nature?  
  • How can we expand the category of witness?  
Responsa, the Committee of Jewish Law and Standard “Violent and Defamatory Video Games” by Rabbi Elliot Dorff and Rabbi Joshua Hearshen February 4, 2010, Even HaEzer 21:1.2010
“In line with this, we maintain that Jews should avoid violent and defamatory video games because they violate some deep Jewish commitments. The Jewish tradition calls us to see each person as being created in the image of God, and this minimally means that we many not harm other people unless attacked ourselves. We must strive to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” As fallible human beings, we certainly do not succeed in following the divine challenge to be as holy as God is, but we are called by our tradition to try. Watching violence, sex, and injuries in R-rated movies or some sporting events is also not virtuous, but violent video games go one important step further away from the standards of virtue with which our tradition challenges us in that they involve us actively in perpetrating the violence rather than just passively watching it unfold. Violence in some movies or sports 91 may excite and even please us emotionally, which is certainly not ideal, but enjoying the spectacle of others inflicting pain, while definitely not something to be proud of, is ultimately a less serious affront to our ideals and character than causing the harm oneself, even if only in cyberspace.  In light of these values, then, we see avoiding violent or defamatory video games as a mandate of the Jewish tradition for both individual Jews and for Jewish institutions. Playing these games may not be legally forbidden, but it is not what Jews should do”. 92”
Footnote:  Spectators for most sports are attracted by the skill, speed, strength, courage, perseverance, and/or grace of the athletes, who are barred by the rules of the game from intentionally hurting other players. They also enjoy seeing those attributes tested in competition against others with similarly honed skills and character traits. Thus that fact that one might get excited and gain pleasure in watching most sports events poses no moral problem at all. Sports that involve direct body contact are an exception because the intent to harm in such sports as boxing and the actual harm that commonly results even without that intention in sports like tackle football do raise moral concerns. This, in fact, is the topic of a recent cover story of Time magazine, Sean Gregory and Buzz Bissinger, “The Most Dangerous Game: How to Fix Football” ( Time, February 8, 2010, pp. 36-45), which reports that 6.3% of college football players suffered concussions, 70.4% of players suffered concussion-like symptoms, and football players are much more likely (1 in 53 rather than 1 in 1,000 in the general male population) to receive a diagnosis of dementia, Alzheimer’s, or another memory-related disease between ages 30 to 49 ( ibid., p. 40). At the far end of this spectrum are those sports that are intended to be lethal, like the ancient Roman gladiator games, and the Rabbis specifically have us thank God for “making my lot among those who attend schools and synagogues and not among those who go to the theaters and circuses” (J. Berakhot 4:2 [7d in the printed, one-volume texts of the Jerusalem Talmud,33 and in the Judaic Classics electronic version],used also in the siyyum ceremony upon completing the study of a tractate of Mishnah or Talmud). It is precisely the same kind of response to violent video games that this responsum articulates – that Jews should not take part in them and should be thankful that the Jewish tradition trains us to stay away from them. For most sports, though, which are rarely harmful and certainly not intentionally so, the excitement and pleasure of watching the sport itself raises no moral concerns. The joy that some spectators take in watching a fight that sometimes breaks out on the baseball diamond or hockey rink is morally wrong, but even that is less objectionable than actively engaging in such a fight, which playing violent video games entails, even though it is only in cyberspace.

The NFL Today
Numb to Violence? Fans, Maybe, but Not Players by William Rhoden, New York Times, January 21, 2014

“The National Football League markets and manufactures controlled violence and mayhem better than any other league in the history of organized sports.  That is among the main reasons that football has become our national pastime. For better or for worse, the games frame the American ethos: big money, bright colors, big risks. But don’t discount the lure of the violence. The N.F.L. brand of football is a particularly violent game, and every time it is played, people get hurt….The ambivalence comes from outside the game: from the casual observers, disgusted yet fascinated by the weekly exhibitions of sanctioned violence in a supposedly civilized culture, and the rabid fans who love their teams and crave the mayhem...Fans see this revolving door of injuries with so much regularity that they run the risk of becoming desensitized. The hits become like cartoon violence. This may one day catch up with football, and either put it out of business or relegate it to the margins of society. But we are decades away from that.The N.F.L. has such a chokehold that it can hold its Super Bowl in the Northeast in the dead of winter in an outdoor stadium — and expect a capacity crowd. The rise of mixed martial arts suggests that we still have a lot of barbarism in our systems.  Viewed from that perspective, pro football may be our best option.”
“Jewish Ethics and the NFL”  Chancellor Arnie Eisen, The Jewish Theological Seminary:
“Two thousand years ago, when a majority of the Sages forbade Jews from participating in the events at Roman stadiums and arenas lest Jews be caught up in games inseparable from the worship of idols, one Sage disagreed: "On the contrary! It is permissible to go to the arena because by shouting you may save a person's life."  He may have had in mind a gladiator who could be warned by spectators about the imminent attack of a lion. We can't be sure. There seems little uncertainty, however, that those of us who love watching football can impel team owners and players to exercise maximum ingenuity in working to preserve the game they love to play -- and we love to watch -- while changing rules, equipment, and penalties in a way that cuts down on injury and long-term neurological damage. Something has to give. I don't know what is possible and what isn't. We will never find out unless we try hard to do so, as if life itself is on the line. Not to make people like me feel better when we watch, but to protect the health and well-being of those who play. A Super Bowl L in 2016 with such changes in place would be an event worth all the hoopla in the world.


Popular posts from this blog

The ‘Glasses’ of Blessing© - Parashat Re’eh and a Response to #Charlottesville

The Dove and the Raven© - Shabbat Noach 5778/2017

How Is Your Family? Speaking About Our Challenging Children©