I have had enough. Even if I’m the only person in Seattle who was hoping we didn’t get into the Super Bowl, so be it. I refuse to get swept up by this base, pagan, vile, vacuous and raucous endeavor. It is revolting. The violence, the drinking, people behaving like primitive brutes decked out like bizarre creatures, painted and even tattooed in Seahawks colors and emblems — it’s insane. It seems to be opposite of everything pious, reverent — or Jewish! Yet I hear synagogue attendees, Jewish communal leaders, teachers and even rabbis professing their devotion to this inane mindless amusement. Please, please back me up on this — please declare football treif!
Ouch. Treif might be a bit harsh. That said, I hear you. Take comfort — surely you realize you are not the only person with these societally deemed unwelcome sentiments. You most assuredly will find like-minded detractors in cafés, museums and theatres at sacred game times. I have actually observed this exceptional phenomenon on occasion myself.
So first, my friend, you are not alone. Second, far be it for me to deny that a number of the trappings of this football endeavor border on the, shall we say, more base of human instincts and inclinations. And yes, at first glance there seems little to justify its widespread devotion among those who are presumed to be spiritually disposed. However, there might be something here of a more complex nature, demanding, if you will, a bit of a close exploratory elucidation and exegesis.
Football does seem to bring out the savage. Unlike the more delicate sport of baseball, for which my mighty fervor presents as spiritual, the poetry of players endeavoring to get “home,” rising to the personal challenge of having to “step up to the plate,” football seems decidedly mundane with the point being to “tackle” the opponent and score a “touchdown.” Not very uplifting, is it? Indeed, the effort to discourage, nay eradicate the pastime is not confined to the sphere of religion nor the domain of politics.
Early in the life of football, King Edward II was so concerned by the rowdiness of the sport in London that on April 13, 1314 he issued a proclamation banning it: “Forasmuch as there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls from which many evils may arise which God forbid; we command and forbid, on behalf of the King, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future.”
Don’t hold your breath — I don’t see this sort of proclamation coming from our newly elected mayor anytime soon.
Indeed, thank you, Wikipedia, in 1608 the pastime of “football” was disparaged by none other than Shakespeare in the play “King Lear”: “Nor tripped neither, you base football player” (Act I, Scene 4), and in “A Comedy of Errors” (Act II, Scene 1):
Am I so round with you as you with me,
That like a football you do spurn me thus?
You spurn me hence, and he will spurn me hither:
If I last in this service, you must case me in leather.
Jews have also sought to explore the benefits or drawbacks of the sports-minded. Micah Stein cites a responsa of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in “Jewish Ideas Daily” two years ago, concerning whether a Jew may be a professional football player, “I was asked if it is permitted to earn a living playing sports…as there is an element of danger,” he wrote in Igrot Moshe. ”And I believe it is permitted, because…one may work in a field that entails some risk.” However, the danger threshold acceptable to Feinstein was only “one in a thousand.” This does not address those who in fact are not earning a living in their hours devoted to this diversion but, rather, being a spectator and who may actually be doing the opposite by wasting time and resources. Though interesting, it’s not entirely pertinent.
We might draw on strong rabbinic disapproval for participating in the theaters, arenas and gymnasiums of foreign cultures anachronistically mentioned in our tradition, which concern our ancestors’ assimilation in ancient Egypt and then later decried more appropriately in the time of the Hasmonean revolt against Hellenism, and later during the Roman occupation of Judea. A more enlightening — though esoteric — passage that might shed some welcome light on our conversation is found in Samuel II, Chapter 2. Here the opposing camps — teams — of Saul devotees and David fans come to contend with each other in this very disturbing messy scene.
And Joab the son of Zeruiah, and the servants of David, went out; and they met together by the pool of Gibeon, and sat down, the one on the one side of the pool, and the other on the other side of the pool. And Abner said to Joab: ‘Let the young men, I pray thee, arise and play before us.’ And Joab said: ‘Let them arise.’ Then they arose and passed over by number: twelve for Benjamin, and for Ish-bosheth the son of Saul, and twelve of the servants of David. And they caught everyone his fellow by the head, and thrust his sword in his fellow’s side; so they fell down together…And the battle was very sore that day; and Abner was beaten, and the men of Israel, before the servants of David…Then Abner called to Joab, and said: ‘Shall the sword devour forever? Knowest thou not that it will be bitterness in the end?
What is this seeming sport/battle/war scene? In what way does it inform our conversation around football? I think everything. This Biblical scene combines the language and spectacle of sport and the language and spectacle of the battlefield. This time-honored combination is very much alive and well in our arenas, screens and newspaper sports sections.
Though our most profoundly voiced aspirations and desires are for peace and tranquility, there seems to be something of the human condition that longs for, desires, nay demands a warfare and battlefield of some sort. And if, my friend, that predisposition translates for most Americans into the viewing of two teams from different cities with fans battling out for dominance, so be it. If it mitigates some bit of our innate bloodthirsty, battle-hungry nature, then bring it on! Go Hawks!