While the “adults” of American Jewry make news — all too frequently — through public scandal, it appears that it’s up to the younger generation — the “millenials” as the journalistic pop-sociologists call the generational cohort born between 1980 and 2000 — to uphold Jewish dignity in the public eye.
You might remember the courageous self-control shown by Jewish University of Washington undergrads last spring when their celebration of Yom Ha’Atzmaut was raided by a threatening, pro-Palestinian demonstration.
Well, add now to the list the exemplary message conveyed by the girls’ basketball team of the Northwest Yeshiva High School just before Purim at the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association state playoffs in Yakima. The “613s,” as they are called, are the first athletic team in any sport to represent a Jewish school in an all-state competition anywhere. Quite an honor!
The only problem was this: The team was scheduled by the WIAA to play its final game on a date that coincided with the Fast of Esther. Observant Jews will recognize “Taanit Ester” as the fast established by the rabbis to commemorate the self-sacrifice of Queen Esther in saving her people from the genocidal hatred of the Persian court.
The story, of course, is memorialized in the Esther Scroll (see Esther 4:15-17), read in most synagogues on the evening and morning of Purim. According to the halachic tradition, Esther’s “dark night of the soul,” prior to confessing her Jewishness to King Ahasueros and begging him to spare her people from the plotting Haman, is commemorated by a public fast in which both men and women abstain from all food and drink from sunrise to sunset on the day before the Megilla is read in public.
This year, Purim fell on a Sunday. Since fasting is not permitted on Shabbat, the fast was pushed back to Thursday. That calendrical anomaly is what hung up the WIAA. Its officials claimed that scheduling accommodations to enable Sabbath observance are acceptable, but that there is no precedent for fast days. Negotiations between the Head of School, Rabbi Bernie Fox, and the WIAA proved fruitless.
Before the team lay a stark choice: To break the fast in order to accept the honor of athletic competition on the state level, or to honor the fast and forfeit the honor of all-state competition. As we all know — and to our pride — the team forfeited the game and refused to compete.
Now, as Blu Greenberg, one of the pioneers of Orthodox Jewish feminism, is famous for observing: “Where there’s an halachic will, there’s an halachic way.” A diligent halachic expert, in love with girls’ basketball and recognizing the value of public acclaim in strengthening Jewish identity, might have found a heter, a “loophole,” for permitting the girls to break the fast.
But even were such a heter found or at least contemplated, I think the team and the school made the right choice. Once it became clear that the scheduling would remain as planned by the WIAA despite the danger to the team, which would have to play without any hydration, they found that the disappointment of forfeiture concealed a rare opportunity.
How common is it for American teenagers to be forced to make a choice between religious principle and the ego-flattering rewards of public acclaim? Well, these kids did.
Confronted by pressure to compromise on a Jewish obligation in favor of a “this-worldly reward,” they resolutely chose the path of kiddush hashem b’farhesia (“public sanctification of the Holy Name”). In the glare of public media coverage, the girls explained the significance of their choice and, in so doing, brought before the public gaze a rarely glimpsed aspect of Jewish spirituality. For this they deserve from all of us a loud yasher koach!
So much of the upheaval of modern Judaism has been premised on the assumption that any conflict between halachic tradition and “modern realities” would necessarily be resolved in favor of “reality.” The resurgence of halachic consciousness across the spectrum of American Jewry — unanticipated by “experts” as recently as a generation ago — once again calls into serious question that fundamental assumption. Thanks, girls, for reminding us that we also define “reality” in our own terms!
And let’s not miss one other point: The 613s are not just any “Orthodox Jewish” basketball team — they are a girls’ Orthodox Jewish basketball team. Those who enjoy attacking the “gender politics” of Orthodoxy will want to take a closer look at how it was that a group of “disenfranchised, suppressed” young Jewish teenage girls managed to “overcome patriarchy” and summon the stamina and drive to become the first Jewish athletic team in Washington State history to make the finals in any sport.
It’s true: Orthodox Judaism may not be for everyone. But if these girls are evidence, it’s definitely a suitable choice for “the few, the proud, the tough — the 613s!”