Q. In a recent column
you write that the Talmud identifies ancient sporting events as "the
seat of the scoffers." Is this relevant to modern-day sports as well?
Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, The Jewish Ethicist responds.
A. In the previous column, we described the love/hate relationship of
Judaism and participant sports: we love them in moderation to develop
health and human relationships, but are wary of their potential to
become an obsession or a source of division and opposition.
We could say something similar about spectator sports. As we mentioned,
the Talmud identifies the Roman coliseum with the Biblical "seat of the
scoffers" (Psalms 1:1). (1) This characterization is hardly surprising
given the extremely cruel and violent nature of the "entertainment"
found there: gladiators, bullfights, and the like. Yet we have to admit
that many modern sporting events also have their share of violence, and
the eminent authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein wrote that contemporary
spectator sports can also be considered "the seat of the scoffers." (2)
He writes that attendance at these events can cause a person to forget
his religious obligations.
Is this meant to be a blanket condemnation of watching sports events?
I cannot speak for Rabbi Feinstein, but I can point out that the
Tiferes Yerushalaim Yeshiva which he headed had its own sports teams
and competitions, and I doubt that the stands were empty. Evidently he
acknowledged that watching sports can have some value, though obviously
it is not commensurable with the value of Torah study, which occupied
the overwhelming majority of students' time and effort.
I think that the critical distinction here is the purpose of the
activity. The main purpose of the sports teams at the yeshiva was
certainly not for entertainment but rather for the students to develop
their bodies and to provide an outlet for their energies. (In another
responsum Rav Moshe writes that providing a swimming pool for students
in the summer constitutes an act of kindness, since they need a place
to cool off in the heat and sometimes this can also bring them to exert
themselves more in their Torah study. (3)) Cheering on the competitors
is mainly a way of encouraging them in their training and exertion, and
not a diversion for the spectators.
Watching sporting events can also be of value for people who play that
particular sport, since this teaches them about the game and inspires
them to greater achievements.
Another possible ethical horizon in sporting activities is to draw
inspiration from the example of the athletes. I have heard many sermons
in which rabbis, both community rabbis and leading Torah educators, use
sports as a model for rigorous devotion to self-improvement within an
ethical (sportsmanlike) framework. I'm not sure that this attitude can
be cultivated in every individual, but it is in the reach of some and
for a young person who is already devoted to sports encouraging this
aspect can be a way of harnessing his interest for a positive purpose.
I recall once that Rav Aaron Lichtenstein urged us to spend more hours
in the Beit Midrash (study hall) by referring to the example of
legendary forward Larry Bird, "who is always the first one to arrive at
practice and the last one to leave – and not because he needs it!"
Sporting events in our society have become an obsession and reach a
centrality far beyond their true importance. They also are categorized
by an excessive amount of violence and gratuitous rivalry. The best use
of our leisure hours is for Torah study and acts of kindness. Even so,
a measured interest in sporting events to appreciate and encourage the
teamwork, sportsmanship, and efforts at self-improvement of the
athletes can be one tool to help us inspire us to develop our own
bodies and spirits.
SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 18b (2) Responsa Igrot
Moshe Yoreh Deah IV:11 (3) Responsa Igrot Moshe Even Haezer IV:61.
About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir is Research Director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem.
Rabbi Dr. Meir received his PhD in Economics from MIT, and previously
studied at Harvard. Rabbi Dr. Meir is also a Senior
Lecturer in Economics at the Jerusalem College of Technology and has
published several articles on the subjects of modern business and
economics and Jewish law. He writes a weekly column, The Jewish Ethicist, which provides advice on everyday business and work dilemmas.