Dvar Torah: On FIFA
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 29 May 2015
These are not names, I imagine, that most of us in this room are familiar with – even though they were at the centre of the main news event of the week – FIFA Executives taken for questioning from their Swiss hotel on Wednesday morning.
How little we know about them –
We know nothing of the fundamental questions of their lives – how they rose to power, what they believe, their appropriateness (or not, as it turns out) for the task of running world football. In the age we live in they are somehow largely anonymous.
FIFA sometimes feels of another age – an ancient fiefdom, an ancient power structure, alien to our modern, examined, lives.
It feels, in fact, like it would fit straight into this Shabbat’s parashah. We will read tomorrow how Moses completed the consecration of the Tabernacle, and the princes of the tribes, brought their offerings – the heads of each ancestral house, there by inheritance – previously anonymous representatives of their own federations: Eliav ben Elon, Elishama ben Ammihud, Achiezer ben Amishadai, Elisaf ben Duel, Ali bin Al-Hussein – actually, the last one is Vice-President of FIFA, you get the idea.
Now, I apologise for the slight hint of heresy. I want to stress, the offerings of the princes in our portion were not bribes of corruption, but freely given gifts on behalf of their tribes for the consecration of the tabernacle.
But there is a parallel in the underlying power structure. The Book of Numbers, like FIFA, does not seem to care whether people are good at their job as a requirement for doing it: Numbers is a world in which power and privilege comes with lineage and wealth. Positions of political power in the tribal structure were inherited.
And so, too, power – in fact, tight control – over the religious life of the people was inherited – the exclusive reserve of the descendants of Levi, and especially of the Kohanim, the priests.
The rabbis, however, did not like this very much.
For them, power and authority should be earned – should be deserved, and should be exercised by those best suited to the task. In the rabbinic power model, excellence in scholarship, irrespective of background, was the fundamental requirement for the exercise of religious authority. Ask a priest or a chieftain to justify their position and they would speak of their genealogy; ask a Sage and he would cite his Torah.
Many of the Sages were men who rose from impoverished backgrounds through merit. The story of the great Rabbi Akiva began as a shepherd boy of humble parentage. The sage Reish Lakish came to Torah study late, having previously been a bandit, and a gladiator.
I don’t want to imply that rabbinic literature was some utopian idealism not concerned at all with wealth or lineage – it still was.
But if all else was equal what mattered to the Sages was that you are good at what you do.
In this respect, as in so many others, the rabbis were deeply subversive of Torah.
They believed in good leadership, well earned, despite the model of our portion.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the rabbinic story of Rabban Gamliel. Gamliel had been great, but, over time, his management style became a difficulty for the sages. His ill-treatment of a colleague, his elitist approach, held back the study of Torah. So the other sages did what they needed to do, they felt able, and more importantly, willing, to depose a respected leader because he was no longer the best man to do the job
If the anonymous men with whom I began this sermon are found to have been corrupt, we can only hope that justice does prevail. But underlying their failures is a power structure better suited to the bible than to the running of modern football. It is one with which the sages would have taken great umbrage, because it does not have those best suited running the game.
Indeed, football deserves a power structure more like that of the rabbis – one in which merit, the ability to do the job, takes priority over other wealth and patronage.
And if, as in the case of Rabban Gamliel – the Sepp Blatter of the study house – the culture of the institution can be changed only with a change at the top, then let us hope that will finally be the case.