Sermon – Jews and the World Cup

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 11 July 2010

Erev WORLD CUP 2010

A couple of months ago I was trying to arrange a meeting with someone for the coming month.  I suggested a date that worked for me.  It sounded promising.  I was optimistic. Then he looked in his diary and shook his head. “No,” he said, “I can’t possibly make that evening.  No, that’s Brazil versus North Korea.”

Now I have to admit that I too am very excited about the world cup, if not quite to that extent.  The ‘English me’, the ‘secular me’, most especially the ‘parent of a five year old boy’ me, is looking forward to spending some – well quite a lot, I hope, of the coming weeks in front of the television; to buying more Panini stickers – for the boy, of course; to filling in a world cup wall-chart.

But as I sit in front of the television, hopefully all the way to an England victory on 11 July, what is going to happen to the Jewish me?  If, as we rabbis like to claim, Judaism is interested in every aspect of our lives, what will it mean to approach the World Cup as a Jew?  Will I need to turn down the volume to block out the noise of the ‘Jewish me’, just as I will switch off the TV volume to block out the noise of the vuvuzela horns?

Unfortunately, I might. Participating in sporting events is considered to be OK within Jewish legal literature – even, incidentally, on Shabbat (see, for example, the responsa of Moshe Feinstein on the recreational playing of football on Shabbat)- but this is mainly for health reasons.   Watching sport is another matter.

If we consider ourselves bound by the Halachah, by the Jewish Law that was evolved by the early rabbis, then I’m afraid that we have no choice – the only thing to do, the ‘right’ thing to do – will be to throw away the wall chart, the sticker book and the TV remote.

To understand why, we need to take a little journey through halachic literature. The Babylonian Talmud (Avodah Zarah 18b) quotes Rabbi Meir, a sage from second century CE Palestine as stating:

“One may not go to theatres and circuses because people convene there in the interests of idolatry.” The sages of the time refine his position, stating: “Even in a place where they do not come together in the interests of idolatry, it is nonetheless prohibited to go to such places because this is Moshav Letzim – sitting in the company of scoffers.”

In this short passage, the Talmud raises two objections to going to modern day sporting events.

The first is the prohibition on association with Avodah Zarah – idol worship.  And there may be a point here.  If you hear how the media talks about Wayne Rooney, or Lionel Messi, there is certainly a fine line between awe for their talent and idol worship.  This is definitely something to be wary of, especially if England actually do well this year.  But, of course, real idol worship doesn’t take place in sporting arenas.  Not anymore.

The other prohibition comes from a category in Jewish law – one that means that going to the pub to watch the football is definitely counter to the stricter interpretations of our tradition.  For to do so would fall into the category of Moshav Letzim – sitting in the company of scoffers – of spending time in an environment which is focussed not on the important things in life, but on the mundane.

As the Talmud warns, association with the wrong crowd can be the start of a slippery slope:  “If he walks through, eventually he will stand.  If he stands, eventually he will sit.  And if he sits, eventually he too will scoff” (Avodah Zarah 18b).  To put it in modern language – one football match in the pub this month and you will be lost to Judaism forever! Or, as Rashi explains in his commentary on Psalm 1:1, the company of scoffers will ultimately bring one to neglect of the study of Torah.

This danger of ‘neglect of the study of Torah’ means that if we consider ourselves bound by halachah, by the legal component of rabbinic literature, we are actually prohibited from taking an interest at all in the World Cup – even watching matches on TV. To do so would be considered to be Bitul Torah – to be neglecting Torah, wasting time that we should be spending engaged in the important things – study or Mitzvot.  As Psalm 1 tells us:  “Happy is the one who has not joined the company of scoffers – he studies God’s teaching day and night.”  According to this strand of Jewish Law, anything that detracts from one’s ability to concentrate on Torah is not allowed, and the football definitely applies.  Now there might be a way around this. Perhaps we can claim that in watching football we are appreciating the talent of human beings, and as such the wonder of God’s creations? Alas, even if this were true, it would still be prohibited.  As the Ethics of the Fathers states in the name of Rabbi Ya’akov: If a man was walking by the way and studying and he ceased his study and said, “How fine is this tree”, or “How fine is this ploughed field,” the Scripture sees it as though he has forfeited his own soul” (Pirkei Avot 3:9).

Of course, the idea of Bitul Torah does have its limitations.  Some secular recreations might be permissible if they can contribute to a positive mental state – classical music, for example.  But it is hard to think that football fits this category.  In a eulogy for his father, the bible scholar, Nahum Sarna, his son David explained his attitude to sporting events:

I grew up as an American in a thoroughly British household… I asked Abba, many times, to take me to a baseball game.   This was asking a lot from him. Firstly, he regarded it as bitul Torah, “a waste of time” where the time was better spent studying Torah. Secondly, if one were to interrupt one’s studies to discuss or engage in sports, then it was obvious that cricket was the only respectable choice.

Of course, what I know, and you know, is that none of this will have any effect on the thousands of Jews from across the religious spectrum – from the most secular to the (nearly) most Orthodox in practice – who will indulge in a little Bitul Torah over the coming weeks.  In fact, who will spend hours watching the World Cup – there is even a guide in Hebrew on the internet (admittedly a very tongue in cheek one) giving guidance on watching the world cup in the style of the Mishnah.  Now this is funny only if you know your Jewish law  (it suggests, for example that as watching a football match is a time bound Mitzvah, men are obliged but women are exempt), so the presumption must be that even scholars will be indulging.

The truth is, of course, that there are very few people who could genuinely claim that they live a lifestyle entirely in line with halachah.  And as modern Jews living in a modern world, there is surely also nothing wrong with relaxation – even if, or maybe because, it distracts from the really important things if only for a little while.

And perhaps, just perhaps, we can find in the World Cup just a hint of Jewish inspiration:  In 1963 the great English Orthodox Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld wrote a short essay, Judaism and the Sporting Spirit, in the book ‘Why Judaism’.  In it he sought to draw lessons from sport for Jewish life:

“Let us urge our youth to play,” he wrote, “Not only on the sports ground but in religious life.  They can be made to realise that they are not onlookers in the pavilion, but members of the team.  They will understand what is meant when we ask them to know their duties for themselves… let us remind them that there are tens of thousands of spectators in the grandstands… ready to boo foul play”.

Of course, Schonfeld was writing in a different age – before England had even won a World Cup:  He also wrote: “While public opinion still tolerates lies, depravity, aggressiveness and underhandedness in general affairs, the popular sports are committed to moral standards of conduct, standards which conform to biblical teachings”

We can only hope that the next few weeks prove him right.