Sermon: The Spirit of Cricket (and Judaism!)

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 21 April 2018

A couple of weeks ago, an email from Lord’s appeared in my inbox.

This, in itself, is not particularly unusual.  One of the few certainties of modern life is that any company with which you have had business will try to contact you to sell you things.  I try to make it to a London test match at least once a summer, and Lord’s and the Oval therefore have my email address…

But this email was a bit different.
To begin the cricketing summer – and, one imagines more than a little influenced by the recent behaviour of members of the Australian cricket team in South Africa – Lord’s (or rather the MCC) took the opportunity to send a special message about the Spirit of Cricket.

Now, the Spirit of Cricket is not just a vague idea.  In the late 1990s, Ted Dexter and Colin Cowdrey – two former England captains – sought to enshrine the idea of a ‘Spirit of Cricket’ in the game’s Laws, to “remind players of their responsibility for ensuring that cricket is always played in a truly sportsmanlike manner”.
The Code of Laws introduced in 2000 included a ‘Preamble on the Spirit of Cricket’ which states that “Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game”.  Cricket captains are “responsible at all times for ensuring that play is conducted within the Spirit of the Game as well as within the Laws”.

The presence of this preamble to the laws states that there is an additional component to sportsmanship, an ethical, values-driven, component.  Keeping to the detail of the law is not, in itself, a guarantee – is not sufficient – if you wish to behave well.  It is possible to keep within the strict letter of a legal code while still behaving badly.

As in cricket, so in Judaism.

Our tradition also recognises this reality; also contains this important message that law alone is not enough.  Just as the Spirit of Cricket demands that players go beyond the rules of cricket, so, too, as Jews, we are asked to consider our behaviour beyond the vast detail of Jewish law.

This principle is known as ‘lifnim m’shurat ha-din’, literally ‘beyond the line of the law’.  It’s an idea that is a central concept in Jewish ethics: that we have an additional obligation to go beyond the detail of the law, and to behave well even where the law does not demand it.

The earliest reference to ‘lifnim m’shurat ha-din’ is found in a work known as the Mekhilta, which is a midrash on the book of Exodus dating to the second/third century CE.  There, we find an elaboration on Exodus 18, in which Jethro comments to his son-in-law Moses that he, Moses, shows the people “the practices they will do”.  Mekhilta states:
The practices – zeh ha-din (this is the law);
That which they will do – zeh lifnim m’shurat ha-din (this is [to go] beyond the line of the law).
That is, that which Israelites shall do is to go above and beyond.

In medieval biblical commentary, the idea of ‘lifnim m’shurat ha-din’ is more commonly associated with a phrase found in Deuteronomy 6.  There, towards the end of a portion which includes the restating of the Ten Commandments and what becomes the first paragraph of Shema, we are told:  “Be sure to keep the commandments, decrees, and laws that the Eternal your God has enjoined upon you. Do what is right and good in the sight of God”.  But what does this additional phrase actually add?  If we are keeping all the commandments, decrees, and laws what need is there to also consider what is ‘right and good’.
Nachmanides – a Spanish commentator writing in the thirteenth century remarks: “The text is telling us, ‘Even outside the realm of the commandment, make sure to do what is right and good, for God loves the right and the good”.

Why is this necessary?
Nachmanides continues his commentary with one reason: “It is impossible for the Torah to include every potential human interaction, social commercial, political”.  Law cannot possibly cover every situation, the detail, the nuance of every case.  As Jews we are required to use our intellect and intuition, to apply the values found in our tradition to other scenarios, too.

And not only to new scenarios.  We all know that there are situations in which the strict application of law is not the best thing, is not the ‘good and right’ thing to do.  We’ve seen an example in our national politics this week of the law being strictly enforced without it being the ‘right’ or compassionate thing to do.   Our tradition often recommends a generous rather than a strict application of the law, the foregoing of strict legal rights – especially in property and business law – for the sake of others.

Indeed, the idea of ‘lifnim m’shurat ha-din’ is also applied in our tradition to our expectations, or hopes at least, for divine behaviour, especially at the High Holy Days.  We ask God not to apply strictly the divine attribute of justice, not to apply God’s full legal prerogative, but to act beyond the line of the law, instead being merciful towards us – lifnim m’shurat ha-din.

As in the Spirit of Cricket, the idea of ‘lifnim m’shurat ha-din’ also acknowledges that it is possible to keep the law while still behaving dishonourably.  This is explicitly stated in our tradition – in fact, in an interpretation of this week’s parasha, from which Amelia sang so well for us.  Why does this week’s portion begin with the words “You shall be holy, for I the Eternal your God am holy”?  Why the repeated injunctions to imitate God alongside the laws?  Because it is possible for someone to keep the letter of the law while violating its spirit, while not being godly, not being holy.  Therefore we are asked also to consider our actions beyond their legal status.  Nachmanides, again, refers to someone who is “naval birshut hatorah” – literally “a scoundrel with the permission of the Torah”.

Nachmanides himself was particularly concerned with an approach to life that is selfish and self-indulgent, but within the confines of the law – what the twentieth century Orthodox scholar, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, pithily condemned as “Glatt-Kosher hedonism”.

This idea of an obligation to go beyond the letter of the law presents a fundamentally different idea about the nature of our religious lives to that which is often associated with Judaism – one which is primarily about values and not law.  Placing an emphasis on me’ikar ha’din – the strict halachah, strict adherence to law – at the expense of lifnim mi’shurat ha’din – going beyond the law – is a distortion, misses the real point of our religious lives.  Law without values is not true Judaism.

Rather, we are asked to actively engage with the world, to be promoters and enactors of values.  Judaism contains a strong ethic of non-indifference – that we must step forward – lifnim m’shurat ha-din – even where the detail of law itself may allow us to stay silent.

In one rather hyperbolic Talmudic text, we find in the name of Rabbi Yochanan that “Jerusalem was destroyed only because they decided cases there only according to Torah law.”  When the Talmud asks for clarification – how else could cases be judged – it is re-phrased as “Jerusalem was destroyed ‘She-he’emidu dineihem al din Torah, v’lo avdu lifnim m’shurat ha-din’ – because they limited their decisions to the letter of Torah law, and did not perform actions beyond the letter of the law.  They did the minimum legally required and no more.  Judaism asks us to do the more.

The spirit of cricket – about which I was reminded earlier this month – is the idea that what is special about that sport is not just the laws, but that those who play also understand themselves as having a broader responsibility beyond the law.

As Jews that idea applies to us too – the spirit of Judaism, let’s call it.
The Spirit of Judaism – that the law itself is not enough.  The Spirit of Judaism – that what is special about Judaism – like cricket – is not just the laws, but how the game is played.
The Spirit of Judaism – that we are responsible for ensuring that, as the preamble might say, play – no life – is to be [at all times] conducted within the Spirit, the values, of Judaism as well as within the Laws”.