5/23/2006

Ball-Playing Rabbis

אמר רבי יוחנן, מאי דכתיב +מלאכי ב'+ כי שפתי כהן ישמרו דעת ותורה יבקשו מפיהו כי מלאך ה' צבאות הוא אם דומה הרב למלאך ה' - יבקשו תורה מפיו. ואם לאו - אל יבקשו תורה מפיו.
.מועד קטן יז

Let me start by saying that I’m fully aware of the Gemara in Mo’ed Katan 17a and Chagigah 15b (and codification in the Rambam TT 4:2), excerpted above, that says that one should only learn from a Rebbi if he is like an angel to the student (I assume that doesn’t mean like Angel of ‘Rent’). In fact, that halakha is probably one that needs to be re-emphasized periodically.

At the same time, I think that this Gemara is either misunderstood or irrelevant. I prefer to think that it’s the former, but if it’s the latter, so be it. Angels are lousy role models, both for teachers and for students.

I originally called this blog, when I started it last January, ‘Self-Hating Rabbi’ in protest of the sharp separation of Rabbis and balabatim into separate castes. My first two posts, one a ramble, and the other a Talmudic Reading, were devoted to this theme. Though I’ve changed the name to be less negative, and the blog’s evolved considerably since then, the topic of Rabbinic aloofness is one which I still feel very strongly about.

For better or worse, I’m a sports fan. I grew up in an environment which kinda made that inevitable. But in my job, the fact that I have a genuine interest in these things gives me rapport with folks that I otherwise have nothing in common with. There are times that the entire table discussion revolves around the trivialities of sports or music, and don’t manage – nor do I try – to work in a d’var Torah. For so many people, that trivial, inane, banal conversation is the opening for a real relationship with a Rav. Take an interest in their lives, because you really care about the things they care about, and you’ve accomplished a ton. I make certain to read the blogs of my students and balabatim, and you wouldn’t believe how appreciated it is.

At the back of R’ Michel Shurkin’s ‘Harerei Kedem’ Vol I, he has a number of stories about 20th Century gedolim (excluding RYBS himself, oddly enough). He has a story about how R’ Shimon Shkop would go swimming with his students during the summer. R’ Shurkin comments that despite the need for a Rebbi to be angelic, he still earned the respect of his students. A groyse chiddush. Maybe it’s exactly the opposite.

When I was a high school Rebbi, I used to go play pick-up basketball at the JCC on Fridays after I finished teaching. The regulars there didn’t know me off-court, which was how I liked it. They played shirts-skins, and I went with the flow. Well, someone heard and told the shul Rabbi, and I took some flak for it. A Rabbi shouldn’t be running around shirtless. But then why can everybody else? Are we Catholic? On this topic, I highly recommend Erica Brown’s TuM journal article, ve-acamo”l.

So you can imagine my frustration when reading this from Still Wonderin’:
Instead, a featured speaker, a world-renowned Talmid Chacham who among other things, admonished Rebbeim to not stoop to the level of their students by playing ball with them; a bizayon for those who teach Torah is Pasht Nisht, he feels. Trips are bittul Torah, he, too, feels…maybe once a year, but just to be yoitze.
It reminded me of another story on the same theme, which I googled and found here:
A number of years ago, Rav Chaim Pinchos Scheinberg made a kiddush in the yeshiva for no apparent reason. When asked what the occasion was, he replied that he had heard that the Yankees won the World Series, and he had not gotten excited over it. Overjoyed that after so many years he was finally able to get the baseball of his youth out of his system, he decided to host a kiddush.

Some people think to themselves, "If only I had been brought up in a different environment I would really be able to serve HaShem properly." This is a mistake. HaShem gives each person specific toys in their youth in order that they rise above them in their adulthood.
First of all, I doubt that this story could have taken place with a Red Sox fan. I’ll bet the Bostoner Rebbe made a Kiddush in honor of the BoSox winning it all. There are plenty of Yankees fans who don’t get excited over another ring, but I digress. Point is, if I grew up a Yankee fan, why should I feel guilty about that (well, maybe the Yankees aren’t the best example)? Am I wrong to draw inspiration from Cal Ripken Jr., or from Curt Schilling’s bloody sock? See this article by R’ Mayer Schiller and especially this one by R’ Aharon Lichtenstein. Lehavdil, there are excellent books on the moral and spiritual value of sports by Bill Bradley and John Wooden. The following paragraph, from R’ Lichtenstein, encapsulates the counterpoint to R’ Scheinberg:
The significance of effort is very considerable in our hashkafa. This can find expression even in inherently trivial areas. For example, the world of sports is, in a certain sense, trivial; mature adults are running around trying to put a ball through a hole. Nevertheless, moral qualities can and do come into play: cooperation, team play, an attempt to get the maximum out of yourself, etc. The inherent effort of the person himself, or the loneliness of the long-distance runner in his isolation, are very significant moral elements. While one need not accept the British belief that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, there is no question that within the essentially trivial world of sports, real moral greatness and real moral degradation can be seen. If you see someone on the basketball court who wants only to shoot and score, and defense means nothing to him, this is not simply disturbing to another basketball player, but is morally repugnant.
[As an aside, there’s an apocryphal story that R’ Lichtenstein, upon grabbing a rebound, hollered ‘You’re immoral’ to a cherry-picking teammate; the teammate’s name was Baruch Lanner, who told this story.]

A Rebbi is a more effective role model on the basketball court than in the classroom. At the same time, whatever gains are made in the classroom can easily ruined on the court. The real goal is to continue to be a ‘malach Hashem tzevakos’ even on the court. If you’d like to know what that looks like, go watch the Gush Ramim play in their Thursday night pick-up game.

If you decide to involve himself in student sport culture, two caveats:
  • Take off the jacket and tie
  • If you embarrass yourself, don't talk about how good you were in high school, back before you went to Yeshiva and got religion.
[UPDATE: It seems that the ADDeRebbetzin posted some similar sentiments on DovBear's post on this issue.]
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