The Impact of Acuña’s Elbow

Finding Talmud in Baseball...

Twenty-five years ago, long before the plunking of Atlanta Braves rookie Ronald Acuña Jr., I was beginning my training to be a professor of Talmud. Five days after this incident, I find myself rapidly restructuring lesson plans for my 10th grade Talmud class at The Weber School.

Since August 2004, I’ve begun my Talmud classes with the classic sugya (passage) in the third chapter of Bava Kamma, ha-meniah et ha-kad. This was not a text I had studied in rabbinical school; I was encouraged to teach it by Weber’s then Jewish Studies department chair, Mark Baker, who arranged for me to attend an educator’s seminar at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. There I had the privilege of studying this text with Professor David Dishon, and together we developed a semester’s worth of material in just two weeks’ time. Our intense work inspired me to continue teaching this text at the beginning of every school year. I planned to introduce the fall 2018 semester with this chapter and then move to Chapter 8: How to assess damages in the case of the one who injures his fellow.

Then Ronald Acuña’s elbow was hit by José Ureña’s 97.8 mph pitch, which was believed by everyone–except Ureña–to be intentionally injurious. My son agreed to serve as my research assistant, gathering video clips and online articles for me to share with my Talmud students, while I considered whether to change my curriculum and teach Chapter 8 before Chapter 3. How people walked along paths and rounded street corners in 1st-4th century Eretz Yisrael and Bavel, and whether pedestrians were held liable if they damaged one another’s property because they did or didn’t watch where they were going is interesting; and it’s more relevant than you might think to a bunch of teenagers who leave their backpacks outside classroom doorways and walk through hallways scrolling through text messages during the change of classes.

But Acuña’s near injury and its aftermath–Ureña’s fine and suspension, his denial of misconduct and appeal–offered me a case study that touched upon all five categories of liability that the rabbis designated in the first Mishnah of Chapter 8. How could I resist this opportunity to talk baseball and teach Talmud? I decided to make a last-minute change to my line-up.

My goal as a Talmud teacher is to help my students appreciate the success of our rabbinic forebears in keeping Jewish law alive. Moreover, I strive to help each of them discover the myriad ways that Torah–Jewish wisdom in its broadest sense–can enrich their lives. The best way I know how to do this is by studying 2,000-year-old texts and marveling at their relevance and applicability in our society.

At the end of class, we recite Kaddish d’Rabbanan together and thank God for blessing us teachers and students with long life. I also pray for Ronald Acuña, Jr. to remain healthy and strong. This high school teacher, along with many of her students, would certainly appreciate the success of our home team in making it to the World Series later in the semester.

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