Jews & Sports: Premodern History

Throughout Jewish history until the rise of the Zionist movement, Jews have harbored negative attitudes toward sports, often with good reason.

Reprinted with the author’s permission from Maccabi Canada: Fifty Years of Jewish Cultural Identity and Continuity through Sport, a paper delivered at the 3rd Maccabiah-Wingate International Congress, July 12-15 2001.

While some academics and community Jewish leaders (Levy, 1989; Levy, Rosenberg and Hyman, 1999; Morton, 1997; Segal, 1996) are beginning to recognize the important role that sports can play in promoting Jewish values and Jewish continuity, the prevailing belief in the religious Jewish community is that there exists a conflict between traditional Judaism and the world of athletics (Eisen, 1997). And the conflict becomes even more exacerbated when the pursuit of athletics is justified on the grounds of promoting a contemporary “Jewish Value System.”

A very brief history of the relationship between Jews and sports is in order since many scholars disregard the genuine and authentic roots of the anti-sport philosophy amongst the Jewish people.

When the author of the first Book of Maccabees, our main source for the term Maccabi, wishes to characterize the wicked Jewish accomplices of Antiochos’ Hellenization program, the first act he sees fit to describe (I:14) is how the traitors “built a gymnasium in Jerusalem in the heathen fashion, and submitted to circumcision, and disowned the holy covenant; they allied themselves with the heathen and became the slaves of wrongdoing (Flavius, 1996).”

Simply put, down through the ages, right up until Zionism redefined the role of physical activity, Jews have been extremely uncomfortable with sport and worship of the body. The fact that this episode has not been universally included in the teaching of the Hanukah story results in the historical irony that the name “Maccabee” came to be applied today to–of all things–a world wide Jewish athletic movement purporting to reclaim Jewish values through sport. After all, the enticing designation of “People of the Book” is much more palatable and prestigious than “People of Brawn.”

Roman Brutality

While the Greeks attempted to proselytize the Jews through gymnasiums and body worship, the Romans added another reason why Jews have refused to accept sports. Josephus Flavius described at length the Hellenizing of King Herod (the arch-tyrant of Judea who succeeded in perpetuating his rule by currying the favour of the Roman rulers at the expense of the sensibilities of his Jewish populace).

roman sportsAmong other things, Josephus also reports that Herod established his own five-yearly games on an international scale in honour of Caesar, to be held in Jerusalem and elsewhere. He even named one of his daughters Olympia.

Josephus’ account of Herod’s own Olympic games reveals to us a new reason why Jewish religious leaders have rejected the potential positive Jewish values of sports. Whereas Jewish objections to Greek sports were primarily due to their inherently pagan character (as well as their nudity and frivolity), the Romans introduced a new dimension to the sports arena: cruelty and sadism, which even surpassed that of professional hockey.

The classic examples of Roman viciousness and sadism were the throwing of prisoners of all ages (among whom were probably numbered many captured Jewish freedom-fighters) before wild beasts, and gladiatorial combat. Herod included such displays in his own games, to the delight of the pagan tourists and to the indignant shock of his Jewish subjects. This sadistic element of Roman athletics seems to be the one that figures most prominently into the talmudic and rabbinic writings down to modern times.

Reports from the Talmud

The “theatres and circuses” are frequently identified and condemned in the Old Testament as places of idolatry and evil, though the Talmud writes that Jews were permitted to attend these events even on the sabbath, because they might be able to save the lives of victims–by indicating through the “thumbs up” gesture their wish that the victim’s life be spared.

There is even reported the story of Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish, who was forced by economic difficulties to take up the life of a gladiator. The Talmud describes how his eventual opting for the life of Torah was at the expense of his athletic prowess since the two worlds–sports and Judaism–were perceived as inherently antithetical (Bickerman, 1979).

Zionist Revival

A radical departure from the normative Jewish antipathy towards athletics came about during the formative years of the Zionist revival in “Eretz Yisrael.” The Zionist outlook saw that the life of the Torah must coexist in harmony with nature, and the spiritual redemption promised by the re-establishment of Jewish independence must be accompanied by a corresponding physical rebuilding of Jewish bodies.

At the second Zionist Congress, Max Nordau, a medical doctor, delivered a vigorous speech stressing the need to reestablish a “muscular Jewry.” The 1927 Zionist Congress in Basle made a special request that care should be taken to hold athletic events, including football games, on weekdays, so that religious youths could participate freely.

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