For the Love of the Game

I grew up in a football town. In Buffalo, New York, the mid-90s were time to learn about holding your head high, as the Bills went to — and lost — the Super Bowl four consecutive times. You would think that citizens of Buffalo would harbor resentment for the teams who beat us, like the Dallas Cowboys who did so not once, but twice.

Instead, Bills fans everywhere hold their grudge against another team — the Miami Dolphins. No one, not even the internet, can give a solid answer on where or why the rivalry began. Regardless, I have vivid memories of writing messages like squish the fish on the blackboard in elementary school the week before a big game. Looking back, I wonder why the teacher didn’t stop the vitriol spewing from our grade school mouths. Instead, the rivalry, and team pride, was encouraged. To love the Bills and hate the Dolphins was as natural for a kid in Buffalo as shoveling the driveway after a heavy snow.

Some say that this kind of deeply rooted sports rivalry is healthy. Writer Jonathan Gault explains,

Sports hate is a good thing. You can channel your anger and aggression from the rest of your life into three hours of yelling at an opposing player and when you’re done,
you feel better about yourself. Sports as catharsis works.1 

Aaron Rochlen, Professor in Counseling Psychology at University of Texas adds that

Winning makes us feel like champions. And when the other guy loses, it distances us from our own feelings of inadequacy.2

Being a sports fan allows us to safely experience the highs and lows of human emotion. It is an opportunity to feel the most passionate passion, the saddest sadness, and even intense hatred. To take part in a rivalry is a deep act of tribalism. To love together and hate together, and cheer together and cry together with a group of fellow people, whether you know them or not, taps into one of our most basic human desires: to connect, to relate, to be a part of an in-group.

When my brother gets a “Go Bills” from someone on the street in Belmont who has noticed his home-team t-shirt, it builds camaraderie between strangers in a world that often feels too big. However, we have no personal animosity toward our friend, Ari, born and raised near Miami, and a die-hard Dophin’s fan. While we hope to I, the rivalry is not personal. It’s sports.

We feel tribalism even more deeply when it touches on who we are, and on what we believe. Tiffany Shlain’s 2006 short film, The Tribe, explores the history of the Jewish people, Jewish identity and the way that this group of outsiders became insiders. She creates a compelling visual of a pie chart interspersed with clips of people representing diverse cultures and ethnicities. The narrator explains,

Over 6 billion people live on the planet Earth. Thinking of them as a tribe of 100 people, there would be sixty Asians, fourteen North and South Americans.
Thirteen Africans and twelve Europeans. Thirty tribe members would be Christian. Eighteen would be Muslims. Thirteen Hindus, six Buddhists, and 33 would be
other faiths. Included in the 100 tribe members, ¼ of 1 would be Jewish.3

The film is a powerful illustration of what it means to be both part of an in-group and an out-group. As an in-group, Jews share an origin story, bloodlines, experiences of assimilation and escape from persecution: the result of being an in-group that is also an out-group. Many of us feel the bonds that come from connection with the Jewish tribe, whether it is the way we feel when our toes first touch the ground in Israel, or excitement when we learn a favorite celebrity is Jewish. We have also felt the frightening pang of alienation when an anti-Semitic comment is tossed nonchalantly into conversation.

Shlain’s film notes the sub-tribes that form within a tribe. Jewish sub-tribes include the Orthodox and the Reform, the Reconstructionist and the unaffiliated. The film mentions culinary Jews, Jew-Bu’s, and self-proclaimed bad-Jews. As we further delineate our differences, we eventually find fewer people who are just like us. Our sub-tribes can evolve so much from their once-shared foundation that communal history is nearly forgotten.

Every Rosh Chodesh, the first day of the new month on the Hebrew calendar, a group of women attempts to gather at the Kotel, or the Western Wall in Jerusalem. They call themselves Women of the Wall, and they have been meeting together since 1988, each time intending to conduct a women’s prayer service at this holy, and gender-segregated, place. The group has endured verbal and physical assaults, arrests, and intimidation from those who don’t believe that women ought to be permitted to pray out loud, or read from the Torah.

The intensity has escalated over the last few months as Women of the Wall have petitioned the Supreme Court, ultimately receiving police protection to pray publicly with tallitot (prayer shawls). In response, Ultra-Orthodox protestors have found their own way to keep these women as far from the wall as possible – by bussing in thousands of girls from surrounding towns to fill in the women’s section early in the morning, making it impossible for the Women of the Wall to get close to the holy site when they arrive with their police escorts. If that weren’t enough, in recent months the ultra-Orthodox women have not only taken up all of the space, but they have done so while screaming hateful words, throwing eggs and bags of water, mustering all of their resources to make Rosh Chodesh as unpleasant, and un-prayerful as possible for the Women of the Wall.4 

Rabbi Dr. Ilana Rosansky writes about her experience on Rosh Chodesh a few months ago.5 She hoped to put a prayer for healing in the wall, a small piece of paper with the name of a friend about to undergo surgery. She describes reaching over the police barricade to a young woman who had free access to the wall. She asked, “Please, would you do a mitzvah for me – for my friend – and place this note in the Kotel?”

Rosansky writes that,

‘again and again I beseeched the . . . women. They not only spurned my request, but they cursed me . . .They cursed my friend. They said things like:
“It’s your fault”, “She deserves it” . . .

She continues,

“These were deep and emotionally laden responses. Young women (girls, really)
uttering such things is shocking. This is what they have been taught. I didn’t really
expect this; I wasn’t prepared for such rancor and scorn. I was shaken to my core.
How can we pray as Am Echad ([as]one nation) when we are so divided by hatred?”

The irony is that long ago the Sages responded to the original destruction of the Temple, saying that sinat chinam, or baseless hatred was the reason for its fall.6 The ancient rabbis believed that internal conflict between Jews, between sub-tribes, enabled the destruction of their shared holy place. Now, as modern Jews of all tribes hope to pray at the only remaining wall of that same ancient temple, sinat chinam, baseless hatred once again brings destruction.

Standing at the Kotel is an opportunity to feel God’s presence more acutely, for all of us. But when the wall is guarded by hate, no one – not the ones hurling curses, nor the cursed – can pray in peace, forget praying for peace.

Being a tribe brings us together. We feel it this morning as we are moved by communal prayer and song, light headed and hungry though we may be. But when connection creates an in-group, it also creates an out-group. I challenge us today to consider the ways that we do, and more importantly the ways that we don’t interact with those who are not ‘in’ our ‘group.’

We feel close to those who are like-minded, those who agree with us. It is tempting, and often easier, to distance ourselves when others share a different view. I know I have un-friended an acquaintance on Facebook or stopped reading forwarded e mails because the poster or sender is pushing an agenda that contrasts my own. And what about offline, in real life: How many of us keep to the adage about politics and religion at the dinner table?

It fills a human need to be with and talk with others who share our beliefs. It is important to be clear on our own personal values: To know what we believe to be right and what we believe to be wrong. Our challenge is to understand ourselves as right without de-humanizing the other who must be, in the reflection of our right-ness, wrong.

Tribalism is healthy until we cease to associate with tribes and sub-tribes other than our own. Tribalism is healthy until our right way becomes the only right way. This is when tribalism becomes sinat chinam, baseless hatred. When disagreement forgoes discourse and heads straight for judgment, differences turn to hate.

This is the hate that makes young girls throw eggs at people who want to pray.
This is the hate that infiltrates the comments section of any politically-oriented article or blog.
This is the hate that led to a Giant’s fan’s brutal beating in a stadium parking lot.
This is the hate that leads us to cast out an entire group: to call them wrong, to demonize and, advertently or not, to teach that hate to our children.

How do we as modern, rational, kind people touch the edges of hate?
When we, yes even we, surround ourselves only with like-minded people it increasingly others the other.

Rav Kook, a renowned spiritual leader and teacher of the late 19th and early 20th century wrote
If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless loveahavat chinam.7

What would it mean to look hate in the eye with baseless love? How would it feel to see the other, to understand their motivation and hear their story, to listen for their narrative even as they hurl eggs and curses? We are each more comfortable in our corners. We watch the news channels that share our views, read the articles that support our positions, and pray with the communities that understand our needs. And in doing so, we create distance between ourselves and the other.

In the winter of 2008 I traveled to Ghana with a delegation of rabbinic students through American Jewish World Service. The students came from varied Jewish backgrounds, some Orthodox, others Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform. We were there to help the citizens of our host village construct a new community center. But the subtext of the trip was dialogue between this diverse group of students. Each of us, from our own sub-tribe, had to figure out how to eat, to study, and celebrate Shabbat together. The physical labor was easy. What was harder was the daily prayer, led each day by students. I saw the Orthodox students exchanging glances the morning I led services with a guitar. I’m sure they saw my discomfort as they led and I sat on one side of a mechitza, a gender divide, separated from my male colleagues.

Was it a comfortable experience? No, definitely not. But there in the Ghanaian village of Gbi Atabu the other and I saw each other, heard each other. We didn’t agree on the right way to pray or celebrate Shabbat or study text. But we did become a sub-tribe of rabbinic students striving to make sense of our differences.

It is, in some ways, like Super Bowl Sunday. Before the game begins, captains of the opposing teams line up for a ritual handshake. I can only assume that in that moment the handshake feels forced, that the overwhelming emotion is competition, evoked by strong loyalties for one’s own team. Because whether or not we love one another, looking the other in the eye reminds us that we do love the game. And without another team, without another tribe, we can’t even play.

At a recent AIPAC symposium Leon Weiseltier, writer and editor of The New Republic explained the importance of bringing back a respect of Jews for Jews. This is the essence of Peoplehood:
to love all Jews, even the ones who hate us. Weiseltier calls this an “impossible, but imperative task.”8 

We are enriched by our differences. The global Jewish community, just one quarter of one hundredth of all the people, has the chance to grow ever stronger if we can only learn a lesson from American football. As Marv Levy, the Buffalo Bills coach who guided the team through their back-to-back losses of the early 90s explained, “[We] Show the other guy some respect, and . . . put honor in the game.”9 

There are times when we need to step out from our respective sides, to meet in the middle, to shake on a shared love of God, Torah, and Israel even if we express it in different ways. When we look one another in the eye, we give honor to the game. Ahavat chinam, baseless love, gives honor to our lives.

Rabbi Nachman of Braslav taught,

You have to judge every person generously. . .When you find that bit of goodness and judge the person that way, you really may raise her up to goodness.10

When eggs or harsh words are hurled our way we are called to search, and sometimes search deeply, for the goodness in one another. Baseless love, in this case, means focusing our energy not on hating back, but on supporting what we believe to be right without failing to see humanity in the other – even when the other is not acting the part.

The Mishnah is clear on our job at this time of year:

For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.11

It is our job to try. To offer discourse. To reach out across the barricade and extend a hand, a prayer. It is our job to love, not necessarily to agree.

When our honest effort is still met with hate, in those moments we hope, and we pray that the Day of Atonement will do its job: to bring us all towards repentance, towards forgiveness, and towards ahavat chinam: a love that is holy, even if, and especially when, it is not easy.

This Yom Kippur morning, the annual super bowl of Jewish life, we stand with one down to go. Let's reach across our own lines and extend the hand of goodness and understanding to the other team — to the other tribe — to the other.



3 Shlain, Tiffany. “The Tribe.”
6 Yoma 9b
7Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324.
8Weiseltier, Leon. AIPAC Rabbinic Symposium. August 13, 2013.
10 Likkutei MoHaRa”N 282, translated by Arthur Green
11 Mishnah Yomah 8:9