Monday, August 20, 2012

Siyum Hashas - The Speech I did not give. Part 2

Crossing G-d’s Goal Line at MetLife Stadium – Part II

In the last edition of the Queens Jewish Link, I was privileged to have my undelivered speech to the Siyum Crossing G-d’s Goal Line at MetLife Stadium – Part I” published.   Given that at least a few of the evening’s esteemed speakers went on quite a bit beyond their originally allotted time, I feel justified in writing some additional thoughts here in “Part 2”, in the time-honored tradition of “Az mir redt shoyn . . .” (or “while I am on the topic”, for you non-Yiddish speakers).

In essence, my original point was that the MetLife venue might be used as more than just a self-congratulatory and condescending “we are superior to them” attitude.  That it was possible to think about an NFL stadium as representing some positives as well, in that we there are athletic values that are analogous to what it takes to finish Shas –determination, consistency, mental toughness, absolute commitment to reaching goals, and so on – and one need not dismiss it all with a simple rendering of the standard Siyum text “We strive and they strive”, etc.

However, aside from a general discussion of the value of sports when kept in the proper perspective, I believe that there is one particular story happening at MetLife Stadium that, strange as it may sound, merits some attention from serious people in the Torah world.  This is particularly so as we celebrate the achievement of those who sincerely dedicate themselves to serving the Almighty.  It revolves around a rising star member of the NY Jets who is deservedly making quite a bit of news, the Jets new backup quarterback, Tim Tebow.[1]

In all likelihood there are very few among the 90,000 here tonight who have heard of Tim Tebow, but I will quickly bring you up to speed. Tebow was one of the hottest stories of last year’s NFL season. He took over midseason as the starting quarterback for the 1-4 Denver Broncos, generating unprecedented excitement as the team completely turned around and began winning, and even made it into the second round of the playoffs.  While his abilities were constantly questioned due to his “unorthodox” (I find that an interesting term) style of play and mixed results, he appeared (to some) to have some special assistance, as evidenced by his uncanny ability to win seemingly hopeless games at the very last minute.  This happened so often that the final two minutes of the game were referred to as “Tebow Time”, when “miracles” seemed to happen regularly.

Moreover, and of particular interest to us, Tebow was constantly in the news due to his steadfast, very public, declarations of faith.  A deeply religious Christian, Tim regularly made a point of attributing his success to G-d’s help.  He spawned a new word as his signature bow to G-d after scoring a touchdown became known as “Tebowing”.  In his statements to the press he always took pains to thank G-d for his success, and movingly declared his allegiance to him.  Of course, given the overwhelmingly non-religious, and even anti-religious nature of the media, Tebow was widely mocked, belittled, and deeply criticized for his “over the top” declarations of faith, but this did not stop him from asserting it to whomever would listen.

Furthermore, while both admired by his many (mostly religious Christian) fans, or mocked by an even greater number of detractors annoyed by his constant public display of faith, Tebow was unfailingly kind, gracious, polite, thoughtful and decent to teammate, opponent, and all others, as he generously gave of his time to a multitude of causes and unfailingly modeled exemplary behavior.  Passionate as he is about winning, he often would shrug off a mean or hard hit by the other team as being within the bounds of acceptable play, and refused to criticize or bad mouth anyone.

In between seasons, Tebow demonstrated an extraordinary depth of character in his handling of being summarily dumped by the Broncos, after doing so much for them this past year, when superstar quarterback Peyton Manning became available.  He was shipped off to the Jets, where he will now have to serve as a backup quarterback, after being “the man” who was constantly in the spotlight.  Without a word of bitterness or complaint, Tebow sunnily accepted this as a business decision that the teams had made, and let his faith tell him that G-d would place him where He wanted Tebow to be.

Most surprising to many was the fact this 25 year old handsome and popular young man claims to still be a virgin, who is “saving himself for marriage”, despite the hordes of women who have thrown themselves at him.  He goes about his business, works extremely hard to be in the best physical and mental shape possible (he is just as adept as a running back as he is a quarterback), serves G-d and lives clean.

Now why would Mr. Tebow be of any interest to us tonight? Surely, despite his impressive physical accomplishments, and even granted his deep faith, a Christian NFL jock would be of little or no interest to Torah Jews who are passionate about learning?!

I believe that there are several reasons.  First of all, given that his name will surely be plastered on the front pages of local NY/NJ newspapers this year, many Jewish youngsters will be formulating opinions about him.  As there is much that is positive that can be said about him, it is an important teaching moment in that we can teach them to admire the qualities of a person of faith who unabashedly stands for goodness and decency in the spiritual morass that is modern society.

But perhaps more importantly, I believe that Tebow is, providing a model for all of us of how a G-d fearing person can earn grudging respect in our very secular society.  I know, he is a Christian, not a Jew.  I know, he does sometimes go a bit over the top in his declarations of faith.  However, none of that takes away from the fact that he provides a beautiful model of how his faith has caused him to become a remarkable human being, brimming over with civility, decency, integrity and a deep commitment to serving others, all of which are values that Christianity borrowed from our Torah. Indeed, Tebow challenges us to be no less kind, decent, thoughtful to others and respectful as he is.

Unfortunately, I suspect that this is not the message that we will be hearing from Jewish organizations, especially the Non-Orthodox in the months ahead.   It has been a source of consternation to me that Jewish parents and spokesmen are often perfectly willing to expose their children to all manner of depraved music, culture, movies, celebrities, etc., and have no fear of this might affect their Jewish soul.  But, “G-d forbid”, they are absolutely terrified of anything that shows non-Jewish religious people in a positive light, particularly Christians.  They get apoplectic in their fierce fight against any public display by non-Jews of their religious symbols, and any positive Christian message that their children might be exposed to.   Surely we have less to fear from respecting the faith of a G-d fearing Christian, than from the incessant depravity, emptiness, and corruption that is evident in so much of what the prevailing culture so admires.

I say this being fully aware of the danger that is inherent in admiration of Christians.   Certainly our long and painful history of the relationship between Jews and Christians sends out grave danger signals.  We must be very careful to protect our children and the gullible from being influenced by missionaries who seek to promote Christianity to Jews.  Nevertheless, with safeguards in place, it is proper to respect and defend the rights of all who practice Monotheism to hold their beliefs, while at the same time avoiding pluralistic notions of granting legitimacy to those same beliefs for ourselves.

In closing, then, I am not suggesting that anyone take time away from learning the Daf to watch Tebow in action at a football game.  However, while the question of whether there is ever a good reason to watch a professional game is debated by Poskim, with a predominantly negative view, it is well known that, unofficially, many frum Jews do have more than a passing interest in sports.  Perhaps at this visit of ours to MetLife Stadium we might, in addition to all the other positive Torah inspiration, pick up a few pointers from Tim Tebow as to how to live in a way that brings honor to our faith, and let us go beyond, striving to live as a Kiddush Hashem.

[1] I am aware of the general prohibition in Shulchan Aruch YD 151:14 in which there is a prohibition against admiring non-Jews.  However there are many exceptions to this Halacha, and many places in the Talmud, where lessons were learned from exemplary non-Jews.  In particular, Rav Kook zt”l wrote in Tov Roi on Berachos 8b that it is permissible if we are using them to learn a positive lesson.

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