SPORTS AND RELIGION in America go together as naturally as motherhood and apple pie. Schools with predominantly religious students field excellent teams in a variety of sports. In America, it is taken for granted that the religious way of life dovetails with the athletic life, sharing as they do such common principles as commitment, self-discipline, and a positive attitude. When we learn that a certain professional athlete, for example, is also a religious person our reaction is usually: “of course, yes, that makes a lot of sense.” Almost exclusively in American sport, however, “religious” means Christian. The fit between high-level participation in sports and Christianity’s older sibling Judaism is, I’m afraid, terrible.
Despite the fact that we American Jews savor each and every professional Jewish athlete who in some way acknowledges their Judaism (such as by not playing on Yom Kippur), it’s almost impossible to find a Jew in the history of American professional sport who defined themselves as religious (boxers Dmitry Salita and Yuri Foreman are quite exceptional in this regard). In Israel, one would be excused for hoping that things would be different. Israel is, after all a Jewish state, and surely in a Jewish state it should be possible to be a religious Jew and a professional athlete. The good news is that it is possible. The bad news is that sports culture in Israel makes it incredibly difficult.
For a Jew embarking upon a career of high-level participation in sport, the major obstacle is Sabbath observance. In Israel, whether or not Shabbat is a key day for competition (as it is for soccer, swimming, and tennis), the day is heavily utilized for training by all branches of sport. From a Jewish legal perspective, there is technically no Shabbat violation in almost all sports participation; the violation comes in the automotive travel to and from practices and games on Shabbat. From a less technical perspective, playing professional sport on Shabbat might not violate any one of the 39 prohibited activities codified by the rabbis, but it certainly would seem to violate the spirit of the fourth commandment, which says, in part: “you shall not do any work.” Some religious Jews are not prepared to be flexible with the definition of “work,” and relatively early in their sports career they rule out Sabbath sports play—and in doing so decide against a career in professional sports. Other religious Jews, relying on the technical definition of work, agree to play on Shabbat as long as they are able to walk to and from Shabbat practices and games. This inconveniences both the player and their team, but if the player is good enough the team will be flexible.
It is true that under certain circumstances, the State of Israel is prepared to defend the rights of religious athletes. Several years ago a ruling by an Israeli court, for example, upheld a petition by a young Sabbath-observing fencer, who argued that the holding of a national fencing competition on the Sabbath was discriminatory against him. In modern fencing, “touches” are registered electronically and thus prohibited according to Jewish law). However, sooner or later most athletically talented religious youth conclude that they will have to make serious compromises with their religion if they are to compete at the highest level of their game. And so in practice, religious Jews in Israel are woefully underrepresented in the elite corridors of Israeli sport.
As someone who believes in the benefits of sport, I can only look on with envy at religious Christian professional athletes in America. G-d seems to be on their side.
Teddy Weinberger, Ph.D., is Director of Development for a consulting company called Meaningful. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.