Physical Athletics and Scripture (24 July 2016, 18 Tammuz, 5776)
This is not our usual field of interest. Nevertheless we were requested to say something on the subject so here goes.
In the past we have come across references to articles and books on this subject (in the Hebrew language) but when we looked for them on the web there was not much there. It is worth noting however that they exist and a serious effort could probably bring much to light.
Sports and physical contests have always existed. Egyptian illustrations and those of others (such as the Minoans on Crete) show people running, boxing, jumping, etc. The Ancient Hebrews were no exception. The Greeks and Romans elevated SPORT to the metaphysical level. They used athletic participation as a means of furthering their own political and cultural imperialism. This involved pagan practices and attitudes. The Sages of Second Temple times were opposed to this and anything connected with it.
Carl Olson tells us:
But later references to sports, found in 1 and 2 Maccabees, are decidedly negative, reflecting the disgust harbored by devout Jews against the gymnasiums, stadiums and athletic activities of the Greeks. During the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.), a gymnasium was built at the base the Temple Mount (1 Macc 1:14; 2 Macc 4:9-15). The gymnasiums were cultural and educational centers, aimed at training both mind and body in Hellenistic culture and thought. It was especially scandalous for Jews that athletic activities were done in the nude. Yet some temple priests apparently participated in various athletic events sponsored by the gymnasium in Jerusalem: "Disdaining the temple and neglecting the sacrifices, they hastened, at the signal for the discus-throwing, to take part in the unlawful exercises on the athletic field" (2 Macc 4:14).
Nowadays in the western world Sports are very important. So too, in modern Israel.
What do we find in Ancient Israel?
Below are a few sources chosen somewhat haphazardly.
Others could undoubtedly add much more to them.
The sun is comparted to a "gibor" i.e. warrior or hero, translated as "strong man" who delights in a running contest.
5 Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber;
It rejoices as a strong man to run his course.
This suggests that the "gibor" with such an attitude was somebody to be admired and even emulated.
Runners in fact are mentioned quite frequently.
31 But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.
29 For by you I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall.
5 If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you are so trusting, what will you do in the thicket of the Jordan?
2 Samuel 18:
23 'Come what may,' he said, 'I will run.' So he said to him, 'Run.' Then Ahimaaz ran by the way of the plain, and outran the Cushite.
Jacob wrestled with an angel:
24 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
In 2-Samuel chapter 2 we are told how the forces of David under Joab met with those of the rest of Israel under Abner. Champions were chosen from both sides who ended up killing each other. A full scale war resulted.
13 And Joab the son of Zeruiah, and the servants of David, went out, and met together by the pool of Gibeon: and they sat down, the one on the one side of the pool, and the other on the other side of the pool.
14 And Abner said to Joab, Let the young men now arise, and play before us. And Joab said, Let them arise.
15 Then there arose and went over by number twelve of Benjamin, which pertained to Ishbosheth the son of Saul, and twelve of the servants of David.
16 And they caught every one his fellow by the head, and thrust his sword in his fellow's side; so they fell down together: wherefore that place was called Helkathhazzurim, which is in Gibeon.
17 And there was a very sore battle that day; and Abner was beaten, and the men of Israel, before the servants of David.
Our understanding is that the initial intention was that a friendly contest be held and it was only by accident that it became violent.
We also have quite a bit of dancing in the Bible both by men and by women but not mixed.
Dancing is similar to sport.
As we said the Sages did not encourage athletic contests since it took men away from learning the Torah and incalculated foreign values.
Even so, some of the Sages were very strong.
There were those among them who could perform athletic feats that no-one else could do.
They would often perform at weddings in order to gladden the heart of the bride. This was considered a great "mitsvah" i.e. good deed.
Nowadays this phenomenon still exists amongst the Ultra-Orthodox.
You would be surprised at the physical coordination, stamina, and expertise some of the young men who study Torah all day have.
The note below regarding the attitude of Rabbi Abraham HaCohen Kook is important in this regard.
Rabbi Kook was the ideological head of the National Religious Orthodox in Israel and his teachings are still considered authoritative.
Why the Olympic Spirit Lacks a Jewish Neshama
A radical departure from the normative Jewish antipathy towards athletics is to be found in the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the revered Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel during the formative years of the Zionist revival in Eretz Yisrael.
Rav Kook's Zionist outlook saw that the life of Torah must exist 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. He even cites the Hebrew equivalent of Juvenal's famous dictum. Mens sana in corpore sano ("A healthy mind in a healthy body").
Unique among Jewish religious thinkers, Rav Kook viewed "physical repentance" as an essential condition of the ideal of teshuvah which permeated all his writings. The traditional negation of things physical was according to him the consequence of the anomalous conditions of Exile and the influence of alien religious values, a symptom of a general spiritual imbalance which had to be undone before true redemption could be achieved.
"When the holy people will be physically firm and strong," Rav Kook wrote, "holiness will prevail in the world. When Jewish children will be strong, sound and healthy, the air of the world will become holy and pure." Clearly, physical achievements (or, for that matter, military heroism) cannot become ends in themselves. They must always be employed as a means to a spiritual goal. Rav Kook insisted that physical education should be an important part of the curriculum of the yeshivah.
In his study at Rav Kook's thought, Zvi Yaron summarizes the issue:
Since one of the factors that makes possible the fulfilment of "our physical duties" is athletic activity, the Rav comes to the conclusion that there is a great spiritual value to sports. The strengthening of physical prowess is a form of worship. The spiritual power of the most righteous becomes improved through the "exercises practised by the youth of Israel in Eretz Yisrael in order to strengthen their bodies to make themselves courageous sons of their nation."
Accordingly, Rav Kook made a special request to the 1927 Zionist Congress in Basle that care should be taken to hold all athletic events, including football games, on weekdays, so that religious youths could participate freely.