How does America’s favorite pastime align with Jewish values – or not?
It’s ironic that Super Bowl Sunday is played the day after we read the Torah portion Mishpatim, which is chock full of laws that govern civil, criminal, ritual, and ethical actions, as well as behaviors and relationships. Mishpatim translates roughly as “These are the rules” – and while there are many rules that govern the playing of professional football, I find myself thinking about the many less-than-desirable human behaviors the game elicits before I sit down to watch the game with my young sons.
Given my past volunteer work with Manhattan's Covenant House, my first thought is about child sex trafficking. Though exact sex trafficking statistics during major sporting events are elusive, Covenant House reports that game days are a lucrative time for the sex trafficking industry. A.C.T.: Abolish Child Trafficking says that more than half of homeless girls become part of a prostitution network, and pimps prey on homeless teens by exchanging food and shelter and food for sex work – so more homeless teens means more potential trafficking victims.
We read in Mishpatim several exhortations of how to deal with this kind of cruelty:
16 He who kidnaps a person— whether he has sold him or is still holding him — shall be put to death.
20 You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
And Jewish tradition teaches that there is no greater mitzvah (good deed) than redeeming the captives – those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, and whose life is in danger (Maimonides).
So how else might the Super Bowl violate our teachings?
This week’s premiere of American Crime Story jars our collective memory about OJ Simpson’s trial for murder – and yet we continue to celebrate sports figures who have sinned. Nearly 40 NFL players were arrested in 2015 alone. We learn in Mishpatim, “He who fatally strikes another shall be put to death,” yet players who have done serious wrong continue to receive financial gain, remain in contracts, and avoid prosecution.
In last week’s portion, we read that we are commanded to worship only God (“You shall have no other gods beside Me...”), yet fandom excess is everywhere. Fans buy merchandise ranging from babywear to bedding, paint their faces and tattoo their bodies, pay a small fortunes for tickets (or satellite service or cable packages) – and of course, there’s no shortage of children who know far more about their favorite player than anything they learn in school.
Then there are the injuries. Super Bowl Sunday, in particular, gives the exact opposite advice of Maimonides, who seemed to foretell the excesses of football before the sport was even conceived, warning: "Keeping the body healthy and whole is the way of God, for it is impossible to understand or know anything about the Creator if one is sick, therefore a person must distance himself from things that destroy the body, and accustom himself to things which heal the body."
Leviticus includes an admonishment for treating employees harshly ("You shall not rule over him through rigorous labor," Leviticus 25:43), and surely the recent headlines and movie about football injuries would make Rambam call “foul” on football – especially if it turns out that more was known about the injuries than previously disclosed. Jewish law frowns even more on that: “It is a positive commandment to eliminate every hazard that endangers life… If one did not eliminate it, but preserved the hazards that cause danger, one has overlooked a positive commandment and transgressed ‘You shall not bring blood-guilt into your house.’” Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat (427:8)
There are other excesses, too.
- The National Chicken Council estimates that Americans will consume 1.3 billion chicken wings on Sunday. According to several texts, gluttony is a definite morality fumble. Solomon said, "The righteous man eats to satisfy his soul" (Proverbs 13:25).
- More illegal than gluttony and more controversial in Jewish thought is gambling. There is debate about whether gambling has been explicitly forbidden in Jewish law, but in modern times, tales of woe as a result of compulsive gambling are all too familiar to us.
- One of Reform Judaism’s rallying cries is fair pay, and here again, professional football is out of bounds. We read in Proverbs that we are called to "speak up, judge righteously, champion the poor and the needy (Proverbs 31:9),” but while the average player and coach salaries range well over seven figures, the average NFL cheerleader is paid below minimum wage; the sundry ticket takers, cleaning crews, concession workers, and security guards are unlikely to support a family without additional jobs.
So how will I talk about these values with my sons amid all the shiny confetti, slick commercials, rousing music, and fun snacks? Simply put, the Super Bowl compromises my Jewish values, and I want to pass those values along to my kids. I will try to teach my children to ask the right questions – and I have until kickoff to figure it out.