A Few Thoughts on Jews, Sports, and Tebowing

by David Stanley

What image comes to mind when you hear the name Tim Tebow? Heisman trophy winner, maybe? Second-rate back-up quarterback for the New York Jets? Most likely, you get the mental image of someone on one knee, a la The Thinker, which has become Tebow’s signature “thank-you, Jesus” pose. The now-trademarked and widely aped posture is known as Tebowing.

It’s fall, and we’ve just passed World Series time. What happens every time a player from the mainly Catholic Caribbean comes to the plate? He makes the sign of the cross. Fall also means soccer. The last gesture made as a Catholic player runs onto the pitch? Again, the sign of the cross.

We Jews don’t do those things. Why not?

Let’s first examine why Christian athletes do do these things. In Olde English, the word “gospel” means “good news.” What’s the good news? They believe the works of Jesus Christ are the “good news” that Christians are charged with spreading – and hence the reason why they proselytize. For many Christian athletes, publicly thanking God is a way for them to share the gospel.

As for Jews? We ask, “Are you sure you wanna do this?” three times before we let you join our religious club. In general, Reform Jews don’t pray to ask God for material things. We don’t believe God will necessarily give us that for which we ask. We don’t thank God for touchdowns. We don’t, generally, do intercessory prayer. The one true exception is the relatively new Mi Shebeirach, a prayer for the sick. (For a great piece on the power of this prayer, read Ritual: Exorcism in Baltimore by Steven M. Fink in Reform Judaism magazine.)

Why don’t we share a Jewish signal with the world?

We have external signs: kippot, tzitzit, and the rest of the traditional Orthodox attire. However, these are more about things for the individual to do rather than for others to see.

We have gestures. For starters, there’s the Birkat Kohanim/Vulcan greeting, which Star Trek actor Leonard Nimoy acknowledges he borrowed from his Jewish childhood memories). There’s also the touching of tallit to Torah during an aliyah and then kissing the tallit, as well as the bending and bowing during a service. These are gestures, however, that are rarely seen outside the synagogue or the Shabbat-celebrating home.

What we don’t have are movements that advertise our Jewishness to the outside world. Judaism is a way of life as well as a religion; we are a community and a religion. Vos macht a yid? We know who’s a member of the Tribe.

In a moment of creative Midrash, you might, in the words of Bill Nye the Science Guy, “consider the following”: Perhaps the most important reason why Jewish athletes haven’t developed a score-winning, Jewish-themed movement for the individual athlete to perform is the Jewish emphasis on community. Though the individual athlete may very well have scored the goal, touchdown, run, or points, none of this is possible without other team members doing their part. Rather than emphasize the achievement of the individual athlete, Jewish athletes choose to emphasize the role of the team and the community, not of themselves.

Is it time? Do we need a Jewish signal? With intermarriage and conversions and the decline of local temple life, would it be a good thing to let our Jewish athletes loudly and proudly proclaim their Jewishness on the playing field in moments of triumph?

We’re not sure whether we truly need a signal. We’re not sure what that signal might be. We do know that baseball games are already long enough. How much longer would they be if we had to watch Kevin Youkilis or Ryan Braun dig a Magen David in the dirt with a bat every time they stepped up to hit?

David Stanley is a member of Temple Beth El in Flint, MI. He is a teacher, athlete, coach, and cancer survivor blogging about education, cancer, sport, society at DStan58-Rants & Mutters. He is interested in nearly everything.