Friday, December 16, 2011

Football, Faith and Freedom

Much has been written about Tim Tebow, the quarterback for the Denver Broncos.  He is a remarkable and over-the-top personality, famous for scrambling, rushing, and driving his team forward in difficult circumstances with an unrelenting and positive desire to win.  To all of this he credits his Christian faith, with credit and glory given at every press conference and touchdown to the God of his understanding.

As a rabbi, I love this.  This is not only great entertainment. I have come to truly enjoy and appreciate that style of Christianity, despite how different it is from how I praye and express gratitude to God.  While I would feel differently if it were a public school teacher or elected official, among athletes and entertainers I have no objection to their public proclamation or display.

I don’t often quote Chassidic stories, but one comes to mind, which seems very appropriate.

The story is told of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, who was riding a wagon with several of his students from place to place.  The wagon-driver was not Jewish, and as they entered the town they passed in front of a tall church with a high cross on it.  The driver quietly and uneventfully drove the wagon passed the church and into the town.

As they stopped to rest, the Baal Shem Tov instructed his followers to disembark from the wagon and bid the wagon-driver thanks.  As the wagon driver left, the students asked him what they would do next?  “Hire a wagon to continue our journey,” came the response.

Surprised, they asked, “But we just left a perfectly good wagon.  Why didn’t we continue with him?” 

The Baal Shem Tov pointed out that the wagon-driver passed by a church and did not cross himself. In Christian Europe, if a wagon-driver did not show respect for his own religion, how could he be trusted to do the right thing for Jews?

He also told them that it was better to do business with a non-Jew who believed than with a Jew who did not believe. For the Baal Shem Tov, a person who believed in a Higher Being – was far more likely to be act with integrity than a person who did not believe.

The discomfort some feel regarding these public declarations of personal beliefs comes from a feeling of resentment that the athlete or performer is foisting their beliefs upon us against our will.  I disagree.

When a missionary knocks on our door, and denies the legitimacy of our religion to our face, that is horrid.  When missionaries seek to convert our children on college campuses, we should speak out and oppose them.  And when missionaries put on the trappings of Judaism, call their ministers “Rabbis” or similarly seek to deceive the unaffiliated or marginal Jew into a foreign faith, we must condemn them and fight against it.

But I think it is necessary to differentiate between the frontal attack of the missionary and the personal professing of faith by a Christian in public at their moment of personal triumph.

I prefer to look at the football player as a kindred spirit, who sees the world as a place of miracles.  Such a person tries to live with an awareness of God’s presence and the gift of our lives at all times.

I would love to see a Jewish champion some day stand at a press conference and say “She-hechiyanu.”  Wouldn’t we all love that?

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