Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Rabbis and Rugby - The Holy Scrum

I remember from my Georgetown days a friend of mine, Bradley Stein, who played on the club rugby team.  Most of the time he was bruised and battered, and he spent a good portion of my sophomore year in a sling.  He had a T-shirt that said: "Give Blood: Play Rugby."

I tend to watch college basketball, major league baseball and the NFL.  These are tame sports compared to rugby, which begins with a massive pushing pile over the top of the ball and then turns into a series of rapid advances down the field, multiple lateral passes, and - inevitably - tremendous collisions, crashes, pushes, hits and more pile ups to restart the action.  This is done without pads or helmets, "of course."  I wouldn't last a minute on a rugby field!

Yet as I studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America recently, a course entitled History and Homilies with Dr. Benjamin Gampel, we played with idea of other alliterative course titles:  Rabbis and Rugby came to mind.

The metaphor is actual a fun and apt one.  The ideas and practices of Judaism have always been subjected to the crucible of debate and controversy. The topics at hand are the football, which are often handled at first by an individual or two who advance the ball downfield by a series of lateral moves.  Prooftexts are gathered from existing material, and colleagues are rallied to the side of the idea to adopt it.  Opposition may arise from a stalwart individual who intercepts the idea and brings opposing texts, rabbis and arguments against the innovation. Often the scrum, the pile up of people and texts becomes a seething and unfocused mess, if the topic is controversial enough, until the original idea squeaks out in some unforeseen direction.  A race to grab the ball, to own and redirect the topic ensues, and off we go downfield in history advancing the ball again.

When you hear of a political/religious turmoil in Judaism, look beyond the pile up.  Sift past the texts, prooftexts, accusations, protestations and incriminations and look for the ball.  Somewhere in there is a small and dynamic piece of Torah that is going to escape the scrum.  When that happens, changes will come quickly.

L'shanah Tovah tikateivu,

Rabbi Robert Tobin