June 20, 2019

Facing a culture of violence

If you know me, you know I love watching and playing sports. I played soccer and tennis in high school, and blew out both of my knees playing daily basketball in my 20s and 30s.  Last week, I brought my Derek Jeter shirt to the second day of Rosh Hashanah, and I have many times been told the legendary stories of how Rabbi Galpert z’l would announce the scores of playoff games to the congregation from the pulpit.  That was in the age before smart phones and Tivo, so you are on your own now!  Yet, even though I love sports, I can see that we are facing a problem, one that we wish we could ignore as we cheer and wear our jerseys and support our teams.  This problem is a culture of violence and aggression that we all live in and that needs to be addressed.  And, the problem is severe in one of our most popular sports, which has been making headlines recently.  Friends, football, from tiny tots to college to the NFL, has become a problem.  I first addressed this issue 18 years ago, in my student high holiday pulpit, deep in New England Patriots country, and it has become even more important to talk about since then, if not any more popular.  I hope you will keep listening.

We read last week on Rosh Hashanah part of the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael.  One lesson of this story is that there are sometimes moments in life when what we do or how we act seems to make sense, seems to be the right decision, the right action in the moment, but in the aftermath, maybe immediately or maybe much, much later, even generations later, we discover that it was not the right choice at all.  Abraham follows Sarah’s lead and kicks Hagar and Ishmael out of the family.  It is a complicated story; God seems to tell Abraham to listen to Sarah, even though the text says Abraham was conflicted and cared about his son with Hagar, Ishmael, his first born child.  This mythical action might be seen as a beginning of the millennia old and sometimes seemingly intractable conflict between Jews and Arabs.  Had Sarah made a different decision, had she not acted on fear and jealousy, which the midrash states she did, things might have been different for our ancestors and for us today. If our story were told differently, we might feel differently about Arabs, and they might feel differently about us. In the moment, Sarah thought she was doing the right thing, protecting Isaac, following God’s plan.  Yet now, in the aftermath, we have to wonder. 

So here is where I might shock you.  I believe that American football, of all the competitive sports we play, watch and cherish, is a sport that we thought was a good idea at its inception in the late 19th and early 20th century, but has turned out ruinous.  Even before Ravens running back Ray Rice was caught on a security camera video knocking his fiancé unconscious and then dragging her limp body out of an elevator, we knew there was a problem, a connection between football and violence, but we, as fans and as a society willfully turned the other way. Now, it is shockingly visible as this video is repeated over and over again on sports TV and on the internet.  Between the culture of violence that football glorifies and sanitizes, and perhaps even encourages, and the intense physical and mental toll that it has now been proven to take on its players as a result of repeated head trauma, I think that my thesis of 18 years ago, that football is a game that needs to be reconsidered, is taking on a more serious tone.  And hey, another idea I had when I was a rabbinical student still has legs today!

I am aware that the USC fans in the room are bummed because the game today is at 4:30, while the UCLA fans will be breaking the fast and running to try and make kick off at 7:30. I am also aware that not everyone in this room cares about or follows football. So before anyone gets up and leaves, or cancels your membership or attempts to sack me up here, either for criticizing football, or for talking about something outside of your personal interests, let me broaden the topic and explain why I think it is relevant enough to raise on this day, Yom Kippur, the holiest in our calendar.  I spoke on erev Rosh Hashanah about the decline of violence and Professor Pinker’s theory that we are actually safer today, living in a less violent world, than ever before.  And that may be true on a global scale, and that is a blessing.  Yet, if we look at the hugely influential entertainment of our popular culture, from sports to video games to music to films and television, one might not get the impression that violence is on the decline.  Football is a popular form of entertainment and a multi-billion dollar business that borrows heavily from militaristic lingo and metaphors, such as shotgun formation, holding the line, attacking the end zone, blitzing.  Examples besides football? How about Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games or endless loops of CSI – three TV shows and movies among too many to count with gruesome murder as central plot points.  How many of your children, or how many of you, play Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto? These are video games which exalt war and crime, in which we choose to entertain ourselves by pretending to steal and kill and rape.  Do we not think that this has an effect on the psyches of our young people and ourselves?  We have debated this for years as a society, and it continues to be maddening because the free-market tells us that if people desire it and pay for it, there is no problem selling it.  I am not going to talk about the insidious, self-perpetuating effects of an unchecked free market, or sensible gun control, or the multi-billion dollar business of producing and selling weaponry that our country continues to be addicted to, but don’t think that they are not related.  Despite Pinker’s prognosis to the contrary, our country is steeped in, and dare I say addicted to, a culture of violence.

In his chapters on repentance, Maimonides writes the following: “Free will is bestowed on every human being.  If one desires to turn toward the good way and be righteous, she has the power to do so.  If one wishes to turn toward the evil way and be wicked, he is at liberty to do so….This means that the human species is unique in the world, there being no other species like it in the following respect, namely, that humans of themselves and by the exercise of their own intelligence and reason, know what is good and what is evil, and there is none who can prevent him/her from doing that which is good or that which is evil.” (Laws of Repentance, Chapter 5:1).  Maimonides bases this teaching on the beginning of Genesis where Adam and Eve eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and determine the fate of all of us: we are given the ability to choose and determine a fair amount of our destiny, and God acknowledges that we will sometimes succeed and sometimes fail.  And while God will always love us and accept us, God will not intervene to right wrongs that we choose to make.  That is the theology of free-will, a theology that allows our lives to unfold, and a theology that sometimes seems harsh and unfair.  God didn’t invent football or Grand Theft Auto, we did.  Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, teaches, “Everything is preordained, but we have free-will.”  A difficult paradox, but our tradition is clear that the power to choose or to change lies with us. 

So why am I picking on football?  I love the game of football.  The execution of the game is awesome, and I enjoy playing a good game of flag or touch football, too.  I could be picking on hockey, another game that is beautiful but destructive, and for some reason, they actually allow fighting to take place, and some people enjoy the sport just for that reason.  I grew up loving the Rocky movies; I could certainly pick on boxing or mixed martial arts.  How about skateboarding, or luge, or getting hit by a pitch in baseball or NASCAR?  All sports involve risk.  Athletes are people with free-will, and as the Rambam taught, they have freely chosen to take those risks.  But, the essence of football, play after play, down after down, especially for the linemen and linebackers, involves slamming your head at full force into others, even though they have tried to alter the rules, improve the helmets, and penalize for illegal hits.  We know the damage that is happening, with increasing numbers of lawsuits filed by players against the NFL, and more stringent rules for youth players being forced to sit out if concussion is suspected. But we don’t seem to care as long as we are entertained, and the powers that be in the sport don’t seem to care as long as they are making money and preserving tradition.  And because football is exponentially more popular than boxing or MMA or even NASCAR, its ability to influence us, or the people around us, with its violence merits our attention.

And, of course, we can’t ignore the off-the-field violence, which was highlighted this summer by the elevator video I mentioned earlier.  Domestic violence could have been its own sermon topic, and I am not suggesting that men abuse their wives or children because they play football.  But I am suggesting that the violence required in the game seems to exacerbate the violent behavior that some players exhibit off the field.  The amount of testosterone and drive that men need to play football, week after week, at the highest level, can turn them into animals for the time they are on the field.  That is what we crave, right?  That is what the Grant Theft Auto-playing part of our being craves.  The yetzer ha’rah, normally translated as the evil inclination, is a necessary force in our existence, so much so that the rabbis of the Talmud understood that without it, we wouldn’t survive or have the drive to become our best selves.  But, when our yetzer ha’rah is unchecked, we lose our ability to reason or show compassion or assert self-control over our basest impulses. 

Not all football players are violent people, and football fans are not bad people.  I can’t address today all of the socio-economic, racial, familial, and other complexities that contribute to the culture violence in society and in football.  I can’t address celebrities, politicians, CEOs and other people (mostly men) of power and prestige who are excused for many behaviors we find abhorrent.  But in highlighting the problems we know exist in one of our most popular forms of entertainment, I hope to wake us up to the power of our free will.  We can condone, excuse or ignore violence, or we can make changes to decrease and delegitimize violence. Teshuvah, returning, renewing, repenting, is about the choices we have to better our lives.  Teshuvah is about looking in the mirror, examining who we are, personally, societally, Jewishly, globally, and being brave enough to speak unpopular truths, and make hard, maybe painful decisions.  Teshuvah requires us to say that we made a mistake, we erred, we were wrong.  Abraham and Sarah made mistakes; Moses made mistakes; King David made mistakes.  In fact, one of the best stories about a mistake in the Bible involves King David.

King David sees Batsheva bathing, is smitten with her, and like kings of all generations, he wants what he wants.  Batsheva is married to Uriah, one of David’s top generals, so King David schemes to have Uriah placed on the front lines, and as expected, he is killed.  David then marries Batsheva himself and she bears him a son.  God was very upset about David’s action, and God sends the prophet Nathan to chastise the king.  Nathan offers David this parable: a hungry traveler arrives in a town hoping to eat.  The traveler goes to the rich man, who has thousands of sheep, and the rich man says no, he won’t feed him.  Instead, the rich man takes the one sheep of the poor man in town and gives it to the traveler.  Upon hearing this parable, King David flies into a rage and says that is horrible, that rich man should be executed.  Nathan tells the king: the rich man is YOU, your majesty, who has wealth and riches and wives galore, but still you took the one wife of Uriah and had him killed.  King David admits he is guilty and he is punished.  The ending is classic Bible, so go and read it, 2 Samuel, Chapter 11-12.

We have a culture of violence in our country that we have to face in the mirror.  If someone said to us, “imagine a society in which young men are trained for a sport that is known to inflict permanent damage to their precious brains, leave many of them crippled, depressed, and even suicidal, just so we can enjoy watching and being entertained; imagine a society in which children and adults play video games where they carry out violent and immoral acts, in harrowing real-life graphics, for hours on end; imagine a society in which people long for and believe in peace, justice and security for all, but spend billions of valuable, hard-earned dollars producing, buying and distributing entertainment that glorifies and illustrates violence incessantly, in mind-numbing endless loops.  Wouldn’t you feel like King David, and say, “that is horrible, that must stop!”  Yom Kippur is like the parable that the prophet Nathan tells, it is the mirror that we must look into, and I am asking us to look into it and see who we are and what we are doing.  We tolerate the NFL, and have for years, even though we know the dire consequences that come to many of the players, and we also know the destructive behavior that seems to go unchecked by other players.  But, come Sunday, we don’t care.  Maimonides teaches us, as does the Torah: we have the choice, we have free-will, we can decide to do things differently. 

Do I think that this sermon is going to end football, or violent video games, or cable TV’s obsession with violent crime, or our human fascination with violence?  Of course not.  Will I watch the Super Bowl?  Maybe, but with guilt.  Will I hope that when most of you watch the Super Bowl, you might think about what I am saying today?  Yes, I can dream a bit.  Will I pray that this year we can have an open discussion as a culture about the violent, damaging images we put in front of our kids and ourselves, on the field and on the screen?  Absolutely, and I hope you will join me in that discussion.  Like Sarah and Abraham, like all the people who came before us, like all the people in this room, we sometimes do things, create things, say things that in one moment seemed needed or right or positive.  But we later learn we were wrong.  We made a mistake.  The key to teshuvah, from the most personal to the most global, is to acknowledge error, to take responsibility, and to change and grow.  That is our task.  This year, I keep coming back to Rabbi Tarfon: the day is short, the work is long.  It is not up to us to finish the task, but we are never free to stop trying.  It is not up to us to finish, but it is up to us to begin.

G’mar chatimah tovah (and GO DODGERS).