Thursday, August 09, 2012

How Jewish are the Olympics?

I don't mean to spoil the party, but I need to say that there is something very cruel about the Olympics. An athlete trains, wins competitions, spends years of discipline, toil and sweat in dedication to their sport, excels in their field, and then is named the leading sportsman of their country. Then the athlete travels to the Olympic games, and comes 8th. No medal, no national anthem. The next day, the newspaper discusses their "failure" and they are interviewed on national radio in a spirit of commiseration and disappointment. Now, let us get this in perspective - this is the most supreme athlete in their country. This person is the 8th fastest/ strongest/ most skilled sportsman in the WORLD. This person lost by a fraction of a second, or by a 1/100th of a point. And they are cruelly discarded into the  garbage dump of history.

Now does this make any sense at all?  Why is this competition so narrow, so inconsiderate? The winner takes all, and the loser? ... what is left for the loser?

All of this gave me pause to consider Rav Soloveitchik's comments in his article, Catharsis (Tradition, 1978)

The mere myth of the hero gave the aesthete endless comfort. At least, the classical aesthete said to himself, there was an individual who dared to do the impossible and to achieve the grandiose. In short, the hero of classical man was the grandiose figure with whom, in order to satisfy his endless vanity, classical man identified himself: hero worship is basically self-worship. The classical idea of heroism, which is aesthetic in its very essence, lacks the element of absurdity and is intrinsically dramatic and theatrica1. The hero is an actor who performs in order to impress an appreciative audience. The crowd cheers, the chronicler records, countless generations afterwards admire, bards and minstrels sing of the hero. The classical heroic gesture represents, as I said before, frightened, disenchanted man, who tries to achieve immortality and permanence by identifying himself with the heroic figure on the stage. It does not represent a way of life. It lasts for a while, vibrant and forceful,  but soon man reverts to the non-heroic mood of everyday living.
This depiction accurately describes the Olympic games. It is about the human with superhuman strength - the figure of the "superhero" - who demonstrates the limits of human achievement and thereby wows us, somehow generating the confidence that we too share some of that greatness, that someone will save the world. It is about the show, the cheering crowds, but what does it have to do with me? Rav Reuven Ziegler explains the Rav in the following way:

"Catharsis" is a Greek term denoting purifying or purging (as when one purges gold of its impurities in a crucible). In his "Poetics," Aristotle defined the function of tragedy as catharsis of the emotions of terror and pity. Man is often troubled; he is full of anxieties which interfere with his social success. When he watches a tragic drama at the theater, he releases these emotions in a controlled and safe environment, emerging from the experience cleansed.
Although the Rav does not directly compare his notion of catharsis with that of Aristotle, the contrast is staggering (and certainly intentional). For the Rav, catharsis is not the passive response of a theatergoer but an active and demanding way of life. It is designed to attain not equanimity but redemption, to produce not an arrogant patrician but a sanctified personality balancing majesty and humility. While Greek tragedy teaches that man is an object acted upon by random forces and suffering an inexorable fate, Judaic catharsis is a means for man, as a subject, to connect himself actively to a higher destiny.
So what does Rav Soloveitchik offer as an alternative to the brute strength of the athlete, the theatrical experience of the "Games"? Rav Soloveitchik proposes that every person can become a hero! They will not be the fastest or strongest; but גבורה as opposed to כח (brute strength) is a quality of the mind, a spirit of endurance. For Rav Soloveitchik, adherence to Halakha that takes place in the privacy of a Jewish home; the commitment and self-control inherent in that system - THAT is heroism. And this is a different type of Catharsis, because it actively purifies our lives, our spiritual selves. It is not a show; it is life itself:
"It often happens that a man takes a wife when he is forty years of age. When... he wishes to associate with her, she says to him, 'I have seen a rose-red speck (of menstrual blood),' he immediately recoils. What made him retreat and keep away from her? Was there an iron fence, did a serpent bite him, did a scorpion sting him? ... Only the words of the Torah which are as soft as a bed of lilies." ( Shir ha Shirim R. to Song 7:3.)
Bride and bridegroom are young, physically strong and passionately in love with each other. Both have patiently waited for this rendezvous to take place. Just one more step and their love would have been fulfilled, a vision realized. Suddenly the bride and groom make a movement of recoiL. He, gallantly, like a chivalrous knight, exhibits paradoxical  heroism. He takes his own defeat. There is no glamor attached to his withdrawal ... The heroic act did not take place in the presence of jubilating crowds; no bards will sing of these two modest, humble young people. It happened in the sheltered privacy of their home, in the stillness of the night.

Of course athletes have enormous self-discipline, and yet, for me, the Olympics fail to relate. Judaism is not measured by who comes 1st, second or third, by the speed of the 100m, or the most exquisite equestrian performance. Rather, it is about the sanctity of the homes that we create, of the small acts of kindness, of the daily self-control, of the struggle with the evil inclination, of the life lived in adherence to a higher calling, of dedication to God, which in turn elevates and purifies man.

Pirkei Avot expresses the irony that the גבור - the athlete or hero - is not the person who exhibits greatest physical  prowess, but rather the inner strength - הכובש את יצרו.

1 comment:

ravfan said...

Surely the Olympics have some positives too?