So here we go again. We as Orthodox Jews must decide whether we should exult or cringe when we find that one of our own made it big in the sports world.
A few months ago, we were told that two young Orthodox prospects were drafted by Major League Baseball. Their yeshivos took out big ads in their honor and kvelled as one their grads made the big time. Understandably, many other Orthodox Jews beamed with pride, as this was one of the ultimate achievements in the sports world that until then had only been a wistful dream for a Sabbath-observant Jew.
I wrote an article at the time (“Sacrifice Fly or Foul Ball”), in which I was somewhat ambivalent about this achievement for Orthodox young men, as it put sh’miras Shabbos on a back burner. I did, however, recognize the sacrifice the young men were making to hold fast to their religion.
My co-columnist Warren Hecht (whom I thank for mentioning me in a positive light in his column last week regarding what else?…Donald Trump) was less circumspect than I was. He courageously pointed to the trampling of many halachos in pursuit of a professional athletic career. For that, he was treated to several undeserved, vehement responses.
Now we are faced with the issue once again. A young woman, raised in West Orange, New Jersey, residing now in Israel, has catapulted from relative obscurity to stardom as she will be competing as a skater in the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. The 19-year-old will be partnering with 33-year-old Eugen Krasnopolski as they represent Israel. You can Google the story using The Jewish Press as a source.
I don’t usually follow the Olympics. I don’t have a television. It also doesn’t interest me all that much. But I admit that I will root for the young lady. I still have pride within me as an Orthodox Jew.
Nonetheless, this poses a great dilemma for us. On the one hand, it is wonderful to see the young generation taking the commitment to halachah seriously enough that they make every effort to stay within boundaries, even at the cost of limiting their career advancement. Yet, in a case like the skater, there are clearly serious compromises that had to be made.
For example, unlike the chareidi female ping pong player, the skater will be skating on Shabbos, although she will be traveling to the arena from before Shabbos. Skating itself may not be technically forbidden (except perhaps for making a charitz, a small ditch), but no one who takes Shabbos seriously would be skating on Shabbos.
Secondly, the dress habit for female skaters is certainly not within “Orthodox Jewish tradition.” Neither is partnering with a male for the performance.
On a rabbinic chat in which I participate, there was great debate about this topic. One rabbi gushed over this young lady stating what a “kiddush Hashem” she was making by bringing Orthodoxy to the Olympics. Yet others were much more doubtful, and even quite critical. After all, halachah is being violated, so why should we beam about it?
I thought about this quite a bit. Cases like this bring Modern Orthodoxy into full focus. The dream of Modern Orthodoxy is to synthesize the modern world with the Torah world. Very often, they can be merged. But here they clash. Now comes the decision time. What do we choose - world class prominence or strict halachah?
Let’s take the extremes. The chasidish/yeshivah world would have no problem. It would not reach their radar. Such an athlete will not even be alluded to in the chareidi press. Halachah wins hands down. Not a topic.
In the Reform/Conservative world, they, too, have no problem. What an achievement! Even though they may not observe halachah, they begrudgingly respect it. Seeing a Sabbath-observant Jew at the Olympics, even as they watch it on Shabbos, brings a tear to their eye.
So where should the Modern Orthodox be? I believe that we should be closet admirers. We cannot exult over one who is in open defiance of halachah. We cannot sing her praises. We cannot have her as a role model for our kids. We cannot leave them with the message that if it’s a choice between halachah and career, career gets the nudge.
At most, we must train ourselves like Rav Meir, who learned from his problematic rebbe, Elisha ben Avuyah (Acheir). Rav Meir would consider Acheir like a pomegranate. He would discard the outside peel and eat from its insides (see Chagigah 15a-b). We, too, need to discard the outside refuse and point to the positive: a young person making some effort to sacrifice for her belief in Yiddishkeit. But we dare not hold her on a pedestal.
These decisions are defining moments for Modern Orthodoxy. I hope they choose correctly.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.