"Judaism and baseball? You've got to be kidding!"
This was essentially the reaction from many friends and acquaintances when they learned I was delivering the opening keynote at a weekend retreat titled "Judaism and Baseball" this summer in the exquisite Berkshire Mountains of Connecticut.
"And what are you speaking about?" each asked incredulously.
"The Kabbalah of Baseball," I replied in a serious tone. And a smile.
Most thought I was either joking or joining the parade of those who have cheapened or distorted Kabbalah in recent years. When asked about this phenomenon, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who is arguably the most universally admired Jewish teacher and Jewish authority in the world today, said that some of the current efforts claiming to represent authentic kabbalah would be like calling pornography "love-making." Rabbi Steinsaltz often clarifies the subject of Kabbalah by explaining, "It is the official theology of the Jewish people."
The simple reason why a talk called "The Kabbalah of Baseball" can be authentic, serious and even contain some profound ideas, is because, as Rabbi Steinsaltz teaches, "A basic idea underlying Jewish life is that there are no special frameworks for holiness... the Jewish attitude is that life in all its aspects, in its totality, must somehow or other be bound up with holiness" (The Thirteen Petalled Rose).
I promised the skeptics I would report back to them after the "Judaism and Baseball" weekend was over, but I offered them a few of the kabbalistic notions I planned to include in my talk. The first is the concept called "teshuvah," which is commonly translated as "repentance" but is more abstractly understood as "returning home." Of all the major sports, only one is essentially about returning to home: baseball.
Or consider the dimensions of all Major League Baseball fields. Every infield, without exception, is designed with the exact same measurements. There is as precise a distance and angles between each of the three bases and home plate as there is between the pitcher and each of the bases and the batter. On the other hand, every outfield is different. Some are deeper, making it more difficult to hit a home run, and all are of varying shapes and sizes. The core--the infield, is fixed, but outside of this precise core there is flexibility. And isn't this as it is with the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The Written Torah, The Five Books of Moses, is precise and fixed, down to each and every letter. The Oral Torah, as reflected in the Talmud, is, as Rabbi Steinsaltz suggests, like "a photograph of a fountain." From the outside the Talmud looks like an unchanging set of large volumes, but from the inside the Talmud is always moving and growing and flowing.
After my opening "Kabbalah of Baseball" keynote at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, CT, I was grateful when a lovely man walked up to me, enthusiastically telling me that he enjoyed the talk. He wondered if I had written it down for others to read, adding that he had just completed a term as president of his local synagogue and would like to share ideas from my talk with others. What he modestly failed to tell me was that his name is Al Goldis, one of the weekend's featured presenters.
Al Goldis spent more than 40 years as a major league scout, working in the front offices of the Cincinnati Reds, Baltimore Orioles, Anaheim Angels, Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs, and the New York Mets. In those 40 years he had signed some of baseball's greatest talents. After one of Al's generous and candid talks several people said they learned more about baseball after hearing him for an hour than they had ever learned before.
Quite frankly, the entire weekend was superb. The intimate and informal setting of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center is the perfect environment for special moments to occur. For example, the presentations and the meals, where I sat with two Jewish major league players, were enriching and heart warming. During one meal I sat with Elliott Maddox, former Yankee and Met outfielder, as he captivated us with inside, off the record stories of major league baseball's most notorious personalities. Maddox, who quickly became "Elliot" to all of us, also generously shared pieces of the story of his own decision to convert to Judaism years ago. Elliot Maddox is an articulate, highly intelligent, deeply principled man whose mere presence was uplifting.
The "Judaism and Baseball" retreat in June was the second of what will hopefully be an annual event. Last year I also offered a keynote. I was asked if I could give an opening talk called "If the Talmud Contains Everything, What Does the Talmud say about Baseball?" In other words, if it is true, as has been claimed for many centuries, that the 63 volumes of the Talmud discusses all topics, how can these holy books discuss the modern game of baseball?
My difficulty in preparing to give that talk was that there was so much to choose from. How could this be? To study the Talmud is to learn how to crack a text open and find the eternal ideas embedded within it. For example if the Talmud discusses a cow that tramples on someone's property, the text is actually exploring abstract ideas that can be applied to many situations. Today, the ox might be a bus, or a dog.
In other words, an issue like "the qualifications of an baseball umpire" can be explored within the context of the Talmudic discussions about the qualification of community judges, just as the ethical concerns about the breaking of rules, or the use of equipment made of forbidden materials, or the question of whether there is flexibility within rules, or who decides these things, and so on, all appear in the Talmud and can easily be examined in the context of baseball.
The invitation to give the Talmud presentation last year offered me the chance to meet Bob Tufts, former SF Giants and KC Royals left-hander. Bob was also in attendance this year, and at both gatherings his brilliant mind was just as clear to us as was his warmth and baseball knowledge. As one of the very few Ivy Leaguers to become a professional baseball player, Bob attended Princeton and went on to pitch in the majors for three years. Bob, a convert to Judaism, discussed his spiritual journey openly. Tufts, I am told, adopted the Hebrew name Reuven Ben Avraham, and explains he named himself after Reuven Malter, the young pitcher in Chaim Potok's novel The Chosen. Bob reportedly says his first choice for his Jewish name was "Sandy Koufax," but the rabbi said no.
During one open discussion at the "Baseball and Judaism" retreat, I mentioned that my children grew up in a largely Orthodox neighborhood in a New Jersey suburb. My son Moshe enrolled in our local version of Little League called the "Yiddle League." Moments after I shared this, a young woman approached me and asked if the little Jewish ball players had tee shirts with "Yiddle League" printed on them. When I said they did and that we have one, the lovely woman identified herself as Ivy Weingram, Associate Curator at the National Museum of American Jewish History. Amy is curating an exhibition for the museum, located in Philadelphia, called "Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Jews in America" scheduled to open this coming fall. We are sending her a photograph of the shirt.
I am hardly alone in knowing and understanding that as a matter of principle Jewish theology, Kabbalah, assumes that holiness is connected with all parts of life -- including baseball. During the weekend we were all busy with the subtle game of baseball, each in our own ways. We were locating abstract spiritual analogies, discussing timeless ethical and moral questions, and renewing our awareness that God is not only in our houses of worship but also our homes, our business, our relationships with others, and on the ball field.
The line-up of presenters and participants this summer was like an all-star team. In addition to those I've mentioned, there was: Larry Ruttman, attorney and author of the excellent new book, America's Jews in America's Game, published recently by the University of Nebraska Press; Hal Richman, inventor of Strat-o-matic, a sports simulation game played by millions of people worldwide since 1961 and showcased in the Baseball Hall of Fame; and gifted, passionate Jewish filmmaker Aviva Kempner, whose important award wining documentaries include Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg and The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg .
On Shabbat afternoon of the "Baseball and Judaism" weekend, after a typically delicious meal and a short, solitary stroll down the idyllic path to the barn to watch the nine milking goats, there were a few options on the schedule. I attended a discussion lead by Jewish educator Yishai Cohen, called "Competitive Advantage: Ethics and Jewish Law." In addition to looking at a Talmud passage on the issue of self-endangerment and a ruling by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein on cheating, the topic of performance enhancing drugs came up. It was an eye-opener to most of us.
During my talk, I explained the traditional Jewish spiritual practice of saying at least 100 blessings a day. Imagine having 100 times a day when you infuse yourself with an attitude of gratitude. The Jewish Sages teach that the traditional response to hearing a blessing is to respond with the word Amen, and it is taught that the "Amen" response is "greater than the blessing it responds to." It was therefore so gratifying when a participant said goodbye to me at the end of the weekend by saying, "Thanks for the teaching about saying amen. It's a terrific analogy: when someone offers a blessing of thanks to God, it's like a hit that gets the batter on base, but when you say 'Amen' in response to a blessing it's like an RBI, a 'run batted in.' The first batter scores by going home. And saying "Amen" is a BBI: a blessing batted in."