On Sunday, baseball star Shawn Green made the highlight reels with his game-winning home run in the ninth inning. But this weekend the Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman is likely to generate even more headlines by staying off the field.
Green, admired by fans across the country who see him as the nicest Jewish boy to make the big leagues since Dodger legend Sandy Koufax, is expected to sit out his team’s Saturday game against the San Francisco Giants in deference to Judaism’s holiest day, Yom Kippur. It’s not the first time that Green has opted to follow Koufax’s legendary example, but this year the decision to sit out could cost his team dearly: With the season entering the final weeks, the Dodgers and Giants are locked in a tight battle for the division title and a trip to the playoffs.
Aside from a smattering of upset Dodger faithfuls, Green probably will be hailed by Jews and non-Jews for deciding not to play. In an increasingly shrill, divided America, where religious conservatives and secular liberals are frequently pitted against each other, the slugger can appeal to fans of all political and religious stripes, including Jews across the denominational spectrum.
Traditionalists can be happy that, at least for a day, a ball player and the nation at large seemed to be embracing a dose of old-time religion. At the same time, as a nominally observant Jew who publicly, albeit humbly, began exploring his ethnic roots just a few years ago, Green is unlikely to offend secular sensibilities, and might well appeal to liberals who will see his decision not as an example of religious parochialism, but as a much-needed infusion of spirituality into the overly macho, commercialized culture of American sports.
The Jewish community’s celebration of Green stands in stark contrast to its reaction to Madonna’s highly publicized, increasingly intense devotion to the Jewish mystical tradition know as Kabbalah.
To some extent, the negative reaction in some circles to the pop diva’s spiritual awakening has less to do with Madonna herself than with widespread objections to her religious advisers at the Kabbalah Center, an international organization based in Los Angeles with branches throughout the world. The center, which organized Madonna’s recent trip to Israel (see story below), is widely dismissed in the Jewish community as a cult, peddling a watered-down brand to unsuspecting, vulnerable searchers.
But the angst also reflects an anxiety over the sight of a sultry performer — a shiksa, no less — incorporating elements of Judaism into her life on her terms. Given the lurid details of Madonna’s carefully crafted, ever-shifting persona, cynical reactions to her interest in Kabbalah cannot simply be dismissed as the crotchety complaints of a fervently religious minority. It does not take a rabbi to fret over the possibility of Judaism becoming the new Scientology.
The problem is that while Madonna is an extreme example, the negative response reflects a general tendency of Jewish religious authorities and synagogue faithfuls to adopt an overly parochial view of Judaism and its role in the world. The entrenched, organizational gatekeepers of Jewish life increasingly put forth the idea that the main purpose of Jewish tradition is simply to increase ritual observance or, even more narrowly, to stave off interfaith marriage.
Neither model, at least as currently practiced, leaves much room for a Judaism that seeks to transform the world for the better. When it comes to supporting Israel or fighting antisemitism, Jewish organizations are increasingly prepared to invest energy in reaching out to non-Jews. Few communal leaders, however, appear to have given much thought to the question of how reputable rabbinical seminaries and other Jewish organizations can address the needs of non-Jews seeking a spiritually and morally uplifting message, if not a new faith.
Even those who would, at first, dismiss such an effort as a theologically misguided approach and a waste of limited resources should consider two points.
First, if serious, respected Jewish theologians and rabbis don’t do so, the task of defining Judaism and promulgating its message to the rest of the country will be taken up by the Kabbalah Center and others who live beyond the boundaries of organized Jewish life and care little for communal norms.
The second issue is that a Judaism incapable of communicating meaning to non-Jews is likely to fail the same test when it comes to Jews. There are many who won’t buy into a full set of religious requirements, but are looking for a faith that has something to say about universal values and improving the world in which we live.
In other words, if Jewish leaders don’t like the messenger, they should step up to the plate and take a crack, just like Shawn Green does in every game (except for the ones that happen to fall on Yom Kippur).