Thursday, March 31, 2011

What Baseball Tells Us about Judaism

Whenever I think about the history of baseball, I find myself thinking of the history of Judaism.

Let me explain.

One of the enduring myths of American history is that in 1839 a man called Abner Doubleday invented a game called baseball in Cooperstown, NY. According to the myth he invented this game out of whole cloth. Before he drew up the rules, there was no such thing as baseball; afterwards, the game as we know it existed, a product of nothing but Doubleday's imagination. This myth is why a church called the Baseball Hall of Fame stands in Cooperstown and why millions of people make a pilgrimage to it each year.

The truth, as an article in today's paper reminds us, is messier. Baseball as we know it, developed from games like cricket, and rounders, and proto-versions of baseball called the "Massachusetts Game" and the "New York Game". All were once played in the United States, but gradually over time these games combined and developed into the sport we recognize as baseball. This happened not because of any process, or because any "official criteria for developing a national game" were followed, but because over a very long time people made choices, and/or allowed themselves to be swayed by stronger personalities, and/or responded to historical changes, and/or because of all the many different factors that go into establishing styles and tastes.

Hasn't something similar happened to Judaism? Whatever we think happened at Sinai, the contents of that revelation have been in human hands for a very long time. As it was passed from generation to generation changes were introduced, and different styles of Judaism developed. The Judaism of Yemen was similar to the Judaism of Poland, but also different. The Judaism of the Tannaim was similar to the Judaism of the Achronim, but also different. Some Jews, in some times and some places were corprealists who brought sacrifices; other Jews in other times and other places were strict rationalists who refused even to allow piyutim into the liturgy. Your father wears a shtrimel and won't eat gbroks; my father didn't have or give me an upshurim; his father thinks the Lubovitch Rebbe is the Messiah, and does something wierd with aravot: Where did all these changes come from? Through the same messy, man-made, contingent, human historical process that changed rounders into baseball.

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