Rabbi’s Message: Feb. 1, 2014

Super Bowls, Groundhogs, Tradition, and Judaism

Haminhag m’vatel et hahalacha / Tradition/custom can nullify Jewish law.
Talmud Yerushalmi, Mesechet Yevamot
Hamasoret tz’richa l’hiot Koresh k’fitza le’atid v’lo kursa l’shaat m’nucha / Tradition must be a springboard into the future and not a comfy chair to relax in.
David Ben-Gurion

He’s a real nowhere man
Sitting in his nowhere land
Making all his nowhere plans for nobody
Doesn’t have a point of view
Knows not where he’s going to
Isn’t he a bit like you and me?
Nowhere Man, please listen
You don’t know what you’re missing
Nowhere Man, the world is at your command
“Nowhere Man,” John Lennon and Paul McCartney

On February 2, most of the population of this nation will focus much of their attention on two important traditions, Groundhog Day and the Super Bowl.

One of these traditions while seemingly very silly is of a very old vintage. Back in the tribal times of ancient Germanic and Celtic peoples, various animal behaviors were observed to determine what the mysterious forces of nature would visit upon the population in the form of seasonal weather. Different groups focused their observations on alternately a holy bear, badger, or some other species that hibernated in the winter in order to gain an insight as to what the duration of the season would be. Apparently German immigrants brought the custom to Pennsylvania, where it then developed into our amusing tradition of Groundhog Day, wherein the aforementioned critter is observed coming out of his burrow on February 2. If the furry fellow when emerging sees a cloudy day, it’s said that spring will come early. If he sees his shadow due to it being sunny, supposedly he’ll go back into his burrow to wait out what will be a long and harsh winter. This silly but harmless tradition seems to be well loved or at least liked and can be found on the news broadcasts of many TV stations and media outlets.

After taking some sort of comfort from the reporting of the above tradition, most people will turn their attention to the Super Bowl, the championship game of American professional football. They will spend many dollars purchasing copious quantities of the “traditional foods,” burgers, chili, hotdogs, barbeque, pizza, chips, dips (usually the less healthy, the more popular the food item is), beer, beer, beer, and beer.

Gathering together in groups at home or at bars, they will happily indulge themselves in food and drink as they witness the big event on hopefully a big-screen TV. Curiously, however, many of those most enthusiastically involving themselves in the festivities of the day actually are not true fans of the game. Many, especially some of the women watching, who have not previously watched a football game since the last Super Bowl, are almost completely clueless about what is taking place on the field of play and wouldn’t know a touchdown from a home run.

So then what are they so eager to be involved in? Actually for some the game is secondary to the ritualized festivity of the day. There is much pomp, tradition, and ritual involved. It is wildly colorful and the athletes in their impressive uniforms moving with great speed and skill may be enjoyable to watch. By being part of a Super Bowl party, one is in a sense connecting to a collective body consisting of millions of others partying simultaneously. There is also more offered, such as a highly anticipated musical performance by a big name at halftime. And there are the wonderfully creative and entertaining commercials that will broadcast for the first time ever during the game and for many are the highlight of the day that even supersedes the athletic contest on the field of play.

While in effect mostly superficial, silly, and materialistic, the events and traditions of the Super Bowl meet Ben-Gurion’s criteria for a successful tradition. They create excitement and give the participants something to eagerly look forward to with energetic anticipation.

Much of what passes for conventional Judaism is more like Groundhog Day. It is encountered on a schedule and is sometimes at best mildly amusing but most usually a tolerable experience that one derives a bit of comfort from routinely witnessing or participating in.

Comfort is important, but we must also create a Judaism that generates excitement, a Judaism that people look forward to with anticipation, and a Judaism that is a springboard to a wonderful future. We can do that by continually developing new traditions that favor creativity, questioning, intellectual stimulation, spiritual fulfillment, friendship, and fun. We can’t be retrained by a variety of “halacha” that artificially chokes off the potential for Judaism to continually evolve and meet the needs of the people. That is what the Talmud means when it declares that tradition/custom can override halacha.

Judaism can’t afford for Jews to be nowhere men and women. Even the Torah says (Devarim 30:12), “lo bashamiyim hee,” it’s not in the heaven (the Torah). Our Torah and Jewish traditions are here in our hands to create a beautiful and meaningful experience of Judaism.



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