Sports should emphasize athletic talent, respectful competition, and fun, not the involvement of cruelty and violence. In fact the Jewish tradition teaches that sports should not involve cruelty. Consider for example the position of the Noda B’Yehuda (Rabbi Yechezkel Landau), where he rules that it is forbidden to hunt for sport because of the cruelty involved (Yoreh Deah 10). Further, the Rambam taught that it is forbidden to injure another in a contentious manner (Hilkhot Chovel u’mazik 5:1).
If boxing posed only a minimal risk to participants, Jewish law might allow our participation (like hockey, contact football, and wrestling), but boxing poses a moderate to very high risk of injury to the participants. Self-defense is, of course, permitted (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 184:1), but not entering violent situations or sport in the pursuit of fame or money.
Boxing originated at least as early as the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. There are documented boxing matches in Europe as early as the 17th century CE. The first attempt to provide some limits to the sport’s cruelty came from the 8th Marquess of Queensbury, John Sholto Douglass, whose 12 rules of boxing mandated the use of boxing gloves, a match consisting of 3-minute rounds with 1 minute of rest between each round, and rules governing what constituted a knockdown, in which the other boxer was to return to his corner and not continue the fight until the other fighter got up. Daniel Mendoza was perhaps the first Jewish boxer, and was champion of England from 1792-1795 in spite of his light weight. He was widely credited with bringing strategy and defense into a sport that had previously been associated with brute violence and strength. The sport entered the Olympics in 1904, and has been there ever since.
Boxing has been defended as an avenue for immigrants to get out of poverty (although the percentage of those making a sufficient living has always been very small), as Irish, Italian, and later black and Hispanic fighters have been able to achieve great fame and fortune. While not as numerous, there have been a number of Jews who made it out of the ghetto through boxing. Consider some of the more notable Jewish pugilists:
- Barney Ross (Barnet Rasofsky) turned to boxing from his early training as a Talmudic scholar after his father was murdered in Chicago in 1924 and several of his siblings were placed in an orphanage. He eventually became a champion lightweight and welterweight fighter, and was elected to the Boxing Hall of Fame.
- Benny Leonard (Benjamin Leiner) was a long-term lightweight champion. Although he was the son of Orthodox Jews in New York, Leonard learned to fight in the streets of New York, frequently in brawls with Italian and Irish children.
- Ruby (Reuven) Goldstein grew up in the Henry Street Settlement on New York City’s Lower East Side. His nickname was the “Jewel of the Ghetto,” and although he never had a title, he was an accomplished boxer and later referee. Although he was an esteemed referee, his career was marred by what many viewed as his failure to stop the 1962 fight in which Emile Griffith killed Benny Paret on live television.
Today, several Jewish boxers have emerged from the immigrant communities that fled the former Soviet Union. Dimitriy Salita, who was born in the Ukraine but whose family moved to Brooklyn when he was 9, became an observant Orthodox Jew. As a leading welterweight boxer, Salita still refuses to fight on the Sabbath or on Jewish holidays. In November 2013, Salita lost a sold out boxing match on points that was touted as a battle of Brooklyn’s best boxers. Salita, who is 31, is weighing his career options after his defeat. He also moonlights as a promoter, a potential post-boxing career opportunity. In contrast, Yuri Foreman, who was born in Belarus and has lived in Israel and the United States, has had more recent success. He has been a World light middleweight champion, and convincingly knocked out his Mexican opponent in the first round of his November 2013 match.
While a few individuals greatly benefit from boxing, the majority of its participants risk severe permanent injury from this deadly sport. Some of the sports most famous and charismatic boxers have tragically evidenced the toll that this brutal sport exacts on the body. Muhammad Ali, with his clever, even witty banter with opponents and the media was the delight of the sporting world for years; however, “The Greatest” was diagnosed with Parkinson disease at the age of 42, and even before that his speech had slurred and the quick wit had substantially diminished. Mayo Clinic physicians concluded that Ali had suffered damage to his brain stem as a result of boxing, and the resultant disruption in dopamine production likely accelerated the development of parkinsonian symptoms. While some within the boxing world have claimed that Ali suffered the brain damage because he did not retire from the sport early enough, it should be noted that Ali was remarkably gifted at avoiding punches during his career (his face remained unchanged throughout his career), and it cannot be denied that Ali has suffered a remarkably swift decline in his physical abilities since his retirement in 1981.
Sugar Ray Leonard, a former Olympic gold medal winner and middleweight boxing champion, was one of the most popular boxers of his day, but then he suffered a retinal detachment that jeopardized his sight, caused from enduring blows to the head and eyes. This condition requires immediate surgery to prevent blindness, which Leonard underwent in 1982. While a healthy recovery is likely, a return to boxing (as Leonard did 5 years after his detached retina) can expose the boxer to further eye damage. Less than two years after his first eye surgery Sugar Ray had to have minor eye surgery, again, to fix a loose retina.
While these high-profile cases have garnered the most attention, cumulative brain injuries do the most damage to boxers. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons estimates that 9 of 10 boxers suffer some type of brain injury. For more than 20 years, scientists have known about the pathology of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which was previously known by such terms as dementia pugilistica, boxer’s dementia, and “punch drunk” syndrome. As the former names imply, the condition is strongly connected with boxing. The brains of boxers with CTE exhibit many torn nerve fibers and neurons filled with deposits of proteins, including amyloid, that is most commonly associated with Alzheimer disease. The result is that these former boxers have increasingly severe memory problems, slow movement, and alarming personality changes such as alcoholism, substance abuse, explosive tempers, and outbursts of violence (sometimes self-inflicted). This is best illustrated in the career of heavyweight champion Joe Louis, the “Brown Bomber,” who squandered the vast amounts of money he earned in the ring, suffered from paranoia, was addicted to cocaine, and was already wheelchair-bound for several years before his death at the age of 66 in 1981. Emile Griffith (mentioned above), who saw boxing as a way out of a childhood spent in a detention facility in the Virgin Islands, later wound up with dementia and spent the later years of his life in a nursing home.
The process leading to damage is directly traced to punching. In addition to the obvious physical damage (cuts, swelling, etc.), punches to the head and neck area cause the cerebral cortex to rotate around the midbrain and spinal cord. Ironically, boxing gloves, which are seen as minimizing damage, actually accelerate this cerebral cortex rotation, as it increases the force of the punch. Although hemorrhaging may occur, the more likely and insidious result is that the punch causes small tears in the blood vessels in the brain. Eventually, this damage to the frontal cortex adversely affects impulse control, contributing to the harmful personality changes seen in former boxers.
Thus, unlike many other sports in which equipment or rules changes can alleviate much of the risk of brain damage, boxing is unique, as Professor John Hardy, head of the Department of Molecular Neuroscience and Chair of the Molecular Biology of Neurological Disease at the University College London Institute of Neurology, and a leading Alzheimer disease researcher, wrote in New Scientist: “No other sport has the express goal of causing injury to the brain.” Indeed, as noted earlier, the use of boxing gloves appears to exacerbate the harmful effects to the brain, so there is no conceivable reform that would lessen injuries in boxing.
Some Jewish authorities have argued that one may not harm another even if they give their consent (Shulachan Aruch Harav hilchot Nizkai Haguf # 4. p 885) even though we know that one may waive liabilities to damages in advance (Bava Kama 93a). Even if one were to argue that boxing is technically permitted, since both have given consent to engaging in an activity that will lead to mutual damages, we should consider the words of Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein:
Which of us has not, at times, been made painfully aware of the ethical paucity of his legal resources who has not found that the fulfillment of explicit halakhic duty could fall well short of exhausting clearly felt moral responsibility?
We have a moral responsibility to promote peace and welfare. Boxing does not offer a realistic possibility for rescuing people from poverty, and inevitably destroys even those who are able to succeed for a time, such as boxing legends Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard. Boxing promotes violence and a type of competition that requires and even endorses painful measures, and should not be condoned. I do not believe that Jewish law allows anyone to participate (as a fighter or spectator) in the barbaric activity of boxing.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”