Joseph C. Kaplan
Joseph C. Kaplan

A Few of My Favorite Things

I was about one-third of the way through a column about Covid and shuls when I realized that with the Covid news changing every day (if not every hour), the column was becoming dated even as I was writing it. I therefore set it aside until things settle down (please God soon), and began looking for something to write about that doesn’t change quite so precipitously.

And I thought of baseball.

It’s not that baseball hasn’t changed over the years. There were official changes like the designated hitter (DH) dispute between the American and National Leagues in 1973 (no, guys, I’m not going to rehash our shul argument about that here), changing from a 154-game season to a 162-game one (1961), lowering the pitcher’s mound and reducing the strike zone (1969), the advent of free agency (1976), the introduction of interleague play (1997), and most significantly, erasing the color line that was a stain on the game and our nation (1947). And, of course, there are the unofficial changes we see every day; things like using closers, openers, and set-up men; the overuse of statistics, defensive shifts, and pitch counts; bat flips and walk-up songs; and an overabundance of strike outs and home runs.

And let’s not forget kosher food in many stadiums.

But the essence, the heart, the core of the game is very much the way it was since the start of the last century. So many of the first rules of baseball written by Alexander Cartwright and Daniel Adams in 1857 as they evolved and became settled in the second half of that century still exemplify the way the game is played today. There are still ninety feet between bases; nine innings per regular game; six outs per full inning; nine/ten starters per team (see DH debate above); double plays, bunts, pick-offs, and stolen bases; sacrifice flies, tagging up, and hitting the cut-off man; singles, doubles, triples, and home runs. Four balls is a walk and three strikes and yer still out.

And then I immediately reflected on Judaism, which is similar in some ways as far as change is concerned. Like baseball, there have been numerous changes over the centuries, most notably the movement from Temple-centered Judaism to Rabbinic Judaism almost 2,000 years ago. (I’m writing predominantly from my Modern Orthodox perspective, though I believe it’s also true, if to differing degrees, with respect to most other denominations.) Just think how Ninth Century Jews (or, indeed, 18th Century ones) would feel if they walked into one of our Modern Orthodox shuls or schools or camps or celebrations of rites of passage. How comfortable would they be? How many questions would they have? Which parts could they follow easily and which ones would they find perplexing? There certainly have been many changes from their Jewish lives to ours.

And yet, the essence, the heart, the core of the religion is still there, strong and vibrant. Much remains eternal, like belief in monotheism, Moses, and mitzvot. The basic sacred Tanach text remains unchanged, and though we also study many new texts written over the millennia, Jews from the past would have little difficulty (putting language aside) sitting in on many of our Torah classes and joining in the spirited discussions that such study often entails. Indeed, though they might be, as I noted above, a bit uncomfortable and confused initially during prayer services, it wouldn’t take them long to realize that what’s going on is the same shacharit, mincha, ma’ariv, and layning that they engaged in, and they quickly would be able to pray with their fellow, albeit 21st, Century Jews. Shabbat may be different with shabbes clocks (timers), shul singing, women giving divrei Torah, and rabbis’ sermons in the vernacular, but candle lighting, kiddush, lechem mishneh, warm family meals, the thirty-nine prohibited categories of work, and extra leisure for increased Torah learning are timeless.

Change and continuity are not the only things that link baseball and Judaism for me. I thought about this recently while having a chat with the son-in-law of one of my younger shul friends, who craves the excitement of other sports. As we spoke, I realized that what energizes him and what baseball provides me are quite different.

Other sports are constrained by time; they have 12-minute (basketball) or 15-minute (football) quarters, 20-minute periods (hockey), or 45-minute halves (soccer). There’s no way of ultimately stopping the clock. While the last minutes or even seconds of a close game can be exciting, in many others the game is irrevocably over before the last minutes or seconds begin to count down.

Baseball is different. The players aren’t battling the clock. The game’s not over until the final out is made in the last inning, however long that takes. Until then there’s always a chance – always! – for the outcome to change, for a comeback, for one side to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

I also thought about my Torontonian daughter Raquel, who, like her family, is, unsurprisingly, a Blue Jays fan. (Yes, she was brought up better, but we must allow our children the freedom to live their own lives.) She was at a game before Covid, and in the late innings she turned to her husband, Jason, and said, “This game is pretty boring. Nothing much is happening.” Jason, a baseball fan in addition to being a hockey enthusiast (is that gentler than fanatic?), exasperatingly exclaimed: “Nothing is happening?!?! He’s pitching a no-hitter!” (Unfortunately for them it was against the Jays.)

These baseball values resonate with my Jewish soul. Take, for example, the Jewish concept of teshuvah (repentance). While it is, of course, admirable to repent throughout one’s life and not save it for the last moment, one can repent, and be forgiven, even at that very last moment (Shabbat 153a), a maxim that has halachic significance as well (Kiddushin 49b). Sin and defeat are never inevitable. People have free will and can always do teshuvah – even, as it were, in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, two strikes, and Mariano Rivera on the mound.

As in baseball, there’s always an opportunity in Judaism for redemption.

Moreover, action isn’t always Judaism’s desired state; there’s often merit, and wisdom, in not acting. There are times when shev ve’al ta’aseh adif (Literally, sitting and not acting is better, or, colloquially, it’s better to sit on your hands) – times when halacha teaches that inaction is the wiser course. This requires nuance and care, of course, because doing nothing sometimes can be paralyzing. It can take the excitement and challenge out of life. Who would want to watch only no hitters? But just as a perfect game helps us appreciate good hitting all the more, halacha’s opting, at times, for inaction enhances our experiences in the multitude of occasions when we are charged with mastering the earth (Genesis 1:28) and following the Torah’s positive commandments.

Baseball’s grip on the American psyche has been waning in recent years; its status as the National Pastime has been called into question as other sports, with continuous action and lots of pizzaz, vie for attention (and the many billions that come with that attention). But for many of us, little in sports compares to spending a Sunday afternoon at the ballpark, sitting in the stands under a cloudless sky, munching a (kosher) hot dog and drinking a beer (or Diet Coke for me), watching a pitching duel between two aces, and not knowing who’s going to win until the fifty-fourth out is made.

And for many Jews, it’s often the quiet beauty and unchanging basic nature of Judaism, its preaching of restraint balanced against its exhortations to action, and its promise of an always available opportunity to reflect, repent, and recover, that provides comforting solace and warmth.

Play ball!

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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