Eli Birnbaum
Eli Birnbaum
Rabbi, writer, educator, dreamer, millennial, closet anthropologist

It’s Coming Home

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

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The above quote, famously uttered by legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, echoes a feeling shared by many tens of millions of Anglo-Saxons as Bukayo Saka, all of 19 years old and playing for a mid-table Premier League side, stepped up to take the decisive penalty kick in the historic meeting between England and Italy in the Euro 2020 (it was delayed a year due to Covid and UEFA was too cheap to fund a rebrand, but hush-hush don’t tell anyone) final at Wembley Stadium, the ‘birthplace’ of football.

Saka glanced left, Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma shifted right. Saka blinked. Donnarumma didn’t. Saka shot right. Donnarumma dived. Donnarumma saved. Cue copious hand gestures and much cheek-kissing as the Italian camp erupted into euphoria, crowned European champions thanks to a single kick missed from 12 yards.

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Within minutes, the most indescribably vile racist abuse came oozing forth from the social media cesspit. The ‘for Queen and country’ brigade – probably the types who got ‘It’s coming home – Euro Champions 2020’ tattooed on themselves well before a ball had been kicked in anger, were quick to notice that each of England’s three missed penalties happened to have been taken by a black player. Joining Bukayo Saka at target practice for keyboard warrior xenophobes were Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford.

Even established newsvendors perhaps inadvertently jumped on the bandwagon of insensitivity; Australian broadcaster 7News lead the story with a very poorly worded headline reading: ‘Three Black players failed in the penalty shoot-out’.

The abuse directed at Rashford took an even nastier turn when his work campaigning for free meal vouchers for impoverished children during the lockdown was criticised for being a distraction from training and working on his footballing skills. As ‘comedian’ and now professional persona-non-grata Andrew Lawrence tweeted: “I’d rather he’d practised his penalties and the kids had gone hungry.”

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Not pleasant. Not pleasant at all.

What with this and the similarly unpleasant scenes of ticketless In-ger-land fans storming Wembley’s perimeter in a violent and anarchic attempt to enter the stadium illegally, perhaps it can be speculated that football as a sport hasn’t evolved all that much since the village-on-village, fight-to-the-death-over-a-treated-pig-bladder days of yore. Indeed, violence in that un-halcyon era reached such dire straits that after a particularly lively game in Norfolk in 1321, the Pope himself had to intervene to grant clemency to a certain William de Spalding, who had killed a fellow townsman when the two collided and the latter fatally wounded himself on William’s blade. Without VAR and slow-motion replays, it wasn’t immediately clear whether the collision was intentional or not. Why the Papal dispensation? Well, William de Spalding was none other than the priest of Shouldham, Norfolk and his parish needed him for Match of the Day’s Easter omnibus.

Does the beautiful game simply have an unavoidably ugly side? Or have months in lockdown made us all stir-fry crazy?

Let’s take a step back.

‘Sport and Jews’ isn’t a combination that goes quite as hand-in-glove as, say, ‘Accountancy and Jews’, ‘Medicine and Jews’, or ‘Circling the venue for twenty minutes because I don’t want to walk for two minutes and Jews’. We celebrate the rare occasion that a Jewish athlete makes it big. But we celebrate more when they refuse to play ball if it conflicts with their religious duties. Long story short, as the heinous anti-Semitic reaction following the European Super League miscalculation showed, it is far more common to find a Jew owning an elite football club than it is to find a Jew playing for one.

That isn’t to say that a religion with a calendar that purposefully books dates for high-cholesterol feasting is anti the notion of breaking a sweat. After all, the Torah itself is pretty unequivocal when it comes to the directive to live healthy and take good care of ourselves:

“And you shall guard yourselves greatly.” (Devarim 4:15)

As expounded by Rabbi Solomon Ganzfried, author of the Halachic work Kitzur Shulchan Aruch and ironically hailing from a corner of Jewish Europe famous for its paprika, meat and sugar-heavy diet:

“The maintenance of a complete and healthy body is a Godly path—since it is impossible to understand or apprehend any knowledge of the Creator when one is sick—therefore you must keep away from things that damage the body, and develop habits that improve the body and heal it. Similarly, it is said: “You shall guard yourselves very well.” (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 32:1)

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The big question is though; it’s one thing staying healthy, exercising regularly and maintaining a good physique. But what if that is done competitively? And, more subtly, is it inevitable that competitive sport leads to conflict, tribalism and sectarianism?

To begin addressing these more nuanced questions, it is necessary to contemplate the conclusion of the verse cited above:

“And you shall guard yourselves greatly, for you saw no form on the day that Hashem your God spoke to you at Horeb (Sinai) from amidst the flame.” (ibid.)

Most peculiar. What has the point about taking care of ourselves got to do with the belief that God is non-corporeal and addressed us thus at mount Sinai? And why does the latter buttress or even justify the former?

Almost as inexplicable as Southgate’s decision not to start Jack Grealish.

Indeed, numerous commentaries are so perturbed by this seemingly arbitrary connection, they revise the meaning of the verse’s opening statement entirely, moving away from its general health message to focus on a narrower (though no less important) caution against the practise of idolatry. I.e. ‘And you shall guard yourselves greatly [not to pursue idolatry], for you saw no form on the day [which clearly demonstrated the truth of monotheism and falsehood in deifying graven images]’.

However, notwithstanding this understandable about-turn, the overwhelming majority of classic sources – from the Talmud (Berachot 32b) to Maimonides (Laws of Murder and Preserving Life 11:5) – favour the holistic approach to that opening statement. In other words: Be healthy. Why? Because a non-corporeal God spoke to you at Sinai.

Even Bonucci and Chiellini would struggle to defend this reading.

Looks like we’re going to extra time.

The national revelation at Sinai is rightly regarded as THE seminal moment in Jewish history. In fact, if we’re nit-picking, it was Judaism’s kick-off as a religion, faith and culture. God ostensibly spoke to the Israelites in order to communicate the Ten Commandments and lend an invaluable stamp of Divine approval to Moses’ subsequent prophecies. However, behind the scenes some pretty fundamental cogs were a-turning.

“For you saw no form”. This experience empirically dismantled the contemporary prevalence to paganism. ‘No form’ whatsoever implies true Infinity. That’s not ‘infinite’ as in: ‘records Cristiano Ronaldo can break’. It is ‘infinite’ in its limitless, truest, most absolute form. It implies God of all things, at all times.

That’s step one.

Step two is to explore why the verse in Devarim hinges our duty to protect ourselves on our having come face to face with Infinity.

I believe the answer to this is twofold. Firstly, let’s deal with the implications of a non-corporeal God. i.e. a Godly system that fundamentally undermines the most basic tenets of paganism. A malaise of ancient idolatrous cultures was the fact that such a state of affairs almost inevitably gave rise to an ‘us v them’ civilisation. At its root was the ugly stepsister of competition: conflict.

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Different nations claiming varying degrees of subjective favour in the eyes of differing national gods meant that in times of hardship, nation clashed with nation, gods with gods, pantheon with pantheon and with the last man standing it was revealed whose patrons, gods and pantheon was truly favoured. And so, the blood-soaked cycle grinded on, generation after generation as kingdoms and empires rose, claimed supremacy for their catalogue of gods, but then decayed and met with defeat in battle, only for a new kingdom or empire to rise instead, adopt some of the ‘old’ gods, laud the ‘new’ gods as supreme and so and so forth. Wash, rinse and repeat.

One of the greatest challenges our ancestors faced was a chronic inability to break free of the conflict born of a disunion between us and them. To sue for peace or worse – surrender – meant insulting ancestors, abandoning gods, dismantling shrines and betraying communities. War was a lower price to pay than the cost of peace.

Along came monotheism. And in one fell swoop it laid waste to the pantheon ideology and its theological catch-22. It isn’t ‘us’ versus ‘them’- our gods versus their gods, the spirits of our ancestors versus theirs. It’s just us. All of us. All the time. Created by the same Infinity and sustained by it in every place, at every moment.

But that’s not all.

Let’s go to penalties.

Second: It’s bad enough that a politically defeated culture in ancient times would often be religiously defeated too, binning its idols and replacing them with the latest winners on the peninsula. But what does that defeat do to the psyche of the idol’s adherents?

Intriguingly, the Midrashic work ‘Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael’ (author and date of authorship unknown but likely to have been compiled in the second or third century) expands on this dilemma with a comment that left me dumbfounded for its relevance to the social media hypocrisy following England’s defeat:

“When good befalls them, they honour their gods and leaders. But when evil befalls them, they curse their gods and leaders, as it is written: (Isaiah 8:21) “… and he will curse his king and his gods.” But, as for you (Israel), if I God bring good upon you, you give thanks, and when I bring afflictions upon you, you give thanks [for you know that there is a reason behind my actions]”

(Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, 20:20:1)

English when they score. Black when they miss. It’s right here. Healthy competition degenerating into unhealthy conflict. Why? Because we still haven’t quite freed ourselves from the shackles of ‘us’ v ‘them’. We still cling too stubbornly to modern-day idols and allow them to define the very fabric of our identity. And so, when we feel defeat’s sting, we either switch allegiance and exchange the Ronaldo shrine for a Messi one, or – more commonly – we vent the fury of abandonment and betrayal on the gods who falsely vowed to take us to the promised land, cursing them for failing to bring it home, denouncing and decrying them as false gods who were never truly part of ‘us’.

You saw no form.

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Your value is not subjective, nor is it bound by space and time, success or circumstance. It is infinite. Just like the God who told you to take care of yourself. The God who told you:

“For in God’s image man was created.” (Genesis 9:6).

Not an ‘image’ in the pagan, corporeal sense of the word. ‘Image’ in the sense of unique and infinite value, an ability to create and destroy, to fix and heal, to bring the world to perfection.

Perhaps one of Judaism’s greatest contributions to the archives of the human experience was and still is its claim that humanity derives value not from victory, power or might, but from the fact that it is intrinsically valuable, full stop. We are all created equal. We are all created valuable. Why? Because our existence echoes the existence of the God of all things, at all times. Therefore, we are charged with protecting that existence. Why? Because its true worth and importance brings us to the very brink of Infinity itself.

But that point is oh so subtle. It is not, contrary to what the founding fathers of the United States claimed in their Declaration of Independence, ‘self-evident’. Far from it. That declaration was written at a time when the slave trade was in full swing and a fragment of a percentage of human beings had a political say. Truth, it is. Self-evident, it isn’t. And for that reason, God declared what the Declaration didn’t:

He (Rabbi Akiva) used to say: Beloved is man for he was created in the image of God. An extra measure of love is seen in the fact that it was made known to him that he had been created in the image of God, as it is said: “for in God’s image man was created” (Genesis 9:6). (Ethics of the Fathers, 3:14).

Remember that message, and suddenly it becomes possible to snatch victory from the jaws of every apparent defeat. And as growing numbers of people take to the airwaves and internet to stand up to the sectarian tribalism insistent on treating competitive football like pagan conflict more important than life itself, and while others travel to Withington to fix the mural celebrating Marcus Rashford’s contribution to Britain’s underprivileged children, it starts to become apparent:

Step by step, football’s coming home, just not the way we intended it to.

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About the Author
Born and raised in London, England. I spent six years in Talmudic College before studying for Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem. I hold a BSc in Criminology & Social Psychology. I am fascinated by pretty much everything, but nothing more so than exploring current affairs through the kaleidoscope of Jewish continuity in the 21st century. I currently oversee Aish UK's educational and published content. (All views expressed are my own, and do not necessarily represent those of Aish UK).
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