Jews, Muslims, Christians, and the National Football League

The religion of football often conflicts with actual religion.

Before getting to actual religion, Favrewatch 2010 has now concluded. The grizzled 40 year old veteran looked in the mirror, saw his (bearded stubbly) shadow, and now he is playing six more months of winter football. Thank the (football) heavens.

Now that # 4 is back, new religious football conflicts abound.

There is an old joke about a Christian minister who goes golfing on Sunday and skips church. He gets a hole in one, but an observer wryly points out “who can he tell?”

A song by the late Jerry Reed called “The preacher and the bear” involves a minister who goes hunting on the sabbath when he should be preaching as well. A bear chases him up a tree. The minister says to God, “If you can’t help me, at least don’t help that bear.”

For Jews and Muslims, September of 2010 brings the holiest days of our calendar.

For the Israelites (also known as Hebrews, the descendants of Jacob), the Jewish new year of Rosh Hashanah begins at Sundown on September 8th, goes through the 9th and 10th, and ends at Sundown on the 10th.

For the Mohammedans (the sons and daughters of Ishmael), the holiest day is the end of Ramadan. Due to certain calculations, Muslims are not yet completely sure if that day falls on the 9th, 10th, or 11th.

While there is much conflict between various people of different religions, one thing that can unite people across all strata and stripes is the National Football League. I don’t care what God you believe in, even if the answer is none. If you are a good person, you are welcome in my home on an NFL Sunday.

Being an NFL player can often be difficult for deeply religious players. Some religious Christians walked away from lucrative NFL contracts because they did not want to play football on their holy Sabbath Sunday. The Reverend Billy Graham has lamented that the Super Bowl is played on Sunday.

Glen Coffee is only 23 years old, and was entering his second season with the 49ers. Out of nowhere, he just quit football. He said that he felt that God wants him to spend his Sundays engaged in Christian activities. Raiders running back Napoleon Kaufman left the game in the prime of his career to focus on his ministry work.

This is not crazy. People putting God first are not being hypocrites. They are being the exact opposite.

For deeply religious Christians, every Sunday is a holy day. The decision to play or watch football can be a sincere spiritual struggle.

(Although to the best of my limited knowledge, nothing in Christianity specifically prevents such activities.)

Christianity tends to be more faith based, while Judaism and Islam are more legalistic. Specific issues are often explicitly spelled out, whether we like it or not.

Islam has the holy month of Ramadan. One Muslim player on the Minnesota Vikings is balancing Ramadan with playing in the NFL.

Husain Abdullah plays safety for the Vikings. During Ramadan, which falls early in the NFL season this year, he will not be eating any food or drinking any water from sunup to sundown. He can eat breakfast around 5am, and then have dinner around 8pm. Every day for 30 days, he will fast for 15 hours.

He will also be playing football. Like other religions, Islam would allow an exception if his life was at risk. He and the Vikings are working with team nutritionists and doctors to prevent this.

I truly admire Mr. Abdullah’s devotion to his faith and his profession.

Judaism is a little more complex than Islam because on the Sabbath Saturday, work is explicitly prohibited. Religious Orthodox Jews would most likely never make it to the NFL. The games are on Sundays, which is fine. However, the years of preparation would be prevented because high school games are played on Friday nights and college games are played on Saturdays.

One Orthodox Jewish person does have a Super Bowl ring from his playing days, but Alan “Shlomo” Veingrad did not become religious until he stopped playing. His journey is also inspiring.

So many people have had to balance their religious faith with sports. While the athletes have the real hard decisions, it is tough for fans as well.

Many Christians have to decide whether to go to church or watch their favorite NFL team on Sundays. Some people try to sneak walkmans into the services. It is tough.

The late Larry Miller used to own the NBA Utah Jazz. He was a devout Mormon, and even when his team was in the NBA Finals with a chance at a championship, he would skip their games that fell on Sundays. For a man to miss his own team play is tough, but his religion came first.

The late New York Jets owner Leon Hess had to miss a game against the rival Giants because of Yom Kippur.

Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders is Jewish, as are some other owners. They all have varying stances.

For me as a fan, balancing the NFL and my Jewish holy days is always a struggle.

In college, The Raiders played the hated Kansas City Chiefs on Yom Kippur. I taped the game, and 24 hours later, after avoiding all people and newspapers, just as I was about to watch the game, somebody ruined it for me. No good deed goes unpunished.

The spirit of the law in Judaism says that on holy days, activities such as football should not be partaken. The letter of the law prevents turning the television on. Those obeying the letter but not the spirit of the law can just leave the television on the whole time.

My grandfather was an Orthodox Rabbi and a New York Mets fan. After services, I would be the heretic grandson who would “forget” and “accidentally” turn the tv on. My grandmother would admonish me all the while knowing that I knew, and was taking heat for grandpa. My attitude was that he has suffered enough. He was Jewish and a Mets fan. Let him watch. My grandmother took a more literal interpretation of the Old Testament, which did not allow exemptions for bad teams.

One year the Raiders were at the Steelers, and Yom Kippur fell during halftime. On Yom Kippur we fast for 24 hours. My friends and I stuffed ourselves silly in the first half. Since the tv was already on, we watched the second half, and then raced to synagogue.

People who do not understand football can minimize this struggle as selfishness, but most good people want to do the right thing. They want to be good before God, but simply care about their sports. The argument of “nobody is getting hurt” falls flat to religious people who point out that disobeying God is hurtful in itself.

On September 9th, 2010, I have a tough decision to make. The 2010 NFL Season kicks off with a spectacular Thursday night extravaganza. The game is a rematch of last year’s NFC Title Game. The Minnesota Vikings travel to play the New Orleans Saints. Brett Favre will be playing quarterback for the Vikings.

Favre agonized for months on whether to play in this game. I will be agonizing for weeks on whether to watch the game.

The game falls on Rosh Hashanah. The laws of Judaism are very clear.

I could be a phony and have somebody else turn on the tv for me. The problem is that asking somebody to do this is prohibited. They have to somehow guess. Many homes have non-Jewish helpers to work the electricity so the family does not have to do so. I do not have one.

I know how Favre feels. Everybody is insisting that he knew all along what he was going to do, even as he insisted that he really did deliberate long and hard.

Everybody who knows me insists that my mind is already made up, but it is not.

One year when the NFL opener fell on Rosh Hashanah, I figured out that Maloney’s Sportsbar was across the street from the local synagogue. I calculated months in advance when the breaks in the games and the services were. I ran back and forth like Mrs. Doubtfire, switching my Yamulkah (Jewish skullcap) for my Raiders baseball cap. I occasionally got confused about whether I was in the sportsbar or the synagogue. The letter of the law was obeyed, but the spirit of the law was bent severely if not completely broken.

As September 9th rolls around, I really want to see # 4 the Gunslinger make the Vikings game against the Saints a spectacular event. I also do not want the lord to shove a flamethrower up my hide for watching the game on Rosh Hashanah.

Yet is just showing up in synagogue good enough if I am thinking about the game anyway? I know the game would enter my mind. So in a sense I would still be violating the spirit of the law because I would be distracted from the whole purpose of going to synagogue, even if I am physically in the building.

Of course, some could see that as a rationalization to stay home.

For those wondering, yes, Jews on occasion really do analyze everything to death. As a kid I worried that my violating the religious laws would cause my team to lose, although it now seems that God likes the teams with the bigger and better players.

If Brett Favre were Jewish, maybe he could convince the NFL Commissioner to reschedule the game. I am going to take a great leap of faith and guess that Favre’s home of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, is not a hotbed of Jewish activity.

I have a tough decision to make. I honestly do not know what I am going to do.

I will figure it out, and life will go on. Judaism has thrived for thousands of years, and the NFL has been around for over a century.

They are both older than me, but perhaps an ounce of wisdom will allow me to find a creative solution.

To those who place their religion above sports, I applaud you.

As much as I love navel gazing, it is time to put my thought process with this issue on lockdown.

I am a Jewish football fan. Something has to…and will…give.


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