Zionism Denial in the Synagogue and the Evils of Sports Betting in my June 2015 Dear Rabbi Column in the Jewish Standard

Dear Rabbi
Your Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi,

On Shabbat morning in the Orthodox synagogue that I attend the chazzan chants a prayer for the State of Israel after the Torah reading, before the Musaf service. Everyone in the shul stands up for this prayer, except for one man who apparently, to show his disapproval of the modern state, makes a point of sitting through the prayer. His act of passive defiance toward Israel annoys me and other people. What can I do?

Proud of Israel in Paramus

Dear Proud,

There has always been diversity in the religious response to Zionist movement. And there has often been opposition in the Jewish community of the diaspora to the methods and tactics of some Zionists.

Nevertheless you do know that the several different major streams of Zionists joined together over a period of decades to found a Jewish State. Among the streams were groups of Political, Social, Cultural and Religious Zionists who worked sometimes independently, and sometimes together, toward a common goal.

The state of Israel has always combined together diverse contributions from the politics of the left and the right, from policies and programs for society of secular socialists, from the creative artistic expressions of Jewish culture through art, music, poetry and fiction, and from the practices, devotions and traditional learning of religious Jews.

Back in the 1950s my father, Rabbi Zev Zahavy, was one of the few Orthodox rabbis who spoke and wrote often about the significance of the new State of Israel. He voiced in his sermons his view of the new state as a spiritual and cultural center for world Jewry. He was quoted on many occasions in the NY Times and elsewhere. I’m proud of how he stood up and spoke out for Israel while many of his rabbinical colleagues sat silently on the sidelines.

The beautiful prayer in your question, the prayer for the wellbeing of the State of Israel, was written by Rabbi Isaac Herzog in 1948. It expresses elements of the belief that the birth of the State is a miracle and is the beginning of the promised redemption of our people in the messianic age. It boldly asks God to, “Bless the State of Israel, the first flowering of our redemption…”

It’s fair to interpret the act the gentleman in your question sitting during the prayer at the least as a denial of the claim of the special religious significance of the State or as a protest against its politics or policies. And it is possible to look at the sitting congregant as a denier of all the validity and legitimacy of the Jewish State – an act of Zionism Denial, if you will.

I’m inclined though to assess this man’s inaction with a bit of irony, and to look at it in four ways which run parallel to the four streams of Zionism that it seems to oppose. By sitting when everyone else is standing your fellow congregant makes a political statement, “I disapprove of the politics of Israel’s government.” By sitting he makes a social statement, “I remove myself from the congregation to show my separation from those who support Israel.” By sitting he makes a cultural statement, “My inner world of meaning and imagination does not depend on, or have room for the culture of the State of Israel.” By sitting he makes a religious statement, “I deny the special religious significance or redemptive character of the State.”

My advice to you for what to do is this. If you are comfortable enough, approach this person quietly and express to him how you feel – that you find it rude or annoying for a person who is not ill to sit when all others in the congregation are standing. Do that and you then can be satisfied that you have registered your displeasure. But alas, do not expect to see any change at all in this man’s behavior. And above all try not to let it bother you. And if it still does, try going to another minyan.

Dear Rabbi,

I found out recently that my sons were betting on sports. I’m afraid that too much gambling will distract my kids from their studies or get them involved with the wrong elements. What can I do about this?

Worried over Wagering in Weehawken

Dear Worried,

When my boys were younger, I was not happy when I found out they were betting on sports. So I sat down with them and asked them not to do that. They asked why. And rather than appealing to their higher virtues, I cautioned them to not to bet on games, saying, “Because all sports are fixed.”

Naturally they pushed back and objected. Really? All sports? You aren’t serious Dad, are you?

So I thought a minute and admitted to them, “Yes, all sports are fixed, except for one. Professional wrestling!” And we had a good laugh.

Since that time, year after year I hear of scandal after scandal in one sport after another. Baseball wagering and use of steroids, cycling and doping, soccer and bribery, deflated footballs. The list grows and grows.

Sure, sports have a great entertainment value in our culture. And we do harbor the notion that when our children participate in team sports, that helps our kids become better team players in life.

But corruption in sports indeed leads us to worry. Are the kids who play for a team going to learn to play the game fairly and by the rules? Or are they going to learn how to cheat?

In New Jersey, you can find legalized gambling in local casinos, or via online sites, or even through lottery tickets at your corner newsstand. So if those are places where your kids are going to gamble, at least you don’t have to worry about the lawfulness of their activities. And you may know that in our present time and place the wagering business has been defended as part of a significant job creating industry.

It’s another thing if you worry about the benefits of gambling for your children as persons or for society at large. We all know that the enticement of gambling is a grasping at the hope of winning despite the obvious odds that predict that you will lose.

In the Talmud “dice players” (a general Talmudic label for gamblers) officially are treated with suspicion and distrust. They are invalid as authorities in court.  Daniel Greenberg summed it up (see JC.com -http://www.thejc.com/comment-and-debate/analysis/33187/analysis-gambling-not-spirit-judaism): “The Talmud (Sanhedrin 24b) disqualified gamblers from being witnesses or judges on two grounds: quasi-theft, and uselessness. Quasi-theft because each side to a bet hopes to win, and that hope taints their consent to the transaction; taking people's money by exploiting their unrealistic expectations is not so very far distanced ethically from taking it from them by fraud (or even violence). And uselessness because Judaism teaches the importance of each person trying to earn a livelihood by contributing something useful to the world; taking other people's money through gambling contributes nothing, and is at worst dishonest and at best parasitic.”

So you may want to tell your kids that you disapprove of their gambling for any or all of the reasons I have raised. However you should keep in mind that gambling can be an addiction, which means that it can be hard to treat and to beat.

Let me hope (and pray) that your good advice to your kids and your wholesome upbringing of your children can help deter them from falling prey to the diversions of betting activities or the ills of addictions to gambling.

Tzvee Zahavy earned his PhD from Brown University and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author many books, including these Kindle Edition books available at Amazon.com:  “The  Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Dear Rabbi” – which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.

The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard or emailDearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com.

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