Times: The Jeremy Lin Problem and Rav Soloveitchik

Is Jeremy Lin Jewish? No, he is not a Jew.

David Brooks quotes our teacher Rav Soloveitchik to explain the "problem" facing Knick basketball player and religious person Jeremy Lin.

This matter merits some Talmudic analysis. First, we don't have a clue what Brooks means in the essay. It has something to do with being religious and being a sports star. Somehow there is or ought to be a "problem" being both. Huh? Why?

Anyhow, Brooks cites our teacher to support his "ideas". It is the first time I have seen our rav cited in the Times. Certainly it is the first time he is cited to explain the "quandary" facing a religious professional basketball player. Here is Brooks:
Lin says in that interview that he has learned not to obsess about stats and championships. He continues, “I’m not working hard and practicing day in and day out so that I can please other people. My audience is God. ... The right way to play is not for others and not for myself, but for God. I still don’t fully understand what that means; I struggle with these things every game, every day. I’m still learning to be selfless and submit myself to God and give up my game to Him.”

The odds are that Lin will never figure it out because the two moral universes are not reconcilable. Our best teacher on these matters is Joseph Soloveitchik, the great Jewish theologian. In his essays “The Lonely Man of Faith” and “Majesty and Humility” he argues that people have two natures. First, there is “Adam the First,” the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. Then, there is “Adam the Second,” the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.

Soloveitchik plays off the text that humans are products of God’s breath and the dust of the earth, and these two natures have different moral qualities, which he calls the morality of majesty and the morality of humility. They exist in creative tension with each other and the religious person shuttles between them, feeling lonely and slightly out of place in both experiences.

Jeremy Lin is now living this creative contradiction. Much of the anger that arises when religion mixes with sport or with politics comes from people who want to deny that this contradiction exists and who want to live in a world in which there is only one morality, one set of qualities and where everything is easy, untragic and clean. Life and religion are more complicated than that.
We've written about the "celebrity" archetype in religion, the type who proclaims "we're number one". Pretty darn close to a sports figure saying that. Only sports stars do not have to feign humility. Every religion has that quality of wanting to win, expressed in subtle and overt ways. Brooks thinks that religious people are humble and sports stars are not - or something like that, it is hard to tell what he thinks.

The Rav likewise makes a dichotomy that is perhaps true, perhaps artificial, but so what? And how does that typology help us understand Lin? No clue.

Brooks informs us that, "The moral universe of modern sport is oriented around victory and supremacy. The sports hero tries to perform great deeds in order to win glory and fame. It doesn’t really matter whether he has good intentions. His job is to beat his opponents and avoid the oblivion that goes with defeat." No, that is not what team sports is all about. It is about competition. Winning is not the only thing. Sportsmanship is crucial to any game. So Brooks creates a straw sportsman.

And as for religion, "But ascent in the religious universe often proceeds by a series of inversions: You have to be willing to lose yourself in order to find yourself; to gain everything you have to be willing to give up everything; the last shall be first; it’s not about you." On the surface it is not about you. But is that honest? When the preacher says he is just a hollow vessel through which the word of God passes -- is that real humility? Or is it the container with the false bottom? And underneath it is the same certainty in winning that drives competition in sports.

Brooks is right about one thing. Sports and religion are not the same thing. In sports the team members are honest. They admit they are there to win and beat the opposition.

In religion, the same certainty can prevail. Only too often the message is encoded and submerged, and not open and honest.

So in this version both seek to win, only sports teaches honesty and openness and religion teaches deceit and misdirection. An equally valid analysis, since all we have here is brute opinion.

As to the Rav's typology, we say maybe. Sometimes a person is humble, sometimes majestic, if that person is prone to mood swings and sensitive to the world. But not all persons are by nature so volatile. There are people who are always humble and there are those who are always convinced of their own grandeur. Shall we name some names? Naw, that is uncalled for.

Neither Brooks nor Soloveitchik gets it right. Majestic and humble are not religious, philosophical or psychological categories that help us know much about sports or religion. They are the simplest of moods and motivations, passing and ephemeral feelings, without much categorical value.

No comments: