Monday, June 25, 2012

The Mitzvah of Cheering the Underdog

I'M NOT MUCH OF A basketball fan, yet I wanted the Oklahoma City Thunder to win. Like most people (67% of Americans to be exact ) I was rooting for the underdog.

Rooting for the underdog is part of my sports heritage; growing up, I was a Mets fan during the awful years of the late 70’s and early 80’s, when the Mets were simply a punching bag for other teams and a punchline for comedians (more or less where they are right now, once again). And I’m a fanatical Jets fan, which is its own category of misery; most fans can easily recite a laundry list of laments and disappointments such as Coslet, Kotite, Lam Jones, Blair Thomas, Vernon Gholston, not drafting Marino, the Mud Bowl, the Fake Spike, the 10-0 halftime lead in Denver etc. Being a Jets fan is truly the triumph of hope over experience.

Like other Jewish Jets fans, I’ve grown to see rooting for a perennial underdog as something culturally Jewish. As one Jets fan put it:

Indeed, I’ve come to see the Jewish psyche as a perfect fit for the Jets….. Like the Jews, the Jets have been through exile and endured life as second-class citizens…..And though in my life, they’ve been one game shy of returning to the Promised Land four different times, the Jets have—just like Moses—never managed to cross the frontier into the Promised Land.

No offense to all of the Giants fans out there (especially my son Akiva), but being a Jets fan seems to be a better match for the Jewish psyche. Rooting for underdogs like the Mets, Jets and Thunder is as Jewish as gefilte fish. It’s something one would imagine Jews would do automatically (after all, we’re the ones who rooted for the original David to beat Goliath!). But as a rabbi I have to wonder if there’s something more than a cultural flavor to this entire discussion. So the question is: is it a mitzvah to root for the underdog? Is rooting for the underdog part of my religious heritage as well?

In a fascinating article published in Modern Judaism (February 1992), Professor Jose Faur argues that Judaism sees history from a very different perspective than the Western tradition. Faur argues that Greek histories ignore the victim, while Judaism writes history from the perspective of the victim. Sympathy for the victim is found in multiple aggadic texts. One powerful example is found in the Midrash Rabbah Vayikra 27:

האלהים יבקש את נרדף (קהלת ג) ר' הונא בשם רב יוסף אמר לעולם והאלהים יבקש את נרדף אתה מוצא צדיק רודף צדיק והאלהים יבקש את נרדף רשע רודף צדיק והאלהים יבקש את נרדף רשע רודף רשע והאלהים יבקש את נרדף אפי' צדיק רודף רשע והאלהים יבקש את נרדף מכל מקום והאלהים יבקש את נרדף

“The Lord seeks the welfare of the persecuted” (Ecc 3:15). Rav Huna said in the name of Rav Yoseph: God always seeks the welfare of the persecuted. If a righteous man is persecuting a righteous man…a wicked man is persecuting a wicked man…. A wicked man is persecuting a righteous man…even if a righteous man is persecuting a wicked man, in every case, “The Lord seeks the welfare of the persecuted”.

Another text Faur cites is from Maimonides, who discusses the proper attributes of Torah scholar (Deot 5:13):

כְּלָלוֹ שֶׁלַּדָּבָר--יִהְיֶה מִן הַנִּרְדָּפִין, וְלֹא מִן הָרוֹדְפִין; מִן הַנֶּעְלָבִין, וְלֹא מִן הָעוֹלְבִין

“The rule is that he should be among the pursued and not the pursuers, among those who accept humiliation but not among those who humiliate [others].”

Faur argues these texts represent a uniquely Jewish vision of history, one that adopts the viewpoint of the victim.

Well, what does this mean for the fans of all underdogs? Well, sports underdogs aren’t exactly victims, but on a metaphorical level, they are certainly weak and humiliated. Perhaps rooting the underdog is not just the sad fate of Jets fans, but a Jewish value as well.

It would be great to end this post with a tongue in cheek comment about how un-Jewish it is to be a Yankee or Giants fans, except that there’s one major flaw in my thesis: as a nationality, Israelis are the least likely to root for the underdog! (only 52% do so). Of all the people in the world, residents of the Jewish state are the least likely to root for underdogs!

So who knows. One theory is that Israelis see less of a difference between favorites and underdogs (as evidenced in a sociological measure called “power distance” ). Another possibility is that Israelis know that sometimes underdogs can be unjust aggressors too. Or maybe Israelis understand that sports is just sports, and a group of powerful overpaid athletes can never be considered underdogs.

Or maybe Israelis have just never been fans of the New York Jets.