What a mixed bag these Olympics are. They're thrilling; they're spectacular; they're a lot of fun. But beneath the excitement, something about them is quietly unsettling.
The crowds have gathered, the trumpets have sounded, the flame has been lit — Olympic fever is in the air. It’s all very exciting, of course, watching the spectacular Olympic pageantry and athletic feats. Billions of us around the world can’t help but be transfixed.
Jews have long joined that worldwide throng of Olympics fans, but many of us do so with a bit of ambivalence.
Like everyone else, we Jews cheer for our favorite teams and are awe-struck at the athletes’ abilities. Who wouldn’t be?
Indeed, the Olympic Games resonate with many Jewish values. Judaism, like many religions, demands that we care for our bodies; the Olympics demonstrates fitness at its finest. Judaism has long emphasized the importance of external action over thoughts, feelings and beliefs; the Olympics is about as action packed as things get.
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From ancient times, Judaism has been a highly ritual religion, featuring brightly clad priests with precious-metal ornaments hanging over their hearts, working wonders in the light of an ever-burning flame. Just like the Olympics.
Jews take particular pride in the Olympics’ Jewish athletes — Mark Spitz, Kerri Strug, Jason Lezak and many others. Many of us also root for Israeli athletes whenever we see them compete.
And yet, the relationship between Judaism and the Olympics is a checkered one. For example, in the 2nd century BCE, the Greek-influenced Seleucids instituted Olympic Games in Jerusalem. Some Jews participated, but they did so at a price.
These were Greek games, and the participants needed to look Greek. Since Olympic athletes competed without clothing back then, would-be Jewish Olympians often had to undergo painful operations to hide their circumcisions before they could participate.
Other Jews weren’t pleased about the ancient Olympics. Many were horrified to see such a celebration of the human body on the grounds of God’s holy temple — it seemed idolatrous. The conflict over the Games was a major factor leading to the Hasmonean Revolt of the 160s BCE, which Jews recall every year when we celebrate Hanukkah.
In 1936, two American-Jewish runners — Sam Stoller and my almost-namesake Marty Glickman — were pulled from the American 4×100-meter relay team at the last minute. Many suspect that their removal was motivated by anti-Semitism.
Jesse Owens had won three gold medals by then, and the theory is that pro-Nazi leaders of the American team didn’t want to add to Hitler’s embarrassment by having Jews as well as African-Americans triumph over German athletes.
And then, of course, there were the Munich Olympics of 1972, when Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and murdered 11 Israeli athletes. The modern Olympic Games were designed to be a model of peace, a shining example of how nations can transcend the conflicts dividing them. For Jews — and indeed for decent people everywhere — the 1972 massacre made the once-brilliant light of the Olympic flame glow markedly dimmer.
What a mixed bag, these Olympics. They’re thrilling; they’re spectacular; they’re a lot of fun. But beneath the excitement, something about them is quietly unsettling. Athletes demonstrate the possibilities of human achievement, but they do so under separate national flags. Their well-chiseled bodies evoke images of Greek gods; their success depends first on their physical accomplishments, and only secondarily on moral ones.
The Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” sounds militaristic and vaguely creepy in its emphasis on perfecting the human physique. “Kinder, Gentler and More Determined” might not sound as snappy, but aren’t those values more important and more human than the others?
Given the choice between a person who can run quickest around a track and another who can best add compassion and decency to the world, I’ll choose the latter in a second — pomp and pageantry be damned.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m as just as glued to my TV set as the next guy these days. But I’m watching the Olympics in the traditional Jewish way: I’m having fun, but feeling kind of guilty about it the whole time.
Rabbi Mark S. Glickman leads Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island and Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville. Readers may
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