Q. In a recent column you write that the Talmud identifies ancient sporting events as "the seat of the scoffers." Is this relevant to modern-day sports as well?
A. In the previous column, we described the love/hate relationship of Judaism and participant sports: we love them in moderation to develop health and human relationships, but are wary of their potential to become an obsession or a source of division and opposition.
We could say something similar about spectator sports. As we mentioned, the Talmud identifies the Roman coliseum with the Biblical "seat of the scoffers" (Psalms 1:1). (1) This characterization is hardly surprising given the extremely cruel and violent nature of the "entertainment" found there: gladiators, bullfights, and the like. Yet we have to admit that many modern sporting events also have their share of violence, and the eminent authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein wrote that contemporary spectator sports can also be considered "the seat of the scoffers." (2) He writes that attendance at these events can cause a person to forget his religious obligations.
Is this meant to be a blanket condemnation of watching sports events?
I cannot speak for Rabbi Feinstein, but I can point out that the Tiferes Yerushalaim Yeshiva which he headed had its own sports teams and competitions, and I doubt that the stands were empty. Evidently he acknowledged that watching sports can have some value, though obviously it is not commensurable with the value of Torah study, which occupied the overwhelming majority of students' time and effort.
I think that the critical distinction here is the purpose of the activity. The main purpose of the sports teams at the yeshiva was certainly not for entertainment but rather for the students to develop their bodies and to provide an outlet for their energies. (In another responsum Rav Moshe writes that providing a swimming pool for students in the summer constitutes an act of kindness, since they need a place to cool off in the heat and sometimes this can also bring them to exert themselves more in their Torah study. (3)) Cheering on the competitors is mainly a way of encouraging them in their training and exertion, and not a diversion for the spectators.
Watching sporting events can also be of value for people who play that particular sport, since this teaches them about the game and inspires them to greater achievements.
Another possible ethical horizon in sporting activities is to draw inspiration from the example of the athletes. I have heard many sermons in which rabbis, both community rabbis and leading Torah educators, use sports as a model for rigorous devotion to self-improvement within an ethical (sportsmanlike) framework. I'm not sure that this attitude can be cultivated in every individual, but it is in the reach of some and for a young person who is already devoted to sports encouraging this aspect can be a way of harnessing his interest for a positive purpose. I recall once that Rav Aaron Lichtenstein urged us to spend more hours in the Beit Midrash (study hall) by referring to the example of legendary forward Larry Bird, "who is always the first one to arrive at practice and the last one to leave - and not because he needs it!"
Sporting events in our society have become an obsession and reach a centrality far beyond their true importance. They also are categorized by an excessive amount of violence and gratuitous rivalry. The best use of our leisure hours is for Torah study and acts of kindness. Even so, a measured interest in sporting events to appreciate and encourage the teamwork, sportsmanship, and efforts at self-improvement of the athletes can be one tool to help us inspire us to develop our own bodies and spirits.
SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 18b (2) Responsa Igrot Moshe Yoreh Deah IV:11 (3) Responsa Igrot Moshe Even Haezer IV:61.
The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.