Q. Many popular sports are quite violent and aggressive. What does Judaism say about this?
A. While traditional Jewish sources have certain reservations regarding public sporting events, fundamentally we view healthy bodily activity and friendly competition as constructive. Many noted religious figures are and have been gifted athletes or avid sports fans.
At the same time, Jewish tradition has the utmost disdain for violence and the violent urges. This is in contrast to the attitudes towards other basic urges. Human beings have a natural urge for material comforts, for physical intimacy, for status and honor and so on. In all these cases the attitude of Judaism is not to deny but rather to sanctify. The commandments applying to food, such as the kosher laws and the requirement for saying blessings, enables to channel our appetites to the service of holiness; the marital laws do the same for our sexual urges, and so on. As we have written, even anger can in a circumscribed way be used in the service of holiness.
We do not find any similar channeling mechanism regarding violence. While the Jews who left Egypt were commanded to conquer the land of Israel, there is no ideal of ongoing conflict so that we can exercise and channel our violent urges; on the contrary, the Jewish prophets constantly remind us that the natural and desirable state of the world is one of universal peace, where (Isaiah 2:4, New International Version) "They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore."
Indeed, in Jewish tradition this is the main thing that separates our current historical period from the ideal reality that will characterize mankind in messianic times. Maimonides writes that "the time of the Messiah will be in this world, and the world will continue according to its routine". (1) In the ideal human existence we will continue to work and eat, marry and have children and so on. The main thing we will not have is aggression: war and conflict.
This opposition to aggression is deeply embedded in Jewish culture, including in some subtle ways. Many people may not have noticed that men's clothes typically close left over right. This served to ease access to a concealed weapon with the right hand. Clothing made especially for religious Jewish men buttons right over left, perhaps to emphasize that the Jew is not interested in drawing a weapon and certainly not in advertising the fact.
In the same vein, in many places and ages a symbol of being a free man was carrying a side arm at all times. The mishna states that for a Jewish man a side arm cannot be considered a kind of garment or decoration; on the contrary, it is a kind of embarrassment. (2) Judaism is not a pacifist religion and Jews are permitted to carry arms for self defense as needed, but it is not considered a symbol but merely a utensil.
Violent sports would certainly include any sports where the object is to cause harm to the opponent; bullfighting would be an extreme example and one which is certainly forbidden in Jewish law. But there are sports which are not inherently very violent which have come to be surrounded by an aggressive and violent atmosphere. For example, ice hockey is not a particularly violent sport but in some places brawls on the ice have become a draw rather than a distraction – a clear sign that things have gone too far. Fencing by contrast is a "martial art" but the atmosphere surrounding competitions is hardly bloodthirsty.
Aggression is one of the few tendencies that Judaism does not strive to legitimize and elevate on an ongoing basis. It may be an occasionally unfortunate necessity for individual or national defense, but not a personal or national quality to cultivate or take pride in. Sporting events that emphasize or cultivate aggression are not the right choice for someone motivated by Jewish ethics.
SOURCES: (1) Maimonides' Code, laws of repentance 9:2 (2) Mishna Shabbat 6:4.