top of page
  • Ira Glick and Neil Eisenberg

Sports in Jewish Culture

 Ira Glick and Neil Eisenberg

During the last part of the fourth century B.C., the Jewish world was dramatically influenced by Hellenic customs and traditions, and one of the most problematic of those was athletics. The Greeks made athletics a compulsory branch of their curriculum, and many Jews were attracted to the Greek love of physical culture. So, the Jewish problem with athletics literally arose in the locker room.


Greek athletes embraced nudity, and nudity exposed Jews to ridicule of circumcision, which led to rather unusual disguises. Over time, the situation came to the attention of the rabbis who eventually provoked a crisis. Some Jews had built a gymnasium in Jerusalem in the heathen fashion, as in nude athletics, a practice which deeply violated the rabbis’ sense of modesty. But the Greeks introduced another concern: they treated the winners of their sporting events as godlike, which also irritated the rabbis who felt that this was akin to the worship of "false gods" From 167 to 160 B.C., the Maccabees revolted and ousted the Seleucid Greeks from the Jewish homeland, and they banned sports with a vengeance that endured for the next 1800 years. The argument was so forceful, that it survived for centuries, sadly reducing the Greek concept of a sound mind and a sound body to the Jewish view that if a Jew had a sound mind, well, then God would take care of the rest.


Jewish communities generally followed strict Rabbinic teachings with little exception or variation. During the Middle Ages the Jews were subjected to persecution in almost every country they lived in. With different degrees of success, their fortunes varied from a modicum of calm in the Ottoman Empire to outright murder and expulsion in Spain and Russia. And throughout the Middle Ages, Jews generally lived in closed communities, in isolated quarters, and eventually were confined to ghettos. Throughout this entire time, Jewish communities generally followed strict Rabbinic teachings with little exception or variation. (If, as in the case of Spinoza in the 17th century, they strayed from religious orthodoxy, they could be excommunicated, and ostracized from the community.) As part of this orthodoxy, it was clear that the Greek style of athletics was strictly prohibited. Even if they wanted to play sports, their cramped living quarters made sports virtually impossible. But there was one major exception: swimming.  


The brilliant doctor philosopher and rabbi Maimonides was born in 1135 in Spain, and his writings, which are the most authoritative commentary on Jewish law ever written, were quite explicit about the necessity of both a sound mind and a sound body. He was not just a rabbi; he was the finest doctor of the day, and actually understood the absolute necessity of physical activity as a prerequisite for good health, but he was very careful to stick to biblical text to bolster his arguments.

Maimonides focused on swimming as the ideal activity and specifically declared that swimming was required by Jewish law. In one of his writings he quoted Jewish law as follows; with regard to his son a father is obligated to "marry him off and teach him a craft. Some say he is also obligated to teach him swimming." It makes sense that Maimonides targeted one single activity that would be cost free and available to any Jewish child who lived near a river, a pond, or even a creek. It was inevitable that Jewish children would be attracted to the swimming areas they might live near. For Maimonides, it was apparent that parents needed to be able to swim to save their children if they went too far into the water and started to drown. Thus, Maimonides looked at a very practical necessity for Jewish parents, and found language in the religious literature that commanded Jews to learn how to swim and teach their children to swim.

Maimonides makes even more sense when one goes back to the Jewish prohibition against danger, which is explicitly laid out in Jewish law. The idea behind the law is that a person should be careful regarding anything that might cause damage to themselves. Therefore, it is forbidden to go to a dangerous place such as a dilapidated wall or to walk alone at night and it is forbidden to rely on miracles to endanger anyone in any such manner. With a rule like this, it is easy to understand why Jewish children for at least 1500 hundred years were severely discouraged from engaging in physical activity that could result in any injury.


Fast forward to the 20th century. Jews were coming to the United States in the millions, fleeing Hitler’s Europe. They were utterly unprepared to participate in American sports, but the American system of compulsory education changed all that in rapid order. Jewish immigrant children were required to go to public school and at school they were required to participate in physical education. In most cases sports were entirely foreign to Jewish children, but at that time, Jews had been encouraged to swim, but also to box because boxing generated prize money, and therefore it was considered an occupation.


At the turn of the century, the Jewish love of boxing manifested itself in the immigrant community by being a shining star of accomplishment rather than a violation of outdated rabbinic restrictions. Benny Leonard became the Lightweight Champion of the World from 1917 to 1925. Barney Ross held four of the eight world championships and “Slapsy Maxie” Rosenbloom and “Battling” Levinsky became boxing superstars. And while it took a long time for Jews to obtain swimming supremacy with the appearance of Mark Spitz (the first Jewish swimming Olympic champion was Albert Schwartz in 1932), by 1930, the game of basketball also became known as a Jewish sport.


When Jews did get into sports a hundred years ago, they were (surprisingly to some people) as competitive as athletes from other groups. Some were exceptional, e.g. Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg in baseball, Mark Spitz in swimming, Dolph Schayes and his son Danny in basketball, plus coaches Red Holtzman and Red Auerbach, and others too numerous to mention. They brought into American culture some of the core characteristics of the Jewish tradition: studying the game, working extra hard (enduring the antisemitism they were subjected to), careful preparation, and ability to work with others, i.e. teamwork. In short, the individual, family, and community strengths of the Jewish culture from biblical times have enriched modern, global sports.


Yet even today American Jews are still stereotyped as mentally dynamic and physically inert. One can search long and hard for examples of a Jewish football player, yet in intellectual and artistic achievements the names of Leonard Bernstein, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Yehudi Menuhin come quickly to mind. But, Jews have excelled to date in baseball, swimming, boxing and basketball, and there is absolutely no reason why outdated rules found in the 16th century book of Jewish law should prevent young people from participating in football, ice hockey or even wrestling. While these sports may be thought of as dangerous, they are nowhere as dangerous as the effects of a physically inactive life. Simply stated, a mind cannot be truly sound unless it actively functions with a sound body. 


Neil Eisenberg, JD is an attorney and has 54 years of practicing law.

Ira D. Glick, MD is an American psychiatrist known for his research into the psychopathology and treatment of schizophrenia. He is currently Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford Medical School, and Director of the Schizophrenia Research Clinic at Stanford Hospital.



Current Issue

bottom of page