Perhaps it is no coincidence that as the Hunger Games: Catching Fire continues to be one of the highest grossing movies of the season, the New York Times this week ran an article about the need that reality show producers feel to continue to ratchet up the stakes of their televised ‘games.’ The Times article reported that while filming a French version of the popular American show Survivor a contestant was killed. We are still a bit too civilized to show the actual death on air, but for how long? The sad truth is that the death will raise the show’s ratings, not the opposite. It seems that the gap between Suzanne Collins’ (author of the Hunger Games trilogy) fictionalized future world where the government uses televised death games to keep a restive population under control and our own present day is not that great after all. Anybody out there surprised?
And as I type this the NFL, our true modern gladiator sport, is wrapping up its regular season and preparing the country for the playoffs. In a season where the public eye has turned more and more towards the dangers of the game, how debilitating it is for so many players long term, and the immediate danger of repeat concussions, the public appetite for football has never been higher. Revenues for the league are expected to top the 25 billion dollar mark this year (yes that is with a ‘b’), and the dark secret is that as we cover our eyes to avoid watching the horrendous collisions on the field we spread our fingers so as not to miss a single big hit.
As a rabbi working in Baltimore (and a football fan in my own right) I know that the true religion in town takes place in a cathedral filled with 70,000 screaming fans dressed in purple on Sunday afternoons. But I also know that long ago Judaism eschewed the trial by fire of the arena for battles of the intellect. In many other ancient cultures the coming of age ritual was of a physical nature – the young man had to survive alone in the wilderness for a period of time, or go on his first hunt. Judaism transformed the physical trial to a ritual of the mind and spirit, studying sacred text and publicly participating in a communal service. Note there are no winners and losers – instead, success is predicated on a young person’s willingness to put in the time and effort, by doing so showing him or herself, and the community, that Judaism will be a guiding force in that young person’s life.
Without question one of the reasons the NFL has become so popular is that our children are raised on sports from a young age, many of them from the time they are 3 or 4 years old. It is no accident that as religion becomes less and less popular, sports becomes a more and more important part of family life. In conversations I have with parents wrestling with this tension I always remind them of one fundamental fact: almost without exception their children will not be playing sports in any serious way after they are 20 or so years old; but they will be Jewish for the rest of their lives.