In the last few months, I’ve been spending a lot of time learning about other religions and studying different cultures in my spare time. I’ve read things, listened to things, and watched things. Close friends and family will know that this sort of came to a head with my discovery of the Maccabeats, a Jewish male a cappella group, whose catchy songs have invaded my ear, my brain, and with them, my faith. I will go into my own curiosity about Judaism itself more in the future, but right now that isn’t what I want to talk about today. Today I want to talk about basketball.
Yes, there is a reason why a sport I can’t even do with a kiddie hoop and a rubber playground ball is inspiring me right now.
This news story did come to me through the Maccabeats’ twitter feed, but it isn’t about them. One of their members attended a high school in Houston, Texas; that school is what this is about. The school in question, Robert M. Beren Academy, is a Jewish day school; I don’t know anything else about it other than the fact that its boys’ basketball team has had one of its most successful years ever, leading them to get a place in the state’s semifinal tournament…but they’re not going.
Why? Because their game was scheduled for 9 pm on a Friday, and they can’t observe the sabbath if they’re traveling to and from, and participating in, a basketball tournament. It’s that simple. They requested that the tournament organizers, the Texas Association of Private and Parochial schools, change their game to an earlier time Friday-allowing them to compete and still observe the sabbath- and they were denied. And for them, for this school, that was enough. As the head of the school said, “The sacred mission will trump excellence in the secular world” (see the full article here).
Excuse me, I need a moment. Or ten.
Growing up in a small Ohio town, I can’t even begin to imagine a sports team or other group showing this sort of commitment to their beliefs. “Football drives the bus,” as my school’s head tennis coach once told my dad. And while he was talking about the importance of one sport over another, the sentiment is the same. In American schools today, competition, particularly in sports, drives the bus. Academics don’t drive the bus…faith certainly doesn’t drive the bus (or not drive it in this case), even in some religious schools or, apparently, a partnership of several private/religious schools.
At my public high school, of course, I remember going to tennis matches and track meets on Fridays and Saturdays; to obligatory choir performances whenever they happened to be, sometimes also Sundays; and to drama club performances with call times in the middle of Sunday morning. Friends of mine went to speech tournaments at dawn on Saturday, and longer tournaments meant they traveled Friday afternoon and got back Sunday evening; the same went for big sports competitions. It was, after all, a public school. If your religious beliefs meant you couldn’t do these things, you didn’t join the clubs.
However, this didn’t change much when I went to a Christian college: professors wanting to meet during chapel time; occasional theatre rehearsals during church time on Sundays; and increasing numbers of people whose apparent biggest concern in life was getting the library to open as early on Sundays as it did the other 6 days of the week, claiming that “not everyone on this campus goes to church, you know”. While that last sentiment is true, the attitude I got from it was a bit different- the idea that there was no need for a pause in the week. On the contrary, pauses suggest old-fashioned ideas and a lack of progress, and progress is the most important thing. Excellence in the secular world, indeed.
And while those are personal decisions made by secular people, never in my life have I personally seen a religious person opt out of something really big because of a holiday or other observance. On the contrary, even some of the most observant Christians I know have skipped church to go on vacation, or go to a social event or a concert, or even just sleep in. This is, of course, in addition to the fact that many Christians do not see Sunday as a day of rest at all, so much as church day/the end of the weekend…and I’ll admit I’ve been right there with them. I grocery shop on the sabbath, I work, I do whatever I feel like doing, just like everyone else. There’s no time to pause, are you kidding? That’s not practical. I have things to do, and now’s the time. Now, now, now. Secular accomplishments abound.
But here we have a group of young men, young athletes, opting out of a huge opportunity for…sabbath. What, for them, is an ordinary weekly ritual. I’m going to hearken back to high school again and say that if they are anything like my own, or the top Cleveland- and Akron-area schools we played against most of the years I attended (before a controversial switch to an easier conference, not like that was the reason, ahem), many of these boys are talented, but they’re not future professional athletes. They might play in college or university, and then they’ll be done. This decision not to play in a semifinal? That might have been the biggest athletic moment of their lives. For some of them, it might be the only thing they do in high school that is really a visible achievement to the outside world, and yet that’s what I think is so great- this acknowledgement that visible achievement is not necessarily as important, or as lasting, as continued observance and faith, and of the importance of rest and thought. Because seriously guys, it’s not.
I’ll be honest and say that I did not exactly make waves at my high school. A kid who struggled with weight and confidence, rarely fought for attention in choir or drama club and thus rarely got a solo or speaking role, and got what I think of as “lazy” good grades(A 3.49 without studying, not enough to get into Honor Society with the ‘smart’ people), I often feel that I have found my niche more in spite of high school than because of it, and I know that I am not alone. I just wish someone, other than my parents (because I always thought parents just said these things), had been more up front with me as a teenager, and had been there to tell me just how much my high school setbacks would not, and should not, hold me back in life. While I don’t know if the members of that basketball team will all agree with the decision not to participate, hopefully this experience will teach them that very lesson.
For those still in school, I think it’s important to take note; high school will not be emblazoned on your chest, whatever your role in it was. And for all of us, this has an even deeper lesson: we all need to take time to pause, religious reasons or otherwise. If you never take a break, a day of rest, what are you working towards? If you never consider something higher than yourself, what are you considering? I’m asking myself these questions as much as I’m asking you, because I don’t know the answers either.
But maybe, if I had a real day of rest, I would.