Illustration: Gold medals awaiting winners on the table (Image credit: Moshe Milner/Government Press Office of Israel)
Could anything be more oxymoronic than Greek-style games for Jews held in a sports stadium in Jerusalem and named after the very warriors who fought a similar Hellenistic assimilationist trend to their very deaths? No doubt, the person who conceived the idea thought only about the physical might and strength exemplified by Judah Maccabee, the Jewish Hammer, as portrayed in the story of Hanukah. What could he have known about that ancient clash of civilizations – the Greeks vs. the Jews?
Perhaps he had never even heard how the Hellenizers, in their all-consuming desire to make the whole world Greek, forbid the observance of Jewish law in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). How Jewish attendance at and participation in the games were the clearest sign of loyalty a Jew could offer to this conquering power. How the stadium would replace the synagogue as the communal meeting place. How this assimilationist movement posed an existential threat to the unique identity of the Jewish people.
Surely, none of those things was on the mind of Yosef Yekutieli, the 15-year-old Russian-Jewish émigré to Eretz Yisrael who originated the idea of a “Jewish Olympics” called Maccabiah. After 10 years of planning, he approached the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The project eventually gained the support of the British High Commissioner of Palestine, with the caveat that the non-Jews of Mandatory Palestine be included as well. Approval received, news of the Maccabiah Games to be conducted in Eretz Yisrael was carried to the worldwide Jewish community who reportedly received it with great favor. It was spring of the year 1932 and Hitler, y”sh, was running as a candidate in Germany’s presidential election.
Sporting is viewed by many Torah observant Jews as incompatible with traditional Jewish values in part because of the spirit of pride and competition it engenders and the immodesty associated with it. However, what is perhaps more central to the problem with sport is its emphasis on physicality over spirituality, but not necessarily to the exclusion of spirituality.
In ancient cultures, such as Greece, sport was an integral part of the worship of pagan deities. While no one invokes the gods and goddesses of Olympus at the modern games, one can still hear echoes of it up to the current day. In his speech at this year’s opening ceremony, Israeli president Reuven Rivlin told the assembled crowd that the games were intended “to elevate – not just physically, but also spiritually.” They are meant to “create a new reality … [in] the same spirit from which came Zionism.” That is to say, a spirituality divorced from the source of the Jewish people’s real strength and power and only reason for being – the Torah itself.
Today, the Maccabiah Games are an established and unquestioned every-four-years fact of life in the Jewish State. But maybe it’s time to rethink them, or at the very least to rename them! Unlike the early initiators of the games, today in Eretz Yisrael Jews are better informed about their history and their heritage. How can it be that we can continue to tolerate the association of the sainted Maccabees with the very concepts that they abhorred and gave their lives to eradicate? Furthermore, can any of us claim that we are less vulnerable today to the assimilation that even ancient Greece saw as the method by which they would succeed in turning the Jewish people into good Hellenists, thereby eliminating us as a separate and distinct nation?
The Maccabiah Games by any other name would remain another point of entry for the injection of foreign culture into Eretz Yisrael, but by changing the name we would be taking a step in the right direction. Such a move would at least cause Jews to become conscious of the incompatibility between sporting events and the values and ideals that the Maccabees themselves held dearer than their own lives.