Jews & Sports: Premodern History
Throughout Jewish history until the rise of the Zionist movement, Jews have harbored negative attitudes toward sports, often with good reason.
Reprinted with the author's permission from Maccabi Canada: Fifty Years of Jewish Cultural Identity and Continuity through Sport, a paper delivered at the 3rd Maccabiah-Wingate International Congress, July 12-15 2001.
While some academics and community Jewish leaders (Levy, 1989; Levy, Rosenberg and Hyman, 1999; Morton, 1997; Segal, 1996) are beginning to recognize the important role that sports can play in promoting Jewish values and Jewish continuity, the prevailing belief in the religious Jewish community is that there exists a conflict between traditional Judaism and the world of athletics (Eisen, 1997). And the conflict becomes even more exacerbated when the pursuit of athletics is justified on the grounds of promoting a contemporary "Jewish Value System."
A very brief history of the relationship between Jews and sports is in order since many scholars disregard the genuine and authentic roots of the anti-sport philosophy amongst the Jewish people.
When the author of the first Book of Maccabees, our main source for the term Maccabi, wishes to characterize the wicked Jewish accomplices of Antiochos' Hellenization program, the first act he sees fit to describe (I:14) is how the traitors "built a gymnasium in Jerusalem in the heathen fashion, and submitted to circumcision, and disowned the holy covenant; they allied themselves with the heathen and became the slaves of wrongdoing (Flavius, 1996)."
Simply put, down through the ages, right up until Zionism redefined the role of physical activity, Jews have been extremely uncomfortable with sport and worship of the body. The fact that this episode has not been universally included in the teaching of the Hanukah story results in the historical irony that the name "Maccabee" came to be applied today to--of all things--a world wide Jewish athletic movement purporting to reclaim Jewish values through sport. After all, the enticing designation of "People of the Book" is much more palatable and prestigious than "People of Brawn."
While the Greeks attempted to proselytize the Jews through gymnasiums and body worship, the Romans added another reason why Jews have refused to accept sports. Josephus Flavius described at length the Hellenizing of King Herod (the arch-tyrant of Judea who succeeded in perpetuating his rule by currying the favour of the Roman rulers at the expense of the sensibilities of his Jewish populace).
Among other things, Josephus also reports that Herod established his own five-yearly games on an international scale in honour of Caesar, to be held in Jerusalem and elsewhere. He even named one of his daughters Olympia.