The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the website, The Jewish Thinker, on 22 July, 2012, and in the Australian Jewish News on 27 July, 2012.
The Olympic torch is part of the panoply. On one level there is a great deal to be said against the concept of the torch. It originated under pagan auspices, and its revival in Germany was motivated by paganism of a different and worse kind. But carrying the torch through so much territory and involving so many people creates a sense of excitement and it may be unfair to judge it too harshly.
The real problem is with the Olympics themselves.
Not with sport. Sport in itself is a wonderful invention. The ancient Israelites were a hardy, energetic people, active in running, archery, ball-playing, dancing, swimming, weight-lifting and sling-shooting. After the Biblical period other sports became popular, ranging from gladiatorial contests to juggling. The Talmud advises fathers to teach their children to swim. Tacitus, no admirer of Jews, observed that “the bodies of the Jews are sound and healthy, and hardy to bear burdens”.
Yet the official Jewish attitude to sport was reserved, to say the least. The rabbis objected to what went with Greek and Roman athletics – immodesty (sportsmen played naked, and some tried to obliterate their circumcision), idolatry, frivolity and cruelty, including throwing people to the lions. The First Book of Maccabees gives ample evidence that the games could not be reconciled with Jewish standards of decency and morality. Josephus records that Jewish antagonism towards Herod intensified when the king established his own five-yearly games and called one of his daughters Olympia.
Today a new distinction has to be made – between sport itself, with its rhythm, gracefulness, bodily co-ordination and sheer zest, and the sporting industry, which turns sport into a commodity to be commercialised and exploited.
Robert Boyle writes in his Sport – Mirror of of American Life (1963, pages 3-4), “Sport permeates any number of levels of contemporary society, and it touches upon and deeply influences such disparate elements as status, race relations, business life, automotive design, clothing styles, the concept of the hero, language, and ethical values”.
Gone is the sheer enjoyment and exhilaration of stretching one’s limbs, developing bodily prowess and cultivating sportsmanship. Sport is now something to be exploited and used for ulterior motives. How can it be right for sportspeople to sell their talents to the highest bidder, or for sport to become a pawn in politics and racial tensions?
The modern version of the Olympics was inaugurated by Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1896. He believed the games would foster international brotherhood and harmony. Germany was the scene of the two worst episodes – Berlin in 1936 and Munich in 1972, which brought international terrorism into the sports arena.
Thereafter there has been a whole series of Olympic scandals.
Rav Kook, the great idealist, thought that sport would turn the youth of Eretz Yisra’el into “courageous sons of their nation” and “the air of the world will become holy and pure”. He would not have approved of the grubby commercialism of modern sport, with corruption, cut-throat rivalry, and spectatorism that does nothing for the personal fitness of the barrackers.
Perhaps carrying the Olympic torch is more wholesome than the Olympics themselves.