McGwire, Sosa hit one over fence for Judaism

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Everything you need to know about Judaism you can learn from Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.


It's all there. We just have to look for it as we watch those balls fly out of the park.

Among my strongest beliefs is that Jews can, must and should learn from everything and everyone. It's particularly true of this summer's home-run derby between McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and Sosa of the Chicago Cubs — a chase which has seen both sluggers eclipse the former single-season record of 61 homers.

There is much for us to learn from this.

For starters, both baseball and Judaism have been having a rough time of it lately.

Free agency, absurd salaries and owner arrogance have turned off fans. All that came together in the players' strike and the resultant cancellation of the World Series in 1994. The result: Many fans were alienated and cut their ties to the game.

The same is true with Judaism and its organizational turf battles, lack of spiritual leadership, an obsession with fund-raising, communal rigidity and irrelevance. All that has come together in the religious pluralism battles. The result: Many Jews have become alienated and feel disenfranchised.

The leaders of baseball, in what passes for their wisdom, at first tried gimmicks to win the fans back, just as the leaders of Judaism, in what passes for their wisdom, trotted out "continuity" as the gimmick that would once again fill the shuls.

Neither worked. For gimmicks are just gimmicks. Baseball and Judaism are better than that.

As the mavens of baseball tried to figure out all kinds of ways to put the game back in the hearts of the fans, the real answer we now know would come from McGwire and Sosa.

They've reminded us why we loved about the game in the first place, showed us again the essence of the game, and given us people who inspire us to be our best and want to be part of the experience.

We've come back to baseball because McGwire and Sosa have reminded us the game isn't about labor strikes. It's about balls and strikes. It isn't about big contracts and luxury skyboxes, but about individuals striving to be their best in a sport where the team is everything.

We have much to learn from this. For like baseball, Judaism has lost its way, doesn't seem able to connect with its members, especially its younger ones. They wonder why they should care, why it should mean anything to them, why they should put their effort into becoming better Jews when they're not quite sure if there is value in being Jewish.

All of that is not the fault of Judaism, just as the alienation of fans was not the fault of baseball. Baseball remained a great game. It's just that all the junk seemed to obscure that fact.

So, too, with Judaism and our never-ending fund-raising, our inability to see the Holocaust in its proper context in Jewish history, our continual focus on crises and our failure to see that we live in a creative period of Jewish life.

For too many of us, Judaism is about writing a check and attending lectures on the latest emergency. It's about undeserved honors and big egos, instead of about Jewish learning and the holidays.

The fight over pluralism, like the baseball strike, was the last straw for many of us. It made us feel that we weren't wanted, that the leaders didn't care about us and that they were ready to destroy what we hold sacred.

And so, many of us have felt cut off from our Judaism — not because we wanted to, but because we have felt pushed away.

Judaism, thus, has to do what McGwire and Sosa have done for baseball: Remind us what is so great about Judaism.

We all must strive to become the McGwire and Sosa of Judaism, to not allow those who "lead" the religion to spoil what is so special about it.

The McGwire and Sosa phenomenon teaches us something else as well. We all need each other.

The home-run derby is a fascinating mix of tradition and modernity. It occurs in the context of our veneration of Babe Ruth, the most popular home-run hitter ever, whom we will always revere.

He is the tradition of baseball. He is to baseball what Orthodoxy is to Judaism — the keeper of the flame.

Then there is Roger Maris, the transitional figure who dared to challenge tradition, who seemed to want to rip the mantle from the great Babe.

It is no wonder that Maris did not enjoy the adulation and that most felt ambivalent about his accomplishment. He is to baseball what the Conservative movement is to Judaism. The one who is in the middle, struggling to balance an allegiance to the past while forging ahead into the future.

And now there are McGwire and Sosa, both of whom broke the record and proved that we can have it both ways and that, indeed, we must have it both ways. It is why we feel so good about them.

For though McGwire and Sosa surpass the Babe, they aren't seen as a threat to the memory or his legacy. Indeed, McGwire and Sosa are keeping the tradition alive and bringing it to life for a new generation.

McGwire and Sosa teach us that it's vital to maintain an allegiance to the Babe, but that it's important too to bring today's perspective. The two players are to baseball what the Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements are to Judaism. They want to bring the wisdom of the modern age to Judaism.

Together, Babe, Maris, McGwire and Sosa are the story of baseball. They symbolize why it so captivates us and why it's so important to us.

Together, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal Judaism are the story of Judaism. For it is only together that each can truly thrive, for each adds something absolutely essential. Each can both teach and learn from the others. Together, they can make us unbeatable.

Thanks to McGwire and Sosa baseball is back.

Thanks to McGwire and Sosa, Judaism can be, too. All we have to do is follow the bouncing home-run ball. And learn from it.