Tiger and Us

The Tiger Woods saga hardly rises to the level of Greek tragedy. A taste for cheap women is not exactly the type of tragic flaw to warrant the attention of the great tragedians. It is too ubiquitous.

In Greek tragedy the hero’s tragic flaw is always intertwined with his greatness. An outsized sexual appetite is not self-evidently related to the quality that – even more than his physical prowess – made Tiger Woods arguably the greatest golfer ever: his phenomenal cool under pressure.

Yet watching the wreck of Woods’ career, one experiences something of the horror that Athenian audiences felt. His descent was every bit as precipitous and sudden as that of Oedipus upon learning that Jocasta was his mother. A month ago, he was the most admired man in the world. One could not walk around the corner in any major metropolitan airport in the world without confronting Tiger’s smiling visage or his hand raised in triumph on some 18th green.

Today, he is the non-stop butt of every comedian on the planet, and could not show his face in public without the sure knowledge that everyone is pointing at him and sniggering. The advertisers who made him the first sports figure to garner a billion dollars in endorsements are dropping him right and left. It is not even clear that he can regain his status as the world’s best golfer. Last year, after reconstructive knee surgery and missing the opening months of the golf tour, he still won six tournaments, far more than anyone else. But as one competitor put it, “He could still be the greatest golfer in the world with a broken leg; it is less clear what impact a broken psyche will have.”

In Greek tragedy, terrible things do not just happen to the hero; he brings them upon himself. Those things that we term tragic today – disease, natural disaster – events where any explanatory connection to the victim is totally obscure, were not tragic for the Greeks. What aroused their cathartic horror was watching the unfolding drama, in which a person blessed with both good fortune and many gifts self-destructs.

Winessing such self-destruction still horrifies today. For all the efforts to reduce the Woods saga to the stuff of jokes, I suspect that there are many who have experienced the chilling thought: If even Tiger Woods, sitting on the top of the world, could cause his secure life to dissolve overnight, how can I be sure that I will not do so as well? Surely, there has been more than one person on the planet tempted by the frisson of sexual adventure who has reconsidered, in light of Woods’ fate, whether the momentary thrill could possibly be worth the potential for harm. “Calculate the enjoyment of the sin against its cost,” our Sages advise us.

Most of us try to cultivate a certain image that we present to the world. And accordingly, we are vulnerable to becoming laughing-stocks in the eyes of our “world,” however large or small, if our private behavior deviates far from the image we wish to present. The fear of becoming such a laughing-stock may be Tiger’s greatest gift to mankind.

Some may assume that all Tiger Woods’ many words about how his family is the most precious thing in the world were the products of a slick press agent, lacking even the barest modicum of sincerity. I’m not one of them. I suspect the love and admiration he has expressed on so many occasions for his father Earl, a Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army, and his mother is deeply felt. And if so, how devastating it must be for him to realize that his own children will never grow up to speak of him as a role model for them in the same way.

In all likelihood, Woods loves his children, perhaps even his wife. The trysts were not something he engaged in because he did not care about his children, but, as Bill Clinton once explained, “because he could,” or at least thought he could, without consequences. His unmasking will make it a little harder for the next pleasure seeker to push all thought of consequences out of mind.

WHAT HAPPENED TO TIGER WOODS is notable only because of the magnitude of the crash and the fact that it is taking place in full public view. But sexual adventurism is only one of many ways to risk one’s happiness, and Woods is far from alone in having destroyed his life. If we look about us, we would note that the number of those whose lives are destroyed by their own behavior and the bad choices is far larger than those struck with cancer or other tragedies beyond their control.

Rabbi Berel Wein records in Vintage Wein the story of vastly rich family that fell into endless litigation over the will of the source of the family fortune. At the time of the latter’s death, the value of his estate was sufficient to guarantee each of his heirs and their children a life of financial security. But because the estate was tied up in litigation, the heirs were unable to sell off real estate holdings before the bubble burst. After years of protracted litigation, they were left with an estate worth almost nothing, and hundreds of millions of dollars in legal bills and back taxes owed. Each of us could multiply such tales endlessly.

There is a crucial difference between those who squander their own happiness recklessly and those who are visited with the trials of Job. In the latter category – those who lost their loved ones in the Holocaust, parents of numerous children with severe disabilities, sufferers from life-threatening disease – one still finds many who present a smiling countenance to everyone they meet and continue to approach life in a positive, upbeat mode. They can still rejoice in God’s blessings, and find satisfaction in dealing with adversity. Among those who have made a mess of their own lives out of an inability to control their desires or temper or by virtue of self-destructive decisions one never encounters a happy person.

I wish I could say that self-destructive behavior, like that of Tiger Woods, is unknown among Orthodox Jews, or at least among Orthodox rabbis. But I have no particular desire to make a fool of myself.

I am not aware, however, of any figure revered by a large cross-section of Torah Jewry whose private behavior ever stood revealed to be wildly dissonant from his public image. Vast Torah knowledge is usually one aspect of that reverence, but only when it is accompanied by a lifetime of work on self-mastery of one’s drives and desires, the subtle as well as the commonplace.

Constant, intense efforts at character development, including knowledge of one’s weaknesses and the ability to anticipate the consequences of one’s actions, is, at the end of the day, the only protection of against making a terrible botch of our lives.

Cliff Notes for Readers:

1) I do not generally think it necessary to supply reading notes to pieces I have written. But since this piece was published in last Friday’s Jerusalem Post, it has attracted a sufficiently large number of inane comments on the blogosphere and to me directly that I feel compelled to do so.

2) At the outset, I should say that this piece was written for a general audience, both secular and religious, in the Jerusalem Post, and should be judged as such. I was neither playing insider baseball for the chareidi world — despite one oblique reference to a scandal currently roiling that world — nor evading it. I just happened to have had another subject. To judge from the enthusiastic response of the Post’s secular op-ed editor and other readers who chose to read the column as a I wrote it — i.e., straightforward use of Tiger Woods’ fate as a moshol for lessons applicable to all of us — I largely succeeded.

3) What was I trying to say?: a)People — religious and non-religious alike — can destroy their lives through any number of character flaws, and sometimes just one mistake or one flaw is more than enough; b) contemplating the examples of those who have done so — the more dramatically the better — can serve as a protection against doing so oneself; c) thinking about the prospect of making a laughing stock of oneself or sacrificing forever the respect of those whose good opinion one values by acting in direct controvention of one’s professed values is another way to spare oneself the experience; d) ultimately the only protection from such self-destruction is constant work on one’s character and a belief in Chazal’s warnings about the temptations to which we are all subject.

4) Frankly, I’m astounded by those who chose to read this column in light of the aforementioned scandal, and even more so those who chose to read it as a paean to frum virtue. None of the above points were intended to celebrate the superiority of religious over non-religious people or to suggest that its message only applied to the latter. Indeed I wrote with more of the former in mind since the potential for radical disssonance between professed values and behavior is greater for them. Not by accident did I write that self-destruction is not unknown in the religious world, or even among rabbis.

5) I would still stick by my point that figures revered by a vast cross-section of Klal Yisrael will not stand revealed as having feet of clay. Having one’s picture in the Israeli Yated Ne’eman, even being called harav hagaon by that publication, is not exactly the same as being revered, or proof that one has spent a lifetime working on character development. There are many communal askonim whose middos are of the highest level, but that quality is not known to characterize all askanim, not even all those who serve great Torah figures and upon whom the latter rely.

6) To say that revered figures are never revealed to be something quite different than the public thought is not to say that they never make mistakes or that they are incapable of being misled. Such a claim flies in the face of the history of many machlokesen over the centuries involving figures of towering stature. Much of the current disappointment is a reflection of the mistaken confusion of da’as Torah with something akin to nevuah or infallibility. Until we overcome that illusion we are doomed to many disappointments.

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11 Responses

  1. ask says:

    What about Reuvein? King David? (according to some opinions in the gemara, the pesukim are literal.) There are also stories about some amoraim sinning. Great people can also sin big.

  2. Nathan says:

    Maybe we Jews should thank G_d for the Tiger Woods incidents. If not for that incident and others like it, the attention of the media would be on us Jews all the time, and that is never to our benefit.

  3. Ori says:

    Ask, Reuven and King David both became famous from a young age. The current system, if I understand it correctly, is to revere old Torah sages. Old people tend to be more stable, and therefore old virtuous people are likely to be really virtuous.

  4. Dov2 says:

    In a nutshell: King David did nothing wrong as Uriah was a rebel against David (hinted to by the fact that he addressed the rebellious Yoav as ‘My master’) and each soldier gave his wife a ‘get’ before going to battle. David had pity on him and arranged an honorable death on the battlefield rather than execution. It seems that David’s sin was that he had personal benefit (by taking Bathsheba before the proper time) and how it appeared to the masses of Israel. If otherwise, he could never be forgiven of his sin as only the wronged husband can do so and not even G-d (in this world).

    Also, as many have pointed out on numerous sites, there’s a world of a difference between an individual sinning and someone in the public eye taking advantage of those who seek the Shechina’s refuge and have left a long trail of destruction spaning continents and decades.

  5. David Morris says:

    JR’s points six: “Much of the current disappointment is a reflection of the mistaken confusion of da’as Torah with something akin to nevuah or infallibility.”

    Jonathan – This is very well expressed.

    This problem however is not due to the masses being confused, misunderstanding the nature of our gedolim. It is due to a deliberate policy by the religious authorities (such as Agudah) to white-wash the lives of gedolim, portraying them in Artscroll and similar publications as those bestowed with “something akin to nevuah or infallibility”.
    They all knew shas by the age of seven, and were poskening complicated shailos by the age of eleven. They have ruach hakodesh, and healing powers. They are NEVER acknowledged as having made a human error, or of given in to their yetzer hora.

    The problem you eloquently highlight is not of the masses, but of their leaders.

    And yes, by setting impossibly high standards (“nevua and infallibility”) when they (inevitably) fall beneath that standard and (occasionally) get exposed – the disappointment of the masses even becomes a question of faith itself.

  6. yossie abramson says:

    So Tiger’s career is over, yet Tropper is still doing his Horizon’s weekends. What does that say about priorities and principles?

  7. Yossi Ginzberg says:

    So let me see if I get this correctly: The standards by which we should judge our Torah leaders and rabbis is that of American athletics?

    If that’s the case, let’s not dwell on Tiger- We haven’t had any rabbi’s do an OJ, either. Ain’t we great?

  8. SE says:

    I have heard that interpretation of Dovid’s actions before, yet I have always wondered how, given this explanation, Dovid could have sent Batsheva back home, and instructed Uriah to go home to his wife, after the incident. Wouldn’t that be sinful regardless? Perhaps you could clarify this. Thanks.

  9. Charlie Hall says:

    Unfortunately, we did this past year have a revered rabbi who was the leader of an important Jewish community arrested on financial charges that if true also constitue serious halachic violations well beyond dina malchutcha dina.

    The problem with the most recent embarassment is not that the revered rabbis aren’t worthy of reverence for their personal life, it is that they let themselves be snookered by someone who was less than worthy and essentially tried to put him in charge of conversions for all of klal yisrael! Baruch HaShem the Rabbinical Council of America and Chief Rabbi Amar set up an independent framework that is not tainted. The revered rabbis may continue to be revered for their personal characteristics and for their Torah learning, but how can we trust them on policy matters after this, especially when there is nothing to indicate that any changes are being made to prevent a repeat?

  10. Ori says:

    Charlie Hall, I think that Rabbis are trained to look for the best in people and give people the benefit of the doubt. That is good in a community Rabbi. It is good in a teacher, for example in Yeshiva. But it might not be so good in a leader.

    How do we train Rabbis to be more suspicious?

  11. Rick Stein says:

    FYI: Typo in 6th paragraph ‘Winessing’

    Just goes to show he’s not as perfect as he makes himself out to be. Surprising that someone like him that is so controlling of his professional life (brand, oncourse emotions, golf swing) would then be so out of control in his private life.

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