Lessons in Emunah from…Professional Wrestling

UN CondemnationsWe often get frustrated by the gross prevalence and utter, unfathomable irrationality of anti-Semitism (commonly also cloaked as anti-Zionism). The above chart says it all.

“If only we could more clearly remind the world of the good that the Jews have brought it; if only the world realized that Judaism is the source of Western moral values; if only the world would understand that Israel is fighting more humanely than any military known to man, defending itself against unprovoked attacks from its malicious neighbors who seek its annihilation…” We can’t understand why the world hates us and cannot see things with a modicum of objectivity. It can be so upsetting.

Rabbi Avi Shafran recently penned a beautiful and brilliant column, When I Drifted Off the Path, in which he described his very short-lived pre-adolescent flirtation with heresy. In order to briefly address the points about anti-Semitism raised in the above paragraphs, I would like to share and draw from one of my own juvenile, inelegant interests: professional wrestling. Tampa, Florida, where I grew up, was once the South’s capital of professional wrestling, and this entertainment sport, headquartered at Tampa’s Fort Homer Hesterly Armory, was the craze of the local “good ol’ boy” types – as well as us local Jewish day school boys in fourth and fifth grade.

After viewing a few wrestling matches, I naively asked my father why in the world the losers of the matches acted so foolishly so as to not have noticed their opponents about to pounce upon them from the third rope (the highest rope around a wrestling ring) and smash them to the ground with their heels, as well as why the referee always happened to be looking the other way every time a wrestler broke the rules (including pouncing from the third rope, as well as anesthetizing the opponent with a “secret cloth” that a wrestler stored in his briefs and placed on the opponent’s face when the latter was somehow not looking), and why the referee happened to turn back around just in time to see the illegally kicked or anesthetized opponent lying flat on the ring and hence be declared the loser.

My father explained to me that the whole “sport” was staged; it was pure theatrics, with everything planned out and executed accordingly. No need to be perplexed by the apparent cluelessness of the referee or the about-to-be-defeated wrestler when the opposing side flagrantly breaks the rules (including the frequent occurrence of the wrestling managers jumping into the ring for 15 seconds to pound the opposing wrestler or smash a chair over his head, always unnoticed by the referee). I was so relieved by my father’s words, as my sense of justice had been restored. My hunch that the constant, striking patterns of inequity in the wrestling ring just couldn’t have all been sheer coincidence was validated, and my frustration ceased. (I then immediately wondered why all of the adults in the audience always appeared to get so worked up about the “unfairness” of the wrestling matches, shouting in vain toward the ring, “Y’all look – turn around, ref – he’s takin’ a chair to his head!”, but that is another topic…)

The nimshal (case under comparison) here is clear. Chazal (the Talmudic Sages) tell us that anti-Semitism is an inherent component of the human condition; it was divinely ordained and is part of the planned existential stage that is Jewish life. We need not be mystified, dumbfounded and frustrated by the world’s irrational and negative fixation with the Jewish People, especially when our enemies and so many others are committing unspeakable atrocities that the international community conveniently fails to notice. We need not seek to change our identity or modus operandi, hoping that it will solve the problem of anti-Semitism. Yes, we must daven for the welfare of K’lal Yisroel, its Land and all else, and we must put forth serious hishtadlus (human effort), but we must also accept the fact that all that transpires is part of a larger plan that we do not always understand. Anti-Semitism is vile, it is deadly, it contravenes all reason – yet it is inescapable and is something that we have to accept. It is a Gezeiras Ha-Melech (Decree of the King), along with so many other preordained behavioral patterns and axioms that defy human logic.

Many a kiruv lesson has been built upon the uniqueness of the Jewish People. Its miraculous endurance for millenia – a nation so minuscule, exiled and persecuted – yet still here after thousands of years and forever pounding away, while those ginormous nations and mega-powers which have dominated and decimated the Jews throughout antiquity and beyond have disappeared. We are a nation so tiny and discriminated against, historically denied fair educational opportunities and excluded from so many professions, yet we boast more Nobel laureates than any other people. These phenomena are naturally inexplicable and are truly miraculous.

But let us also consider and be ironically and powerfully inspired by the glaring, too-crazy-and-irrational-to-be-coincidental manifestation of anti-Semitism and negative fixation on the State of Israel by the international community – pointing to a Higher, Divine Source for this existential decree; a decree that will endure until the Eschatological Era, when genuine and lucid justice and truth will be manifest in our midst, and God’s plan for the universe will be better understood by all.

When something seems too clearly staged to be mere coincidence, and it defies any natural explanation, it opens up a new perspective and vistas of reality, even if that something is terribly ugly and vile. This is the lesson in emunah that a certain popular Southern sport can teach us all.

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14 Responses

  1. Doron Beckerman says:

    I don’t remember who said this line: “The world stages a pageant that judges nations by their morality. Israel is consistently in 200th place. Oddly, though, it’s the only nation that ever shows up.”

  2. Bob Miller says:

    Given this situation, what should Israel, and also Jews outside Israel, be doing on the international scene beyond damage control?

  3. ben dov says:

    I am inspired to read what has been my own thought for years: anti-semitism is for me a powerful source of emuna. I do not like anti-semitism, but that does not make it any less remarkable.

  4. Dovid K. says:

    I have just two qualifications for responding to this post:

    Firstly, in my youth I too was an avid fan of “professional” wrestling. I was at Madison Square Garden in 1971 when the great “good guy” world champion, Bruno Sammartino, lost his championship belt to the very bad Russian bear, Ivan Koloff. Sitting with my father (how I convinced him to take me to this event, the only one I ever went to, I don’t know), I, along with everyone else in the Garden, was devastated. Bruno had never lost the championship before! He was everything good!

    My second qualification is that I’ve read “Why the Jews” by Prager and Telushkin, in which the authors put forth the case that it is the Jewish people’s embodiment of Torah values – that the Jews are the standard bearers of a universal standard moral law – “tzedek and mishpat” – which makes them intolerable to the nations of the world.

    This approach greatly demystifies the reason for the millennia long persistence of anti-Jewish feelings and actions.

    P.S. Even though I pretty much knew early on that professional wrestling was ‘fixed’, I must say that, over the years I couldn’t come to terms with Bruno losing the championship. It was only last year, when I decided to use that great modern-day invention – the internet search engine – that I found out the reason behind the loss. And it’s a very wholesome, “Jewish values” reason, to boot. The site I came upon related that Bruno simply wanted to spend more time with his family, and thus decided it was time to step down. (and also that Ivan Koloff became a member of the Xtian clergy). I finally had closure.

    May we all speedily have closure with a world where Jews are no longer reviled, but are embraced for the Torah values which we, and the State of Israel, embody.

  5. Michael says:

    1) only a local tampa website would say tampa was ever the capital of Southern wrestling. sure, championship wrestling from florida was a pretty hot territory at times, but memphis, the carolinas, and georgia were all hotter territories over the long haul. it’s also clear that the article from that tampa website is largely a puff promotional piece for WWE’s tampa-based developmental program. pro tip: a list of retired wrestlers who live in tampa says more about retirement trends than it does about wrestling.
    2) telling me that your “#1 territory” was headquartered at a local armory just reinforces point the first. I liked Eddie Graham and Dusty Rhodes too, but let’s be honest here.
    3) if the big heel spot in the matches that you remember was either of the things you described – a top-rope dropkick on the one hand, which was usually legal depending on era and region, or a chloroform rag on the other, which was only over as a tactic for a few years – then i submit that you are justified in terming wrestling as “juvenile and inelegant” – but only because you never paid attention to the nuances of the match, and only paid attention to the goofiness. Do you go to a movie and complain because the good guy didn’t outwit and defeat the bad guy in Act One?
    4) often today, but especially in the era this article speaks of, the matches were in fact anything but pure theatrics, and were planned out very sketchily. often the competitors would go to the ring knowing their allotted time, their ‘finish,’ and one or two key spots they were asked to work into the match. but for the most part, in the territory days, the match was “called in the ring.”
    5) if you don’t understand why the crowd was able to suspend its disbelief and participate in the illusion of legit competition, I don’t know what you were doing attending the matches at all.
    6) most important: the defeatist attitude accepting that anti-semitism is inherent to our experience is, in fact, the direct opposite of pro wrestling, and in fact, the opposite of prudence. A properly-booked pro wrestling promotion is believable, rationally-plotted, and almost always gives the good guy a chance to overcome the bad guy in the end (and not the Olam Haba end). the pessimism of assuming that our marginalization as a people is predestined, or inevitable, or unable to be fought – that is the equivalent of seeing a heel kick a babyface in the groin and have the babyface grimace, shrug, and say “oy, I guess Hashem wants it to be this way.” that babyface is giving up on himself, and the crowd would be right not to care what happens to him.
    I submit to you that this is a poor basis for wrestling, a poor basis for everyday life, and certainly a poor basis for a perspective on international religious politics.

  6. Wondering says:

    Do you have a source for…

    > “Chazal (the Talmudic Sages) tell us that anti-Semitism is an inherent component of the human condition; it was
    > divinely ordained and is part of the planned existential stage that is Jewish life”

    I don’t see how it could be
    עשו שונא ליעקב
    since that passage’s real meaning is rather obscure: saying it refers to anything more than Eisav ben Yakov is rather speculative.

  7. Raymond says:

    I have to say that the above article is absolutely brilliant. When I was a young teenager, I also was a huge fan of wrestling, and so I could not help but find the above description of it, to be so very hilarious. I laughed through the whole thing. And yet, I think a lot of that laughter, came from the joy I am feeling, at finally coming across an explanation for antisemitism that makes perfect sense. Like I said, the above is brilliant almost beyond words. It is so good, that I cannot think of anything useful to add to it. I hope to think of that example, every time there is another instance of antisemitism. As far as I can see, there is no better explanation for it.

  8. Toby Bulman Katz says:

    When all the nations of the world meet together and issue more condemnations against Israel than against all the other countries in the world combined; when all the leftist professors in Harvard and all the universities in the West speak with one voice in condemning Israel; when the NY Times and all the mainstream media print an anti-Israel article (or an anti-Orthodox) articles on the front page every single day; when the whole world is obsessed with Israel — in effect the whole world is acknowledging that Israel is the most important country in the world, and the Jews are the most important people in the world.

    So, while anti-Semitism is frightening, we should not be dismayed or disheartened. It is an incredible zechus — an incredible privilege — to be part of this tiny yet cosmically mighty nation, the most important nation in the world: Am Yisrael, the People of Israel.

  9. Aaron says:

    I agree with much of what Rabbi Gordimer has stated in this post. However one should be careful not to fall into the paranoid “every one hates us anyway” mindset.

    While it is true that media outlets such as the NY Times tend to be pro-Palestinian, others such as the Wall Street Journal and Fox News are generally pro-Israel. Even a liberal paper like the Washington Post will syndicate the very pro-Israel Charles Krauthammer and American talk radio is practically uniformly pro-Israel.

    The governments of Canada, Australia and the United States also tend to side with Israel. Many of the lopsided votes in the UN are due to the economic and numerical strengthen of the Arab and Muslim countries which obviously stand in the pro-Palestinian camp.

    The (all too often heard) mantra that “everybody hates us anyway” unfortunately absolves us from serious soul searching and “cheshnon hanefesh” whether in regard to the sometimes valid criticism of Israel or Orthodox Jewry.

  10. DF says:

    This post makes several serious errors [apart from the self-serving claim that Tampa, rather than Atlanta, was the center of southern wrestling.]

    First, the assertion that only Jews have survived while other nations have disappeared, is simply false, all the Mark Twain citations and kiruv seminars notwithstanding. It is true that some smaller nations became extinct, but many other nations of antiquity simply evolved. Traditional Jewry also believes this, which is why it is said we are still under the fourth exile of רומי today – because modern civilization is simply the evolution of Rome. Likewise, modern Egypt is simply the evolution of ancient Egypt. We Jews have also evolved, unless one believes Moses wore a shtraimel and accepts at face value that King David and Doeg debated the sugyos of shas. I know it is constantly preached, but this claim is facile at best, and completely specious at worst.

    Second, the claim that “chazal” [assuming all 2000 men and 500 years of shas can be said to share the same viewpoint] think anti-Semitism is immutable, is an error I thought everyone already knew is a mistake. I’m pretty sure I remember RYA being aware of it, somewhere on this site. At any rate, for the record, Sifri Bamidbar, # 69 states: “halacha beyadua she’esav sonei l’yakov.” This is the reading of the first Venice edition of 1545, and all the subsequent prints followed it, and so is Rashi’s reading in his commentary to Bereshis 33:3. But all other readings of the Sifri preserved in manuscript have: “v’halo beyadua…” This is also the version found in Yalkut Shimoni, Bamidbar # 722. It is virtually unanimous, by anyone who gives מאמרי חז”ל the careful attention they deserver, that the “halacha” reading is simply a misprint.

    Finally, as commenter Aaron rightly notes above, it is both false and dangerous to adopt the “everyone hates us anyway” mindset. False, because much of the world, including the US [still the only superpower, after everything] is supportive of Israel and does not discriminate. Dangerous, because these things have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. The more one speaks about something, the less outré it becomes, and the more acceptable it becomes to public discourse. In addition, if one is led to believe something exists, then it makes no difference if the facts say otherwise – it exists. There are Jewish organizations out there whose sole reason for existence is to fight anti-Semitism. For them, I understand why they are forever warning of anti-Semitism. [And I say that as a graduate of an ADL leadership program.] Likewise, for some Jews, their sole connection to Judaism is the cause of anti-Semitism, and so they have a perverse paradoxical need to inflate or manufacture it. But the writer of this post should know better, and should not mindlessly parrot the same false and dangerous claims. No, it doesn’t mean everyone loves us, but claiming everyone hates us is often just an excuse for us not to improve or engage in introspection.

  11. Yisrael Asper says:

    DF the Ancient Egyptians are no more the same ethnic group as the Modern Egyptians than are the Modern Mexicans, Aztecs. The Copts and the Assyrians and the Chaldians are small shadows of the glorious nations their ancestors represented. By contrast the Jews are as vibrant and influential as always. We wax and we wane like the moon but are eternal. Certainly to have a nation sent into exile and persecuted for thousands of years and still having this said about it is spectacular and unbelievable. As for Antisemitism it is a very serious problem and hard to explain in intensity and longlastedness. You are burying your head in the sand when the world around you is changing. America is basically wonderful for the Jews but it is a haven in a world that is looking to forget the Holocaust. Israel of all the nations is not treated like any other nation. The United Nations always has the time to condemn Israel and even the United States treats it differently.

  12. DF says:

    Yisroel – leave aside the Egyptians for a moment and look at the Greeks and the Romans. They are both speaking the same language their ancient forebears did, living in the same lands, and (the educated ones) still reading and studying the same poems and myths from thousands of years ago. [Maybe re Egypt you are right, but I don’t think so.] Our ethnicities have changed with intermarriage, conversion, and diaspora no less than theirs. Their language may have evolved, but so has Hebrew, both the language and the script. And both groups have a cultural mix of both newer and ancient customs, observed by varying degrees among the populace. My point is not to compare us to other groups, but simply to say that the claim of “only the Jews survived” is a mistake. A well-ingrained one, but a mistake nonetheless.

    As for anti-Semitism – your argument refutes yourself. If anti-Semitism is “growing”, it means that at some point recently it had been “declining”, which undercuts the claim that it is a constant, immutable part of the universe. It happens to be I do agree the United Nations is transparently anti-Semitic. Everyone knows that, and the chart at the top of this post demonstrates it perfectly. But the UN is not necessarily representative of the man on the street, and certainly not indicative of North American feelings. Most importantly, the point remains: we use it far too often as a crutch to excuse our shortcomings.

  13. Aaron says:

    The chart above is a little misleading and can not be used as a true indicator of world antisemitism. While it is true that Israel receives the most condemnations at the UN, most if not all of these are toothless bluster. Russia and Iran are the target of robust international sanctions. Cuba is under embargo from the US (even if it has been relaxed slightly). Syria has been forced to give up its chemical weapons. Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sudan have all been on the receiving end of military action or drone strikes. Nothing even remotley resembling such actions has ever been applied to Israel.

  14. Yisrael Asper says:

    Hello DF I hope you are having a good day. You wrote:”As for anti-Semitism – your argument refutes yourself. If anti-Semitism is “growing”, it means that at some point recently it had been “declining”, which undercuts the claim that it is a constant, immutable part of the universe.” On the contrary your logic refutes itself. If an upward swing in Antisemitism means it was in decline before by definition it means it was bigger in the past and a constant presence there to be made bigger or smaller but there. The result for the past is the same as the true logical syllogism 1. Growing means get bigger from a previously smaller state. 2. Antisemitism is growing. 3. Therefore it was smaller.

    As for the Romans the only ethnically Roman people were the people of Rome not the Empire or the Republic which they ruled and gave citizenship to. The statement “Only the Jews survived” is strictly inaccurate. It is made though because it overwhelmingly true. The true statement is only the Jews waxed and waned so that they have their full vigor return to them.

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