Sunday, August 9, 2009

Role models

Abe Golos spoke about Michael Vick at Shomray Hadath on Shabbat Nachamu. I think he planned to continue by speaking about Jewish law on the treatment of animals, but other aspects of the topic engaged the congregation, and after he opened the floor to discussion he never got to that – everyone had an opinion.

The starting point was pro football's decision to allow Vick to play again, if a team wants to sign him up. Opinions were all over the place: some felt that since Vick had served his sentence, he should be allowed to resume his career; others felt that his sentence was too light, or that an example needed to be set.

The subtext of a lot of this discussion is that our society considers professional athletes to be role models for young people. To the extent that this encourages budding athletes to set high goals and to do what is needed to achieve them, it's a good thing. The problem is that it also encourages us to excuse bad behavior because of the athlete's success on the playing field.

Thus, some who wanted to let Michael Vick play again thought that it was necessary to validate his efforts to achieve football stardom. That is, if we don't let him play, it discourages younger athletes from striving for the success he had achieved.

A variation of this argument is that Vick – or any other bad-acting player – is so important to the game that we have to let him play. To my mind, this is not only untrue on the surface, but it wildly overstates the importance of the game itself. This is not Samson vs. the Philistines.

I may have a jaundiced view of this because, when I was in high school, the district was so short of funds that it considered discontinuing team sports. (I'm sure that they would have discontinued math and English instead, if the state law had allowed it.) I remember that my father was initially shocked, and then bemused, by the strength of feeling about it, especially the argument that team sports built character. For the next seven years (until he died) he regularly clipped articles from the local newspaper about former athletes from my high school who had been convicted of felonies, and sent the articles to me when I was at college and in graduate school. My graduating class's 10th reunion ought to have been held at the state penitentiary; more people would have been able to attend.

Role models... one of the strangest things I've experienced in job interviews is the suggestion that a synagogue or temple's education director must be a role model for the students. I'm not completely sure what we're supposed to be modeling – if it's devotion to Torah study or Jewish intellectual life, or to Jewish religious life overall, there was no sign of it in the interviews.

In fact, many of the parents' worst fear is probably that their son or daughter might take the education director seriously as a role model and decide to become a Jewish educator him/herself. What contemporary parent wants a child to become a Hebrew-school principal?

By choosing to become an educator, or even a rabbi or cantor, the professional all but takes himself or herself out of consideration as a role model for Jewish living. Of course I attend Shabbat services, wear a tallit, keep kosher, study Torah, and so forth: all those things are presumed to be part of my job. In essence, they're part and parcel of an identity that most people would never adopt for themselves.

I have usually answered that I think other people in the congregation are better role models. From a congregation of which I used to be a member, I might cite the Navy commander who, although he had minimal Jewish education as a child, has become very well-educated in Judaism. Since he was at sea for about six months out of every year, this came about almost entirely through his independent study. Or I might cite his wife, a Jew by choice, who took on most of the responsibility for the Jewish education of their child.

Or, moving from education to everyday ethics, I might think of the woman in the same congregation who said casually that she avoided spending time in a certain environment because "there's too much lashon hara there."

That kind of answer doesn't play well. In fact, I've come to feel that one sign that a job might be worth having is that no one asks any questions about the educator as Jewish role model.

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