(RNS) No one remembers the baseball games Sandy Koufax played.
True — he held the National League record for strikeouts.
True — he won three Cy Young awards.
But the most important game of Koufax’s career was the game he didn’t play.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of that game.
It was Oct. 6, 1965, and it was the first game of the World Series, and the Los Angeles Dodgers were playing the Minneapolis Twins.
It was Yom Kippur, and Koufax refused to pitch.
As John Goodman put it in “The Big Lebowski”: “Three thousand years of beautiful tradition — from Moses to Sandy Koufax.”
(Koufax was not the first Jewish baseball player to sit out the Days of Awe. In 1934, Hank Greenberg was playing first base for the Detroit Tigers. Even though Greenberg played on Rosh Hashanah, he refused to play on Yom Kippur.)
Koufax inspired a generation of Jews. If he could stay away from the stadium on Yom Kippur, then — we said to ourselves — we can assert our Jewish particularity as well.
Do we still have it in us?
What would compel a modern-day Sandy Koufax — not a professional baseball player, but a simple, ordinary Jew — to make Judaism his or her default identity?
Does Judaism still have something to say to the world — a message that is different, compelling and powerful?
1. Community, not individualism
In a time when people champion their individualism, Jews talk about the power of community.
A wealthy American visits the Vatican and gets a guided tour of the Sistine Chapel.
At the end of the tour, he turns to his tour guide and says: “This place is great. How much would it cost to rent it?”
But here is the problem. American synagogues are failing precisely because Jews have come to believe that holiness is something you rent, or buy, or even bypass.
The synagogue actually has a message that invites us to reject the pervasive consumer mentality that has occupied suburban middle-class life — the idea that I can have what I want, whenever I want it. Judaism says:
- Your life has ultimate, transcendent meaning.
- You are part of a larger story that is much bigger than you.
- That story will survive you.
In the Jewish world today, only synagogues will sustain that message.
2. A revolt against anti-intellectualism
If the current political scene has anything to teach us, it is that many Americans have simply given up on thinking.
Judaism celebrates the power of ideas. Judaism says: “You can be part of the greatest wisdom tradition that the world has ever known.”
Our young people need access to that wisdom tradition — and not just bar and bat mitzvah. It is about learning how to live a life that matters.
I worry about young Jews, who will go to college, and someone (it could well be a tenured professor) will say to them: “Israel is an apartheid state that practices genocide against the Palestinians, and has no legitimate reason to exist.”
Or: “What does Judaism say about God? What does Judaism say about abortion? What does Judaism say about tattoos?”
Or: “Why are you Jewish?”
I worry that they will not be able to answer.
The synagogue provides those answers.
3. A search for social justice
An ancient sage, Joshua ben Levi, visited Rome in winter. He noticed beautiful statues of Roman gods, dressed in garments of fine linens so that they would not crack from the cold.
And then he saw a child, naked, rummaging through a garbage can, looking for food.
Joshua ben Levi said to himself: A society that cares more about statues than about people cannot survive.
He was right.
Judaism exists to challenge the mores of a world where people care more about statues than people.
It asks us to engage ourselves in the world, to heal and repair the broken nature of existence, to speak in Jewish tones to those who are forced by luck and circumstance to the side of society’s road.
Judaism exists to crash through the gated communities of the soul.
Will American Judaism survive? Will the American synagogue survive?
Yes — if our institutions can persuade Jews to:
- stand up for their own Jewish identity.
- stand out as Jews, and declare that being Jewish means being different, with practices that set us apart from others, and a different moral language.
- stand for Jewish values, such as justice and engagement with the wider world.
Fifty years ago, Sandy Koufax sat out a game because he was Jewish.
But there is a larger game that we cannot sit out.
It is called the world.
Let’s step up to that eternal pitchers’ mound, which is Mount Sinai.
Let’s do it for Sandy.
(Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.)
YS/MG END SALKIN