Sunday, September 28, 2014

Erev RH 5775 - Can We See God at Camden Yards?

With the Orioles on the cusp of the playoffs, for the second time in three years, Baltimore has once again become a Baseball town. True some of you are diehard fans and have stuck with them through thick and thin, but for the most part, Baltimore, over the past decade or so, moved on and became a Ravens town.
Football, by all important measures, has passed baseball in this country in popularity. And yet, Baseball is still viewed by many as “America’s sport.”  But the question is: how did baseball come to be America’s sport?  According to a history of baseball, “there are many controversies and debate that go with the origin of baseball. Cricket, Baseball, softball running games and rounders are believed to have taken shape from primitive types of community games. Even though the name has no clear relation to many games that were popularly played that somewhat resemble modern day baseball. There were different ball games that were known by amusing names like stool ball, goal ball and even poison ball.
A few historical sources point out that in the year 1700, Thomas Wilson who was considered a conformist leader in England condemned the game of baseball and a few other sports that took place every Sunday.”[1]
This means, some type of game, called ‘baseball,’ was being played over 300 years ago.  However the game that we know really and love began to develop in the 1800s.  In 1845, Alexander Cartwright published a set of rules for the Knickerbocker Club of New York.  The first professional baseball team was the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1871.  And the first National League Game ever played was in 1876. 
However, baseball really began to capture the American imagination in the 1920s during the era of Babe Ruth.  Ruth, as many of you undoubtedly know, got his start under Jack Dunn, the then owner and manager of the minor league Baltimore Orioles.  What I did not realize until I did some digging is that the Orioles, as we know them, were formally the St. Louis Browns until they relocated to Baltimore in 1953, though their first official season was 1954.  Previously the Orioles had two iterations as a minor league team, and one as a major league team from 1882 to 1903, before it moved to New York to become the New York Highlanders, which gained a new monicker to a team that shall not be named.
This of course, is well before our time.  Personally, I became a baseball fan in 1986.  That was the year my beloved Astros came within a game of going to the World Series.  I remember game 6 of the NCLS.  “In one of the most famous games in baseball history, the Mets defeated Houston at the Astrodome 7–6 in 16 innings as Jesse Orosco struck out Kevin Bass on a curveball for the final out with runners at first and second and New York advanced to its third World Series in franchise history.”[2]
Mike Scott, who was the MVP of the series, and who was unhittable, was scheduled to start game 7.  If only Kevin had hit that curveball, things could have been a whole lot different.  Of course Red Sox fans might also have felt differently about things too if they had played the Astros instead of the Mets, but why focus on past losses?
From that season on, I was hooked.  I watched the rise of the Killer B’s with Bagwell, Biggio and Berkman.  I saw my Astros finally reach the World Series in 2005.  To do it, they finally managed to defeat their arch nemesis: the Atlanta Braves.
As an aside, I listened on and off to game 4 against the Braves.  “With the Astros in the lead two games to one, the teams played an eighteen-inning marathon in Game 4, which was the longest (in both time and innings played) postseason game in history.”[3]  During that game, I covered not one, not two, but three Kever Avot services, two in Tucson and one in Nogales, Arizona along with and Kever Avot shindig that followed near Rio Rico.  It was an exciting time, to say the least.
Then my Astros fell to the White Sox in four straight, and the club really hasn’t been the same ever since.  True they joined the American League last year, and I had the chance to see them play the Orioles last year as well.  It was strange because the only name I recognized on the Astros roster had been traded to the Orioles the day before, and was now pitching against them.  Baseball certainly is a curious sport.
But like most Houston fans, my focus shifted elsewhere.  It’s not so much that we’re fair weather fans.  It’s more that we do not like to spend much time or energy on a losing team.  True to the culture I grew up with, I have become more focused on football again.  That was until the Orioles made it exciting once again. I even had the chance to see in person my first ever extra-inning game and my first ever walk-off home run at Camden Yards this past July.
All that being said, I have noticed over these past twenty-five plus years as a fan, there is something about baseball that is so fundamentally and inherently different from all of the other sports.  There has to be a reason why movies like The Natural or The Field of Dreams or even Bull Durham appeals to us on a more emotional level than movies like Rudy or Hoosiers. 
Yet I couldn’t really put a handle on it, until I saw an interview on the Colbert Report of the President of NYU: John Sexton.  Dr. Sexton was on promoting his new book: Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game.  The more I listened to the interview, the more excited I became by the possibility of reading his book.
I wondered, could Dr. Sexton offer some explanations as to why baseball feels so profoundly different from my other favorite sport football? As Dr. Sexton explained, baseball has the potential to be a truly spiritual experience. 
To start with, In his chapter Sacred Space, Sacred time, Dr. Sexton makes the argument:  “For some of us, a visit to the ballpark is a move from one state of being – the more familiar one – to another.  It is a transformation, evoking a connection to something deep and meaningful.  This is more than the simple, surface observation that a stadium can be a church and the bleachers can be its pews; the stadium acts as what Eliade would call axis mundi – a channeling of the intersection between our world and the transcendent world, a place “sacred above all” that connects the ordinary and the spiritual dimensions.  It is not that this evocative experience occurs for everyone in every ballpark every time; but it can happen to anyone, in any ballpark, anytime.  In this place, magic can happen, and the fan can be transported to a space and time beyond, to an experience we know profoundly but cannot put into words”[4]
Growing up with the Astrodome, I cannot fathom a space less conducive to encountering the Ein Sof, the unknowable experience of God.  It was spacious and cold, filled with concrete pillars and obstructed views.  But thankfully there are many ballparks that are conducive to such spiritual encounters.  Minute Maid Park certainly is one, though I would gladly get rid of Tal’s Hill in a heartbeat.  And Camden Yards also, as the forerunner to so many modern ballparks is another.
But a place is just a place unless there are experiences to be shared within its surroundings.  As much as we may enjoy watching games on the television, it is not the same as being there.  Unless you happen to be in Cienfiegos, Cuba during the Superbowl, but that is another story for another day.
“Such sacramental moments have been part of humankind’s effort to touch the deepest plane of existence.  This is the power of myth.  Today, especially in the West, that word, myth, too often is used as a synonym for falsehood.  The Greek word mythos originally meant a truth that is experienced, an awareness that lies beyond words.  As theologian Karen Armstrong wrote, “A myth was never intended as an accurate account of a historical event; it was something that had in some sense happened once but that also happens all the time.”
“Mythos takes us to sacred places and sacred times – spaces and times beyond.  To places revered for their mystical power, evoking an ineffable feeling of connection to something greater … and to sacred times like Yom Kippur … or to a ball field on Opening Day.”[5]
So already, from the sacred space of the ballpark, we are reminded the potential power of our own sacred space here at Har Sinai Congregation.  We are gathered here at a sacred time and in a sacred space.  Like a fan on opening day, all we have to do is be ready for the multitude of possibilities that may come our way.  For on opening day, everyone is in the chase for the pennant.  And on this Rosh Hashana, we will have the chance to start anew, with a clean slate, a clean record.  But it is up to us to make the most of our new ‘season.’
Then there is the spiritual challenge of being a fan. As Sexton explains, “So it is for the vast majority of believers initially.  What someone does with that gift, of course, is one of the central challenges of any life.  A religious tradition, as well as a love for a baseball team, must, as time passes, be tested and thus doubted.”  Not to mock, but this statement could not be more true for Orioles fans.  Thankfully our faith has been restored with these most recent of accomplishments. While I personally find myself wandering in the wilderness that is the rebuilding process of my beloved Astros, something for which I know you Orioles fans can very much relate to.
But allegiance to a team should not be blind.  Any more than the precepts of a religious tradition should not be openly examined, challenged, and hopefully … ultimately re-embraced.  For “Whatever its particular manifestation, faith is an affirmation of something that cannot be expressed, for it is rooted in another domain of knowledge, one that is beyond what is knowable in scientific terms.  There is much that is known today, and even more that is unknown today but will be known (perhaps even hundreds of years from now).  Faith – true faith – deals with neither the known nor the unknown but knowable.  It deals with that which is unknowable in the scientific sense but which the believer knows with all of his or her being … Therein lies the most powerful connection to baseball, its rhythms and patterns, astonishing feats and mystical charm; it is not necessary to elevate baseball to the level of ultimate concern to notice that, for the true fan, there is something a touching of the ineffable that displays the qualities of a religious experience in the profound space of faith.”[6]
But here we are going to take a break from our conversation of Baseball as a Road to God.  You out there might be saying to yourself, but rabbi, I don’t like baseball.  Or, I’m not even a fan of sports, so how can this conversation even speak to me? 
Here we are using the experience of baseball as a metaphor for a larger conversation.  To be a fan is to believe.  To be a fan is to be emotional.  To be a fan means connection to history while at the same time waking each day with a renewed sense of hope and optimism and connection to something greater.
So I would encourage you, rather than focus on the literal words of the metaphor, to take an experience in your own life and substitute it for the word: baseball.  Change it with words like: gardening or the Opera, the symphony or watching children at play, or an incredible dining experience.  All of these moments, all of these experiences can give us a glimpse of the ineffable if we choose to see them in those moments.
As our past Scholar-in-Residence Danny Matt wrote in The Essential Kabbalah, “When you eat and drink, you experience enjoyment and pleasure from the food and drink.  Arouse yourself every moment to ask in wonder, “What is this enjoyment and pleasure?  What is it that I am tasting?”
“Answer yourself, ‘This is nothing but the holy sparks from the sublime holy worlds that are within the food and drink.”[7]
Or as Professor Matt goes on to say, “When you desire to eat or drink, or to fulfill other worldly desires, and you focus your awareness on the love of God, then you elevate that physical desire to spiritual desire.  Thereby you draw out the holy spark that dwells within.  You bring forth holy sparks from the material world.  There is no path greater than this.  For wherever you go and whatever you do – even mundane activities – you serve God.”[8]
Out of the mundane also comes the rare but potential possibility for miracles as well.  Returning to baseball, Dr. Sexton continues with a conversation about miracles.  “There are, of course, the miracles described in religious legend and myth: Moses parting the Red Sea (to name one) …. And there are more personal miracles.  But in whatever context it occurs, a miracle is a moment of deep inspiration, emerging from unlikely outcomes at the most crucial times, evoking ecstasy and electricity and awe.  The Latin root miraculum means ‘object of wonder.’  A miracle is another form of hierophany, a manifestation of the divine and a revelation of a wholly different plane.
But ‘false miracles’ abound.  Sometimes what appears to be a miracle is, in truth, quite ordinary, the product of coincidence (the rain dance followed by a storm) or even probability….
Even in baseball, the seemingly ‘miraculous’ often can be explained.  But as with religious believers, baseball fans sometimes find statistical and factual explanations less inspiring than the miracle itself.”[9]
Every team has at least one of those moments.  Chris Burke hitting the game and series ending homerun in the bottom of the eighteenth inning off of Atlanta rookie Joey Devine.  As an aside, the fan who caught Chris Burke’s walk-off home run was also the same fan who caught Lance Berkman’s grand slam in the eighth inning.  Talk about being in the right place at the right time.
I’m sure you Orioles fans have those moments too.  Of course Cal’s 2,131st Consecutive Game is amazing. Perhaps it was game 5 of the World Series in 83, or even the miracle that is shaping up to be this season. 
Yes, each event can be explained, but it feels like there was more going on than just the statistics at work.
More than the potential for miracles, baseball is also a communal sport.  It is something we share together.  True these experiences are broken down typically by city, they are nonetheless part of civic pride.  With the Orioles returning to the playoffs, all of Baltimore feels a sense of pride.  Of course this pride exploded forth when the Ravens won the Super Bowl.
In his book Our Religious Brains, Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger writes, “A community has been defined as a place where when you are absent you are missed and when you are present people know your name.  Archaeological remains of early synagogues reveal that most would have met that standard, certainly in smaller towns, but also in cities, where they were often organized by a few families or a professional group….
People who move to a new area are often advised to go to church or synagogue, and clergy confirm that newcomers to our cities go ‘shul-shopping’ and ‘church-shopping,’ seeking a place to ‘belong’ and make friends at least as much as a place to pray.”[10]
So just as we go to Camden Yards to have the true experience of the fan, and perhaps a spiritual experience, because we feel the game is not the same without us, so too we can feel the same way about entering into a synagogue for worship.
As Dr. Sexton concludes, “Okay, Baseball, for most of us anyway, is not the road to God – indeed, it is not even a road to God.  But, if given sensitive attention, it can awaken us to a dimension of life often missing in our contemporary world of hard facts and hard science.  We can learn, through baseball, to experience life more deeply.  By embracing the ineffable joys of the ‘green fields of the mind,’ we can enlarge our capacity to embrace the ineffable more generally.  Baseball can teach us that living simultaneously the life of faith and the life of the mind is possible, even fun.
And each winter, as we long for the possibilities of spring with its awakening, and we ponder the depths of mystical moments past in baseball and in life, we proclaim our creed: Wait’ll Next Year!”[11]
So this fall, as we get closer to the post season, but for us, really the beginning of our season as Jews, and as we too continue to ponder the depths of the mystical, spiritual, and religious moments in our own lives.  We proclaim, “l'shanah tovah techatemu ve’tikatevu” "may you be inscribed and sealed (in the Book of Life) for a good year.”
Or as we say in the vernacular: Play Ball!




[1] http://www.historyofbaseball.us
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1986_National_League_Championship_Series
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2005_World_Series
[4] Sexton, John, Baseball As a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game, New York, Gotham Books, 2013, pg. 21.
[5] Ibid pg. 35
[6] Ibid., pg. 51
[7] Matt, Daniel G., The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism, San Francisco, Harper San Francisco, 1996, pg. 150
[8] Ibid., pg. 151
[9] Sexton, John, Baseball As a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game, New York, Gotham Books, 2013, pgs. 99-100.
[10] Mecklenburger, Ralph D., Our Religious Brains, Woodstock, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2012, Pgs. 139-141
[11] Sexton, John, Baseball As a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game, New York, Gotham Books, 2013, pg. 220

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