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Articles > Mets' Shawn Green Respects His Faith in His Way

By Rabbi Mitch Smith

With Yom Kippur falling on a Friday night and Saturday this year, it means that some Major League Baseball teams have not one but two games that coincide with the holiday. For NY Mets right fielder/ first baseman Shawn Green, this presents a dilemma similar to one which he has faced in the past. In 2001, while playing with the Dodgers, Green sat out the third game of the Dodgers-Giants series because it fell on Yom Kippur. In 2004, as is the case this year, there was a night game and a day game on the following day. After giving it much though, Green elected to play the night game and sit out the day game.

This year, according to the New York Daily News, Green has decided to absent himself from the Friday night game against the Marlins, and will play on Saturday. Green commented that “I wanted to observe and recognize (Yom Kippur) but I felt it would be more hypocritical to miss both. I didn’t grow up Conservative or very religious. At the same time, I understand being a Jewish role model as an athlete. I do find it important for people to recognize their faith.”

In fact, the Saturday game would not have started till after sundown, but was moved to 3:55 PM for broadcasting purposes. With the Mets in the thick of a pennant run, Green finds himself in a position similar to that of Hank Greenberg nearly 70 years ago, when the first Jewish Hall of Fame player faced an identical dilemma.

In 2004, Rabbi David Wolpe, a well-known Los Angeles rabbi, took Green to task on the religious website belief.net, suggesting that Green failed to honor who he was as a Jew by consenting to play on Yom Kippur. Perhaps it is a matter of the glass half-full or half-empty, but I, for one, find Shawn Green’s choice to sit out one game, both back in ’04 and again this year, to be quite noteworthy. Calling attention to the fact that he did NOT grow up with any significant degree of Jewish observance, and probably like many athletes I imagine that baseball took precedence over matters of Jewish life in the Green household, to me the remarkable thing is that Green DOES find it important to somehow honor the day, given his situation as a high profile athlete in a setting where such a decision is clearly against the grain.

With all due respect to Rabbi Wolpe, he grew up as the son of another high-profile rabbi in a family where Jewish matters stood first and foremost, and to observe Yom Kippur was simply a matter of course (“No khokhma there!” we might say). For someone like Mr. Green, who grew up, I imagine, in a very different setting, where Jewish interest played a vastly less important role, weighing all the parts of this equation in his mind and coming up with the decision that he did is rather remarkable.

In fact, Green, currently batting .285 with 10 home runs and 45 RBI, has indicated that this may be his last year in the league. He told the Newark Star-Ledge, “It’s hard to go from being the focal point of the lineup to being a supporting cast. Every year I go to spring training believing I could recapture my best years, but it hasn’t been the case.”

I have had the occasion to interview other Jewish baseball players in the past. Some players which other websites are pleased to tout as Jews have told me that they were not raised as Jews and have no Jewish identity of note. Others, who attended religious school and were Bar Mitzvah, have varying levels of Jewish observance now that they are adults, and I am not aware that any have gone on record as sitting out games on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. One player told me in 2003 that as a lesser player struggling to stay on the roster, he was in no position to take a day off. Another was on record as saying “Not being observant, I would feel like a hypocrite to take off on Yom Kippur.”

Then there was the case of Jason Marquis, who at the time was pitching for the Braves, and was criticized by numerous Atlanta rabbis for his own decision to play on Yom Kippur. Green, who, by his own admission is similarly not observant, is, to my knowledge, the only player who will sit out for at least part of the day. So I for one say to Shawn Green, Yasher Ko’ach (may your strength continue).

Note: As mentioned above, at least one prominent Jewish player was on record during an important pennant race as having said he would not sit out on Yom Kippur because, not being observant, he would feel hypocritical. I believe that this line of thinking is assumed by many who are not particularly observant, and may even look askance at the so-called “3 day a year Jews”. On the matter of feeling hypocritical, I would like to offer an opposing point of view:

The fact is that, outside of the most Orthodox circles, most Jews do pick and choose their level of observance, including some customs and excluding others. Certainly no one who does not observe the dietary laws of kashrut, for example, should feel hypocritical in abstaining from eating leavened items during Passover. In fact, many individuals have told me that while they are unwilling to make a commitment that is binding for the entire year, they like the idea of taking on a short-term obligation/mitzvah as a way of experiencing a level of observance that they are comfortable with, as a way of marking a certain period of time as “special”. Similarly, what Jewish person would feel that just because he or she is not observant, they would NOT accept an invitation to partake of the Passover Seder with family or friends. Indeed, Judaism is very much about family and community. According to some scholars, the premise of NOT working on the Sabbath or on Yom Kippur had to do with the purity of the community more than that of the individual, and insuring that the community would remain one where God’s presence would be assured. But that was back in Biblical times. We live in a very different world today. It is not always easy for people in our mobile world to have a clear sense of how they fit into the Jewish community (whatever that is!) But how is choosing to identify with your people hypocritical? Furthermore, because unlike Christianity, Jews are not simply a religion, but a people, there are those who, though not inherently religious, may feel some level of identification with our people that the Christian world often cannot understand because Christians have no comparable frame of reference.

In Israel, most non-Orthodox Jews do not go to synagogue on the High Holy Days. In fact, Rosh Hashanah is typically a time spent at the beach or in resorts throughout the country. Nevertheless, on Yom Kippur, nearly to a person, Israelis do not use their vehicles during that 25 hour period of time, creating a rare sense of tranquility on Israeli streets and highways. No one feels hypocritical. It is a way to honor what the day has meant over the millennia - a way of living as a Jew. To be sure, it’s generally easier to live as a Jew in a country that runs according to the Jewish calendar. Elsewhere it is much more difficult. But those that try, regardless of the way in which they do so or the degree of their effort, should never be made to feel that they don’t measure up. Least of all on Yom Kippur! Let’s leave that worry to God.

Wishing one and all an easy fast and a “Gmar Hatimah Tovah!”

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