I am Loyal, Therefore I am

30 January 2015 
10 Shevat 5775 
 

Shalom Chaverim,  

 With apologies for bringing up the “D” word, especially on the eve of the Super Bowl . . .  

In my synagogue two Friday nights ago, days after the news of “Deflate-gate” broke, the rabbi challenged us: “In Judaism, honesty and integrity are core values; so, we need to seriously consider whether, if the allegations against the Patriots are substantiated, we can continue to root for the team.” The rabbi’s suggestion was clear: if it turns out that the Patriots acted with willful lack of honesty and integrity, we might need to stand by our commitment to those moral values by breaking ties with our team.   

Putting aside what we believe to be true and whether the absurd amount of attention and outrage at allegedly deflated footballs is warranted or appropriate, I was inspired by a recent Washington Post editorial that offered a different perspective from our rabbi.  

E.J. Dionne’s piece, For the Patriots, without apology,” reflects on the virtue (or lack thereof) of loyalty. Dionne acknowledges that loyalty can be problematic for various reasons, including loyalty to bad people or things, as well as the unwillingness to apply critical thinking or moral reasoning “out of loyalty.” We should be dismayed by how often people are unwilling to stand up to corruption or speak out against wrongdoing in the name of loyalty. I see this with high school students all the time, for whom friend groups are like tribes and for whom this tribalism—the natural desire for connectedness and inclusion—can trump rational thinking and smart choices. For example, try discussing with a high school student whether or not he would turn in a friend who he knew was cheating on a test. I can understand why loyalty gets a bad name when it is so often associated with, if not blamed for, poor choices and bystander behavior.    

Many modern, critical-thinking people struggle not only with the idea of loyalty but also, as a result, with notions of membership, communal affiliation, peoplehood, and, from a contemporary Jewish perspective, even Zionism. How can I be loyal to someone, some group, some place when I know, based on my critical thinking and moral reasoning, that every one, every group, every country is complex and flawed?   

Yet, as Dionne writes, “Even if loyalties can be misplaced, a life lived without them makes no sense.” Quoting the legal scholar George Fletcher, he suggests that loyalties are obligations “’implied in every person’s sense of being historically rooted in a set of defining familial, institutional, and national relationships.’ There really are, (Fletcher) argues, ‘groups and individuals that have entered into our sense of who we are.’” 

Dionne points out that for many people, sports teams are “part of this fabric” of who we are because we are born into deep ties to family, friends, and local or regional community. When I watch and root for the Patriots, I am not only sitting with my children and their friends and families, but I also feel the presence of my father z”l and his father z”l whose love for, loyalty to (and frustrations with) this team and other Boston teams ran deep.  

As I read Dionne’s piece, I thought of the Jewish value of arevut, a term that is not easily translated but that I might translate as “bound-up-ness.” It is rooted in the traditional Jewish notion that “kol Yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh (or b’zeh, depending on the source)—all of Israel is bound to, or with one another.” This concept has moral and ethical dimensions to it—it is the reason why there might be collective consequences when even just one individual does something wrong.  And it is a source for the mitzvah of tochachah (rebuke), our moral responsibility to confront someone who is committing a sin or wrongdoing.  We are expected to hold the very people we care about accountable for their words and their actions.  

To me, arevut is not only a moral principle but also a description of a spiritual-existential reality. To be Jewish and to be human is to be rooted in relationships and stories that are integral to my personal sense of self. In other words, I am loyal, therefore I am. This is the reason why we love and are loyal to our family, our people, our country, and, dare I add, our sports teams, in spite of their flaws and their complexities. 

As Dionne concludes his article, “I know which side I’ll be on this Sunday, without any mental reservations.  The Patriots . . . are my guys.”  

Shabbat Shalom and Go Pats!  

Rabbi Marc Baker 

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