Orthodox Response to an Un-Orthodox Sport
by Ben Horne
Imagine the conversation between a Rabbi and his son. Says the Rabbi, “son, when you grow up I want you to honour the traditions of this family and become a well respected Rabbi”. Answers the son, “but daddy, I don’t want to become a Rabbi. I want to become a World Champion boxer!” The response from the Rabbi would probably be something like, “‘Let the goyim be the fighters, the murderers — we are the scholars.”
The scenario may seem fictitious, but this was the response that Rabbi Isidore Rasofsky gave to his son Dov-Ber Rasofsky (a.k.a Barney Ross) in an attempt to discourage him from becoming a boxer, and persuade him to keep his mind focused on Talmud learning. Unfortunately for the Rabbi his words failed to work and Ross subsequently became one of the most successful Jewish boxers of the 1920’s and 1930’s. His strength in the ring made him an iconic figure amongst American Jews. They viewed Ross as someone who had the potential to fight back against the rise of the Nazi party and the anti-Semitic behavior which was rampant during that period.
Now image a Rabbi, who is a member of a Chasidic sect, and is also a professional boxer. Step into the ring Yuri Foreman. Originally born in Belarus to a secular Jewish family, Foreman is currently in the process of taking Semicha. His family made aliyah when Foreman was aged nine and subsequently moved to America, where Foreman was able to grow religiously and develop his boxing. He follows the Chabad movement and has previously entered the ring to the sound of the Lubavitcher rebbe signing a Chassidic melody! Outside the ring, Foreman’s toughest fight remains attempting to defend himself against questions relating to the apparent contradiction between being an orthodox Rabbi and pursuing a career in professional boxing. The responsibility of the Rabbi is to ensure he is role model to his community and this is achieved by demonstrating moral and ethical behaviour within the public sphere. If Foreman decides to continue boxing once he has gained semicha, he risks jeopardising his rabbinical authority. Foreman’s next fight is scheduled for March 12 and will be against Pawel Wolak.
Foreman is not the only contemporary professional boxer to adhere to orthodox Judaism. Born in Ukraine to a secular Jewish family, Dimitry Salita, like Foreman, is an immigrant to America. His family made the decision to leave Ukraine as they became increasingly concerned for their safety with the rise of anti-Semitic abuse. Indeed, as a child, Salita used violence as a means to protect himself against Ukrainian Jew hatred. Upon moving to America, Salita continued to suffer from bullying because he was an immigrant and his family was very poor. Once again, he used his fists to fight back and was regularly involved in fights. He subsequently joined his first boxing gym at the age of 13 and used the opportunity as a means to escape from poverty. After the death of his mother, Salita became more involved in Judaism with help from the local Chabad community. Salita came to prominence within the British media in December 2009 during the build up to his WBA light welterweight fight against Amir Khan, who is ironically an orthodox Muslim. The press focused their reporting on Salita’s Jewish identity and some of the customs and laws he observes. Unfortunately for Salita, the fight didn’t go as planned and he was knocked out after just 76 seconds. In the post fight analysis, questions arose relating to Salita’s future in the sport. However, Salita has had a successful return to the ring; winning his past two fights, and is now considering arranging his next fight in Israel.
Although orthodox Jewish boxers are novel, Jews are no strangers to the boxing ring. For example, in England, Daniel Mendoza was one of the most prominent and successful prize fighters (prize fighting was an early form of boxing) of the 19th century. He was among the first Jewish people to meet British royalty when he met King George III, and this helped to elevate the social position of Jewish people within British society. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, Jewish immigrant boxers were common in America as they attempted to use boxing to escape their impoverished status within society. In London’s East End, Jewish boxers also featured prominently during the 1920’s and, as in America, boxing was a seen as way out of social deprivation. One of the most prominent boxers during this period was Jack ‘Kid’ Berg. His trademark was to enter the boxing ring wearing Tefilin in a ploy to get the crowd on his side!
In an age when many Jews would rather distance themselves from Judaism, the bravery and commitment shown by Foreman and Salita to adhere to their faith deserves a high level of credit and respect. Indeed both Boxers testified that being religious and having faith has helped develop their boxing careers. The main responsibly for both men is to continue to represent orthodox Judaism in a positive light. This has the potential to educate secular Jews about the importance of maintaining a proud Jewish identity in today’s society.
Stay tuned for the next edition, which will investigate the relationship between Jews and the Olympic games.