The Pinhas Problem & the Sins of the Saints
D'var Torah delivered at Riverway Unplugged, July 13, 2012/ 24 Tamuz 5772
The word “fan” in English has two meanings. The first we know quite well, deriving from the Latin word “vannus” or “ventus” meaning “wind”—to vent, to fan.
But what I’d really like to vent about is the second definition, for it’s this meaning that pertains to this week’s Torah portion and the civically sacred sport of baseball. Yes, this is a d’var torah in the spirit of this week’s All-Star break, but I promise to translate as best I can for the non-fans among us.
In 16th century Latin, the word “fanaticus” meant an insane person, inspired by a god. It made its way into modern English meaning an insane extremist, or, more moderately, a devotee. And thanks to American baseball in the 19th century the word evolved further into the abbreviated form “fan.” Definition two: an enthusiast of the sport of baseball. And, a bit later, an enthusiast for sports in general.
I imagine it might be refreshing for friends and family of a die-hard “sports fan” to hear after witnessing years of jumping up and down or wild weeping that, yes, the very etymology of a “sports fan” conflates devotion and insanity.
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Pinhas, speaks to this devotion dilemma in the definition of “fan.” It’s an extremely difficult text to simply apply to our own age. The narrative of Pinhas in the book of Numbers raises up the zealot Pinhas who out of fanatical devotion to God takes the law into his own hands and murders two individuals—an Israelite named Zimri who betrays God’s command and a Midianite woman named Cozbi with whom he comingles.
After the incident occurs, the text celebrates Pinhas as God’s avenger, as God’s “biggest fan” if you will, by introducing him alongside the word for fanaticism or zealotry, “KANA-UT.” The Hebrew root “kana,” meaning zealous, envious, or extremely devoted, appears 3 times in the verse that introduces Pinhas. Kana, the verb for being a zealot, not only describes Pinhas’ devotion that stirs him toward violence, but it also reflects one of God’s own characteristics. God’s a die-hard fan too! Clearly, the ancients who imported this story into the Hebrew Bible endorsed this kind of kana’ut, fanaticism.
And yet, reading it thousands of years later, with our own modern sensibilities, we can see how the Latin equivalent of the word kana’ut, fanaticus, colors the concept of a die-hard fan with a wash of insanity.
In our own civic sector today, the age-old conflation of insanity and devotion is most apparent everyday in the context of professional sports.
In just a few weeks, National Football League players will report to training camp for the new season. But in New Orleans, things will be different. During the off-season, the NFL suspended and fined several its coaches and players for their so-called “bounty program.” The New Orleans Saints coaching staff and players offered cash bonuses for violent hits that would injure opposing players so badly that they couldn’t return to the game. There’s no legal action yet over whether the program was even lawful, whether the players or the coaches committed crimes by incentivizing serious injuries.
And the dirty little secret that everyone knows regarding the New Orleans Saints scandal is that their practice of rewarding violence has been done throughout the league for ages—they just happened to get caught. This is the story of football. It’s the story of boxing. It’s the story of hockey.
It was also the story of Dave Duerson’s career. Duerson was a star for the Chicago Bears, who died last year from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. His last words before he took his life came in the form of a text message he sent to his wife. Twelve words that changed the way that his family, friends, and fellow NFL players now understand concussions: “Please,” he texted her, “see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.” That’s it. Duerson suffered from what more than 20 deceased NFL players, many hockey players, and countless boxers suffered from—a trauma-induced disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or “CTE”).
This is also by all likelihood the story of former Patriots Linebacker Junior Seau, who died just two months ago, taking his own life in the same manner as Duerson. His family just this week agreed to submit his brain for research.
We now know, thanks largely to researchers at BU’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy that CTE, which can only be diagnosed post-mortem through a brain autopsy, has been overlooked for far too long, often misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s or dementia. It’s prevalent among athletes in contact sports, caused by head trauma.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that somewhere between 1.6 and 3.8 million sports-related brain injuries occur annually in the United States. And the rate is rapidly rising. Yet, a survey in 2010 found that just 8% of parents felt they had good background on the dangers of repeat concussions, and more than a third said they knew virtually nothing about concussion risks.
As Linda Carroll and David Rosner explore in their important book The Concussion Crisis, concussions have been systematically dismissed as mere “stingers” and “bumps on the head” for far too long, exacerbated by the “macho attitude threading throughout our culture”—not only professionally but all the way down to the little league fields that we send our children to play on.
And it’s not just the coaches, players, medical staff, agents, and owners who share responsibility and the obligation to right the wrong. It’s also fans.
When a linebacker lays a bone-crushing hit on another player the fans roar. When a hockey player steps up to defends a teammate by fighting a tough guy on the other team, the fans roar. The players back him up. The coaches reward him with more playing time, management gives him a better contract. And fans roar.
Surely, the story of Pinhas is unpalatable for moderns. But is it that farfetched, when examining the spectacle of the concussion crisis in sports today—the phenomenon of countless people, surrounding athletes, cheering them on, paying them off, in devotion toward violent, life-destructive behavior?
Not just in the story of Pinhas, but throughout our tradition we find an awareness of the dangers of a being a fan. In the Talmud, in tractate Avoda Zara (18b) we find a debate over whether a Jew can attend a match of Gladiators. One sage forbade it, with a commentator explaining that it involves shedding of blood. Other sages permitted it on various grounds: that a Jew could cheer for mercy, one could verify the death for the sake of the widow. Apparently the jury’s still out. But clearly we find a talmudic anxiety around responsible participation in fandom.
We find a counter-text to Pinhas within this week’s haftarah portion, from the book of Kings: another story of involving kanaut, fanaticism. But this one tells of Elijah. Elijah himself declares, “kano kiniti Ladonai—I am fervently… God’s fan” (if you will). As Elijah stands on Mount Horeb, God presents Elijah with a mighty wind, and then an earthquake, and then a fire—and Elijah’s surprised to find that within these life-threatening elements God’s Presence is nowhere to be found. But then Elijah hears something—kol d’mamah dakah, a still small voice.
Being a good fan demands hearing beyond the raucous of the crowd, tuning into the small, ethical voices that demand applause and recognition: the voices of Dave Duerson’s text message; the still, small voices of the NFL officials seeking justice for the sins of the so-called Saints; the still small voices that are fighting to update rules and safety standards that help protect the lives of all athletes, professionals and our very own children at play.
And there’s a lesson here beyond sports. We find kanaut, extreme devotion with uproar & hoopla, throughout our civic sector. What does it mean to be good fan of a company or an organization? As we prepare for November, what does it mean to be a principled fan of a politician or a party? What does it mean to live life as a good fan?