By Rabbi Jonathan Hughes, Richmond United Synagogue
With the World Cup in Brazil drawing ever closer, the mounting excitement and anticipation feel like the footballing version of the run-up to Rosh Hashanah – what’s the difference between a referee’s whistle and a shofar anyway?
As a community rabbi and an ex-footballer, I’m asking myself whether faith can learn anything from “the beautiful game”.
I’m in a unique position to approach this question. When I was signed by Richmond United Synagogue (on a free) from Hendon United Synagogue, some of the congregants had organised a farewell surprise for me.
It was a signed letter from the manager of my beloved Liverpool FC, Brendan Rodgers. He wished me all the best in Richmond and signed off with the Reds’ time- honoured dictum, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.
When I related the episode to my father, he reminded me that when I was a schoolboy playing for Reading FC, Rodgers was on the coaching staff and had once greeted him in the stands by telling him I had just completed a hat-trick a few minutes into the second half.
Funnily enough, not many of the Reading Under-16s ended up in the rabbinate. The bottom line is that I’ve lived football and now I’m attempting to live with faith.
For me, there are two key lessons football can reinforce for a community of faith. The first is more about the fans than the game itself, namely their passion. When young, being a football supporter was the single path to transcendence in a godless universe. Watching your club win a Cup Final or come from behind to win 4-3 against Newcastle was the closest it got to a glimpse of eternal paradise.
The legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly famously said: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death; I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
He was right. For the true football fan, the game is not just entertainment. It strikes at the core of who and what you are. It can determine your mood for an entire week, decide what you do with your weekend and even influence academic performance.
When fans travel thousands of miles to be pitchside to sing their hearts out for their team, it is underpinned by an insatiable love. When they queue for hours outside the club shop so they can be first to buy the new kit, it reflects their single-minded dedication. When we spend money on a season ticket we really can’t afford, it is because it genuinely matters to us.
For many – and this would certainly apply to my younger self – football is a religious pursuit; the stadium is a place of prayer, a place of hope. If this depth of feeling would enter our Judaism, our sense of religious devotion and focus would be revolutionised.
If we felt the connection to Hashem when we sing Adon Olam in shul with the same degree of passion as our travelling fans chant, ‘Eng-er-land, Eng-er-land, Eng-er-land’, I’m supremely confident we would be truly enriched.
The second valuable lesson religion can gain from the game is the notion of team. When players work for one another and synchronise their efforts to create something greater than the sum of their individual parts, we witness a genesis to be marvelled at. Football sides personify the aphorism in Ecclesiastes 4:9: ‘Tovim ha’shnayim min ha’echad/Two is better than one’; the idea that if single units collaborate their efforts, they can give birth to something that transcends all of them.
If this concept was effectively utilised in the Jewish community, we would realise each person possesses unique traits that must be deployed for the benefit of all Jewry. The notion of Klal Yisrael – a unified Jewish collective – is based on this self-same notion that we can achieve so much more when we dedicate our own individuality to the national cause; not only do we become elevated, but so too does the entire People and, by extension, the whole world.
Think of this the next time Rooney bangs one in following neat footwork from Wilshere and a great cross from Gerrard! I firmly believe everything in this world, however seemingly secular, teaches us a lesson that can be used for spiritual growth – football is no different.
I hope the World Cup will demonstrate the impact passion and teamwork can have on our religious and communal lives. I’m now off to buy a brand new tallit with ‘Suarez 7’ on the back.
• Rabbi Jonathan Hughes is also the United Synagogue’s City Rabbi and Chaplain to Bristol and Western Universities