by Michael Freund
This past Sunday I got a first-hand glimpse of one of the hottest phenomena in American pop culture and sports.
The venue was Metlife Stadium in New Jersey, the occasion was the first round of the National Football League playoffs.
Just prior to the start of the game between the New York Giants and the Atlanta Falcons, after the Giants had come onto the field, eight of their players headed toward the end zone, where they did something entirely unexpected.
These hulking and intimidating behemoths, who make their living by strapping on layers of protective body gear and pummelling their opponents, each knelt down on one knee, bowed their heads, and offered a silent prayer.
This act has come to be known as “Tebowing,” after Tim Tebow, the quarterback of the Denver Broncos, whose signature prayerful genuflections have become a popular and internet sensation.
Tebow, who has led his team to some stunning comeback victories, including this past weekend when he tossed an 80-yard touchdown pass in overtime to defeat the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers, is an unabashed fan of his Christian faith. He talks about it in interviews and does not shy away from publicly thanking God for his team’s success.
A growing number of athletes have begun to follow suit, offering thanks to the Creator for their triumphs on the field as well.
WATCHING THE Giants kneel filled me with a sense of awe. What humility! Surrounded by 80,000 screaming admirers, with millions more watching on television, these grandees of the gridiron had no qualms about engaging in a public act of such profound self-effacement.
Like anyone about to undertake a monumental and daunting task, they sought solace in spirituality, acknowledging that we humans ultimately owe everything to the Head Coach in heaven.
At a time when society so badly lacks positive role models, it is refreshing to see some of America’s top athletes setting such an excellent example for the countless number of kids who look up to them.
Indeed, as Jews, we should welcome and encourage this development because it can only help to restore a healthy sense of perspective, one that can serve to counterbalance the West’s increasingly materialistic mores.
But not everyone, it seems, shares this point of view.
Last month, the New York Jewish Week ran a vile and hateful column by one Rabbi Joshua Hammerman entitled “My problem with Tim Tebow.”
Hammerman had the gall to claim that should Tebow lead his team to the championship, it could incite people to torch mosques and attack gays.
Yes, you read that correctly.
“If Tebow wins the Super Bowl, against all odds,” he wrote, “it will buoy his faithful, and emboldened faithful can do insane things, like burning mosques, bashing gays and indiscriminately banishing immigrants. While America has become more inclusive since Jerry Falwell’s first political forays, a Tebow triumph could set those efforts back considerably.”
Huh? Is this guy serious?
After Hammerman’s screed provoked widespread outrage, the Jewish Week was quick to take his article off its website and offer an apology, stating that his column “was more inciting than insightful, and we erred in posting it, which we deeply regret.”
To his credit, Hammerman also said he was sorry, acknowledging that what he wrote was “clumsy and inappropriate, calling to mind the kind of intolerance and extremism my article was intended to disparage.”
You can say that again.
But the imbroglio does highlight an important and troubling truth: many Jews just are not comfortable with public displays of religion.
They look askance at those who invoke the Divine, as though there is something inappropriate or unseemly in doing so. For many Jews, it is legitimate to demonstrate loudly on behalf of animal rights, global warming or to be an assertive atheist who insists that we are all descended from apes.
But if you get down on one knee and thank the good Lord for your achievements, well, that is somehow out of bounds.
The fact that Tebow is a Christian driven by evangelical fervor only seems to add further fuel to the fire in the eyes of his Jewish critics.
But this is as wrong-headed as it is small-minded, and it says far more about his detractors than it does about him.
Personally, I am neither threatened nor intimidated when Christians such as Tebow flaunt their faith in public, whether on or off the football field.
As an observant Jew, I am confident enough in my own belief system not to feel jeopardized or vulnerable.
I am comfortable wearing a yarmulke at all times and putting on tefillin in a busy airport. Neither I nor anyone else should be made to feel that their expressions of faith ought to be kept from public view.
Those Jews who share Hammerman’s sentiments and identify with his discomfort are merely giving voice to their own insecurity, spiritual and otherwise. Rather than hurling insults at others, they should look within and ponder why someone else’s devotion could possibly irk them as much as it does.
So while I am most certainly not a Denver Broncos fan, I do believe it is time that we all catch a case of Tebow fever and give God His rightful due.
After all, saying thanks to a Higher Power can only elevate us to new heights and enrich our lives.
Even in the end zone.
This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.