I decided to root for the Chicago Cubs when I was seven years old for a fairly obscure reason: my father liked them, not as much other teams, but he had fond memories of a Jewish pitcher in the 1960s and 70s named Ken Holtzman. It also didn’t hurt that, in 1984, when I first discovered baseball, the Cubs almost made the World Series. I decided then and there that I would be a fan of the team for life. And so I have. My son, Jonathan, on the other hand, likes the Cubs, but his favorite team is the Arizona Diamondbacks, because when he was three years old, I bought him a hat with the Diamondbacks logo, and he likes the hat. That’s all it took — his allegiance, seven years later, is to the Diamondbacks.
My reason for picking a favorite team is no better or worse than my son’s reason, or anyone else’s reason, for that matter. In fact, the absurdity of choosing a favorite team was famously summarized by the comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who noted that we continue to cheer for our chosen teams no matter how they perform on the field, and no matter who plays for them: “It’s different guys every year,” he said. “You’re rooting for clothes, when you get right down to it. We’re screaming about laundry.”
Usually, rooting for laundry is harmless; picking one sports franchise over another is not a reflection of our characters. But what if it were? In recent years, as our society has become more attuned to the ethical triumphs and failings of famous athletes, fans have begun to ask if there ever is a time when we should abandon our favorite teams. Several weeks ago, the Houston Astros traded for Roberto Osuna, an excellent relief pitcher who was suspended for 75 games earlier this year due to domestic abuse charges. Osuna, unfortunately, is far from the only athlete with ethical failings, but now that we know more about the people on the field, it raises the question whether we can or should support a team that seems to place winning over decency.
The matter was summed up well recently by Atlanta Braves pitcher Brandon McCarthy, who wrote on Twitter, “Tribalism in sports, when it comes to protecting the wrongdoings of their own, is strange because fans know that it doesn’t have to be that way. … Sports fans are used to the loss of their favorite [players] and are always excited to see what’s next. Why doesn’t this apply when their favorites turn out to be bad people? … What’s the fun in rooting for a bad person? Sure, [your team] might get a few more wins but you know they feel hollow. You always have to qualify your fandom against the bad person’s actions.”
Like I said, this sermon is not about baseball. Rather, it’s about the behavior McCarthy describes: tribalism, the tendency to pick a side and then defend that side no matter what, regardless of consequences, regardless of logic, and sometimes, regardless of values.
But i don’t want to claim that tribalism is always a bad thing. It’s a natural instinct, very much a part of our psychological makeup. Amy Chua, a professor at Yale University, wrote in her recent book Political Tribes that people generally want to be in a group, and we sort ourselves into groups whether we realize it or not. She cites a study in which a group of children were randomly given shirts to wear — half of the shirts were red, and half of them were blue. Once these kids put on their shirts, they went to a computer and were shown images of other people wearing both red and blue shirts, and then were asked a series of questions. The results were striking; the kids wearing red shirts consistently said that they believed the people in the pictures wearing red shirts were smarter, better-looking, and kinder than the people in the pictures wearing blue shirts. And the kids wearing the blue shirts thought the opposite.
So it’s no surprise that tribalism comes easy to us. And there are many times when we’re glad it does. There’s a lot of comfort in being a part of a group of people we trust, a part of a group with similar interests or beliefs. Being here today, at a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, is an act of tribalism, and I’d say it’s a good one — the instinct to connect with a common group of people and a common set of beliefs, or to support someone who does, reassures us that we are not alone, and provides a connection with others at a time in history when so many of us worry about feeling isolated. It feels good to be in a tribe.
But I also worry about tribalism to the exclusion of all other concerns. We see it in the political arena, in which discussions of issues quickly devolve into a horse race of sorts, in which the only thing that matters is giving our party of choice a so-called “win”. And these days, it’s astounding to witness the remarkable mental gymnastics used to defend someone in their tribe, sometimes to the exclusion of common sense. The desire to do or say almost anything for the sake of their political tribe has stymied the legislative process and has turned many of us cynical about the actions and motives of the so-called “other”. It’s no wonder that in his final statement to the American people before his death, Senator John McCain wrote, “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe.”
We see the negative effects of tribalism in the Jewish world, too. We continue to be caught up in rivalries between movements; while there are plenty of examples of collaboration, there also remains too much focus on labels of observance rather than frank discussions on how multiple methods of following God enrich us rather than weaken us. We continue to read of ways that religious authorities in Israel marginalize non-Orthodox practice, both at the Western Wall and throughout the Jewish State. And the state of Israel itself is now the subject of growing tribal rivalries within Jewish communities, fostering divisiveness and suspicion based on whether we agree or disagree with the decisions of the Israeli government.
Whether we like it or not, tribalism is part of the human experience, whether we’re separating ourselves based on the shirts we wear, on our sports teams of choice, or on topics far more consequential. The question is, how can we utilize the teachings of our tradition to see past our tribal instincts, and to recognize, when it comes down to it, we’re really all a part of one tribe?
One approach is to consider the meaning of this day, of Rosh Hashanah. We commonly speak of Rosh Hashanah as the birthday of the world, but that’s not exactly true; today, the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, is understood in our tradition as the anniversary of the sixth day of Creation — the day, we are taught, that God created most animals, including human beings. And so, on this anniversary, it’s the perfect time to remind ourselves of the question asked by the Mishnah centuries ago: Why, when creating humanity, did God start with just one person? The prevailing answer is that it gives all of the same common ancestor, so that no one can legitimately say that they come from better stock than someone else.
Still, it’s one thing to say that we all are part of one tribe; how do we live with that in mind? For that answer, it’s useful to look at the life of Abraham, the subject of today’s and tomorrow’s Torah readings, for a proper example. First, it’s in his name; “Avraham” means father of many nations. The Midrash claims that 30 different nations could claim Abraham as their common ancestor. What’s more, we forget sometimes that Abraham was not only the first Jew, but for many years, pretty much the only Jew. The commentary Yalkut Shimoni describes Abraham spending many days wandering through many nations, making him accustomed to their ways and beliefs. All the while, he deftly manages to be both unique and cooperative. When he knows it’s time to separate from his nephew Lot, he offers Lot a choice piece of land in exchange for his distance; and even then, he doesn’t forget Lot, but rather negotiates with God his rescue from the city of Sodom. He is celebrated for fighting in a war fought between nine different tribes, emerging from it victorious, but more importantly, respected. And, when Abraham buys the Cave of Machpelah for a burial ground, he insists on paying for it so there’s no doubt that it’s his, but still does it in a way that doesn’t alienate the seller.
Indeed, these are all so-called “wins” for Abraham. And I suppose that since we, as Jews, tend to be on “Team Abraham”, these stories represent success for the Jewish people as a whole. But we should also note that these “wins” do not come at the expense of other people’s humanity. For the most part, Abraham works with his neighbors, not against them. Abraham’s descendants wound up founding many tribes, but Abraham himself teaches us a thing or two about not being overly tribal.
During these coming days, our tradition asks us to look within ourselves and to account for our behavior over the past year. Ideally, that process concludes on Yom Kippur, when we ask forgiveness from God. As we seek out others to make amends, let’s be kind to those in our tribes, but don’t forget those outside of them. For it is on us to recognize we aren’t only defined by the tribes we’re in. Regardless of your favorite shirt color, your favorite sports team, political party, or method of Jewish practice, we are equally responsible to act in the way Abraham does so often, knowing that rules of discourse and basic humanity transcend tribe. May we remember that we were all created in the image of God, as part of one tribe.