This piece was originally published by the Huffington Post. Click here to read it in full.
When the indictment of former Penn State assistant football coach
Jerry Sandusky was made public in November 2011, Penn State did not
cancel its season as it should have. Yes, once legendary and now
summarily disgraced head coach Joe Paterno had been fired. And yes, a
cabal of the university
president and other administrators responsible for the cover-up of
Sandusky's chronic sexual molestation of children had been dismantled.
But a game against Nebraska beckoned, followed by two more regular
season games and a bowl game with many dollar signs trailing close
behind. Let's remember that this was a dream match-up, too -- elite
programs united for the first time under the majestic banner of the Big Ten.
So while a rapist of children had been abetted by the university
directly and the football team specifically, the game -- the show, that
is -- had to go on.
Yet, it would be impossible for Penn State to completely ignore
revelations about Sandusky's abuses and the school's gross mishandling
of this tragic situation -- including placing the institution's reputation above the welfare of the victims. So, in an ironic gesture, to say the least (brilliantly pilloried by Charles P. Pierce), before kick-off both teams gathered at midfield and took a knee to pray for the victims -- and the cameras.
Sports and religion
can make for a nasty combination. One of the many disturbing things
about the Penn State abuse scandal is that sports, like religious
ritual, is supposed to offer an effective means to sublimate violence in
order to deepen social meaning and communal connections. In this case,
violence and power were allowed to grow wildly without proper ethical
Numbers 30:2-36:13 -- known as Matot-Masei
in the traditional Jewish lectionary cycle -- demonstrates on a
national level the challenges the ancient Israelites face in their
attempts to balance the use of violence both ritually and in achieving
the ultimate goal of subduing the land of Canaan.
The journey from Abraham's covenant to the threshold of the Promised
Land has been rich and rough, and Matot-Masei marks the moments before
this promise comes true. It includes final ordering of families and
tribes as well as the challenges of waging war without losing control of
its costs, its spoils and those members of the Israelite community
either too reticent or too eager to fight. Coach Moses and his staff
must channel disparate and often violent tribal energy toward an
ultimate goal. Then, as the Torah portion ends, so too does the Book of
Numbers itself. No more waiting in the tunnel to storm the field. It's
Matot-Masei also contains detailed instructions about various rituals
and practices that were intended to curb or limit violence, including
the need for combatants to undergo a ritual cleansing after battle
(31:19-24) and the establishment of cities of refuge to protect those
who committed accidental manslaughter from vengeance (35:6-7). Of
course, at the heart of Israelite spiritual life is the sacrificial
system in which the priests receive the ultimate call for sublimating
violence by killing animals (supplemented by various and sundry
vegetative matter) to feed the ritual engine of Israelite religion.
In his recent book "On Sacrifice,"
Moshe Halbertal asserts René Girard's belief that religious sacrifice
controls violence which would otherwise escalate endlessly amongst
people. This is the job priests are born to cultivate and fulfill. They
protect society by transforming its dark powers into light.
The challenge of balancing violence with a generative social use is
what was called "The Great Experiment" at Penn State. This was Paterno's
creed that while other schools might exploit the talents of athletes
while ignoring their obligations to be students, football players in
Happy Valley were expected to be both fierce competitors on the field
and upright citizens on campus. As Michael Weinreb recently shared,
we can now see how the Great Experiment failed. With children as silent
victims, violence, abuse, terror, hypocrisy and fear overtook every
corner of the laboratory.
And how does the experience of balancing violence with a form of
societal benefit manifest itself in Matot-Masei? It's a mixed bag.
Bloody war on both sides of the border of Canaan forces even the
reluctant tribes of Gad and Reuben to fight (Numbers 32). The toll of
violence resulting from entering the Land is almost too high to assess.
But boundaries are carved, families counted and recounted, and laws of
tribute and order established. Society begins to take shape for a people
that must transform itself from a fierce and hungry fighting force to a
sustainable culture with a powerful priestly cult feeding the desires
of both God and the nation. This is a story of a people struggling with
competing needs and notions of violence, power, ritual and culture that
continue to stir in the Land of Israel through the rest of the biblical
story and far beyond it.
Joe Paterno's Great Experiment was an American cult revered for
harnessing football not only to produce good fortune for a school, a
town, a state, the N.C.A.A. and Paterno himself,
but also education, social cohesion and even a journey of the spirit
for the players and fans that counted themselves among Penn State's
tribe. Some of sports' most astute observers accepted that this cult was fair even when it began to become apparent that it was eating its own young.
Athletes and fans are animated by the bliss of sports in ways that
few experiences can match. But now -- much like in the conclusion of
Numbers -- as the bodies of the living and the dead and the living dead
are being counted at Penn State, we can only pray that a community of
positive use to itself and others will arise from the carnage.