As a rule, sports and Yiddishkeit don’t go together very well. The Greeks, in fact, attempted to separate Jews from Yiddishkeit by erecting sport stadiums in Eretz Yisrael. Greek sporting events were so closely connected to pagan worship that games were held at heathen sites and sanctuaries. Sports competitions—held every two or four years and continuing over the course of centuries—were intended to honor one demigod or another. For that reason, when Jewish sources describe the Hellenization initiatives undertaken by the Jewish accomplices of Antiochus, the first act they usually mention is how the Hellenizers built a sports stadium in Jerusalem.
So when Rav Zev Leff, the esteemed rav of Moshav Matityahu—located in Israel’s Modi’in region, site of the Maccabean graves and the birthplace of the Hasmonean dynasty—was caught by a Sky News camera learning Torah at the Israel-Scotland soccer game in Glasgow, the irony couldn’t have been greater. As the video went viral, Rav Leff became an international sensation, even somewhat of a social media celebrity.
Rav Leff had been visiting his daughter, Rebbetzin Sarah Bodenheim, and had accompanied members of her family to the game. Right after Israel scored its first goal the camera focused in on Rabbi Leff, his head buried deeply in a sefer.
“I think he missed the goal,” one of commentators stated. “Must be a good read,” another commentator chuckled.
Since then, Rav Leff’s limud haTorah during a soccer game has inspired countless people. “It is, without doubt, the most charming thing on the Internet right now,” the usually anti-Orthodox publication, the Forward, wrote uncharacteristically.
But it was more than charming, in the usual sense of the word. Observing a saintly rabbi engrossed in Torah study despite the commotion around him was undoubtedly an amazing kiddush Hashem. But at the same time, it also made a lot of people wonder what he was doing at a soccer game in the first place. He certainly could have learned Torah in a place that was far more conducive to studying. So when I speak to Rav Leff, with whom I am proud to say that I am privileged to enjoy a warm relationship, first thing I do is pose that very question.
“My wife and I were visiting our children and grandchildren in Scotland,” he explains. “My son-in-law is the chaplain for all of the universities in Glasgow under the UK rabbanut. He’s been there for six years. Our visit was for a week, and the last night coincided with the Israel-Scotland game. The whole kehillah went to the game as a group, including the rabbi, a Gerrer chasid and a very chashuve person, who told me later that he was very lucky that the camera hadn’t focused on him! My son-in-law also had students with whom he had to go. The reason they all went is that in Scotland, identification with Israel is the same as identification with Yiddishkeit. After all, the anti-Semites use Israel as a reason to be anti-Semitic.
“The shul had a dinner beforehand, and then everyone boarded two buses. My grandchildren, who are still little kids under the age of nine, also had tickets, and they were very excited to be going with their friends. The only problem was that they were conflicted about it, because it was the last night that Bubby and Zeidy were going to be there. So my wife and I decided to solve their dilemma by going along with them.
“It was the first soccer game I ever attended in my life and it will probably be the last. I’m not interested in sports at all, but in chutz laaretz it’s mekubal to watch these kinds of things. I know rabbanim who go to baseball games, and when I was a kid the Telzer Yeshivah camp used to take us to baseball games in Cleveland. True, here in Eretz Yisrael it isn’t done, as it’s seen as identifying with the secular society. There, however, it’s non-Jews who are playing, so it’s not a big deal.