Jewish law does not directly address the permissibility of taking part in combat sports such as boxing, but provides us with principles from which we can infer an answer.
Jewish law generally categorizes risk taking into three categories: minimal, moderate, and high risk. Activities in everyday life that carry minimal risk and are commonly undertaken by the majority of society need not be avoided. On the other hand, placing oneself into a situation of very high risk is generally forbidden.
It seems that combat sports such as boxing fall into the middle category of “moderate risk.” Jewish law regards activity in this category as being permissible only when there is a compelling reason for it. One such compelling reason could be earning a living, as Rabbi Yechezkel Landau wrote over two hundred years ago when he ruled that it is forbidden for a Jew to be a hunter (Noda BiYehuda, Y”D 10). After explaining that hunting is a form a cruelty and an inappropriate activity, as well as unnecessarily endangering oneself, he goes on to allow it only for a person for whom it is their profession and they have no other choice. Similarly, in our times, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein allows participation in professional sports, despite the risks involved, if the activity is undertaken in the pursuit of a livelihood (Igerot MosheCh”M 1:104). Authorities in Jewish law extend this permission to other valid reasons for exposing oneself to moderate risk, beyond simply earning a living. However, it should be pointed out that Rabbi Feinstein’s permissive ruling is regarding “playing ball,” and though he does not say which type of ball game, we can assume that it is not as dangerous as boxing.
Based on the above, it seems that if a combat sport is truly dangerous, it should be avoided unless one really has no other means of making an equally good living. This type of sport should not be encouraged, both because of the danger involved to the player (not to mention those whom he or she is playing against) and because it involves cruelty, which goes against Jewish values. On the other hand, if the sport is not full contact (and thus not very dangerous), and is done for the sake of learning self-defense techniques or other important skills, then even if it is not for the sake of earning a living, it may be permissible and even encouraged. Each situation must be judged on a case-by-case basis using some of the above principles as well as rabbinic guidance.
Two relevant Jewish legal prohibitions need to be considered here: 1) not to harm one’s body; 2) not to batter one’s neighbor. The first prohibition is well expressed by Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Moral Dispositions and Ethical Conduct, 4:1): “Since by keeping the body in health and vigor, one walks in the ways of God… it is man’s duty to avoid whatever is injurious to the body, and to cultivate habits conducive to health and vigor.” The second is a basic part of Jewish civil law, repeated in all Jewish legal collections beginning with the Covenant Code, Exodus 21:19, and elaborated in the basic Rabbinic lawcode, the Mishnah (Tractate “Damages, part One”—Bava Kamma, chapter 8).
Nonetheless, boxing, while a violent sport, is not automatically to be equated with assault and battery.The basic presupposition of organized sports is that, while they contain some potential risk to health, their internal rules are designed to prevent permanent injury.
One may object that the rules of organized sports often fail in this regard.The first remedy for that, however, is not to declare the sport outlawed in its totality, but more strictly to regulate it. Protective gear needs to be adequate to the forceful contact or collision entailed by entering the sporting contest, and rules against misconduct need to be more strictly enforced.
A blanket prohibition of participation in a particular sport should be reserved for particular sports whose lack of health-conscious groundrules render them beyond repair, such as the gladiatorial games of the Roman era.
A good example of careful attention to protective gear and vigilant referee control of boxing is in the Olympic boxing matches.The goal there is to outpoint the opponent, rather than to render him unconscious.
Organized football may be thought of as an example of a sport that, from a Jewish point of view, requires some adjustment in order to retain its permissible status. Recently, medical attention has been focused on the prevalence of concussion in organized football, including concussions sustained by youthful players in school and junior leagues. Here, not only the protective headgear, but more generally, the overall mindset of the game is in need of improvement. Professional sports constantly review and revise their rules, often to prevent particular kinds of injury, and the ongoing regulation of football needs to take cognizance of these recent medical findings.
Moreover, in some sports, such as ice hockey, one ought to consider regional variations in how the game is played. There is a cultural approval of the players engaging in brawls, as the game is conducted in North America, but no such approval in the Olympic game style of play. The former would be suspect, from a Jewish perspective, but not the latter.
In sum, Jewish tradition bids us look closely at the actual conditions in the particular form of boxing, or other violent sport, under consideration, and to authorize participation, or to withhold consent, based on whether the sport contains adequate safeguards to satisfy the two overall requirements, not to harm oneself or one’s neighbor.
This question is as simple and direct as the increasingly urgent concerns which evoke it are multiple and various. Certain contact sports are themselves, of necessity, physically violent; not only Boxing but also Football and Ice Hockey, for example. In my own suburban area student athlete was rendered paraplegic as a result of an “ordinary”, permissible, incident during an Ice-Hockey game. As a football fan from childhood, I myself have been considering whether, within the requirements and tenets of my own Jewish tradition, I am required to withdraw even as a “fan/spectator” from engagement in that sport even to the extent that this is itself supportive of it.
Reasons for such concerns include permanent maiming of athletes, brain damage, marked deterioration of cognition, early death and even suicide. Then there are the negative influences among spectators of contact sports such as increased aggressive behavior, hooligainism in “the Stands,” even violent riots between supporters of opposing teams. Finally there is the question of “the Money”: exploitation of violence in sports as an “attraction” which spectators are conditioned to expect for their money’s-worth. In Ice Hockey players have been assigned a specifically violent role as a means of intimidating the opponent in order to win. Coaches have even encouraged extra violent behavior.
Sports such as “Show Wrestling” even though the violence is artificial do encourage a blood thirsty taste for greater and greater hurt to the opponent and the rising of the level of increasing permissible violence in our society which can endanger us all.
What then can be said specifically of a Judaic ethical stand on this issue. After all, we remember that among immigrant Jews in North America, and elsewhere, especially sports like boxing in which many Jews excelled, became an attractive way to rise in the world and a demonstration to the wider public that Jews were not “weaklings or cowards”.
To provide a context for our question, we can turn to the extensive work of a remarkably fine Jewish historian, George Eisen, in his essay: “Jewish History in the Ideology of Modern Sports”. (The Journal of sport History) Vol. 25, No. 3, Fall, 1998, pp. 482-531). In remarkable detail, with great thoughtfulness and responsible scholarship, he emphasizes the importance in the Judaic outlook from Antiquity to Present Day of Physical well being and Physicality. At the same time, in the course of many pages of exposition, he repeatedly emphasizes (as do other authorities) that “there has always been a strong aversion in Jewish culture and tradition toward violent or blood sports that were a “hallmark of neighboring tribes, societies and culture” and “marked disdain, bordering on abhorrence, of physical violence. (p. 481; see also pp. 488, 491, 492, 493).”
As to Halachah, normative Jewish law, we must begin with the consideration of acts of violence in general. At certain points, (this will become relevant), Halachah permits and even compels violence, as for example, in the prevention of murderous attack in order to save the life of a victim, (Talmud, San Sanhedrin 72a) or the physical force necessary to separate combatants which can also stop a person from sinning; and for Jewish self defense against murderous attacks on groups or individuals (Shulchan Aruch 329.6). But even in these instances, Jewish tradition requires the minimum of violent behavior necessary to accomplish these permissible goals. For example, even in the case of stopping a murderer, the use of deadly force is prohibited if the goal can be accomplished without it (Tur Choshen Mishpat 425; Maimonides, “Mishnah Torah, “Murder” (1.13; Shulchan Aruh, Choshen Mishpat 421.11).
It is clear that it would follow that in contact sports where a violent act could lead to death or maiming, the danger of violence must be minimized at whatever the expense, through strict rules of the game and other safeguards like required equipment, penalties, whatever the loss of monetary gain or diminished spectator interest. If this cannot be accomplished due to the nature of the sport itself, the sport itself is halachically in question.
The direct use of violence and violent tactics by coaches, or by teams as a strategy, or as an attraction to gain attendance, to increase the “take” of the game is sheer commercially exploitive idolatry and would be forbidden in any respect by Jewish law and teaching. This might include the use of violence by media for commercial interest.
In another approach, Rabbi Asher ben Meir (Aish Torah.org, Hirhurim)) makes a fine point on the subject of contact sports. Judaism recognizes and accepts various kinds of physical urges such as the need for food and physical intimacy but through religious teaching and observance absorbs and guides these urges under the aspect of Kiddush Ha-Chayyim) (“the Sanctification of Life”) towards life enhancing patterns as in sanctified marriage. But if there are violent tendencies or urges in humankind, these are entirely beyond and out of bounds as any such category except, as already noted, when it comes to the saving of life.
He points out as well that in the ideal of life expressed in Judaic vision of a Messianic age, all aspects of ordinary life will go on unchanged. The only difference between the Messianic Age and ours is the end of oppressive government and any aggressive behavior beginning with war. “No one will hurt or destroy on all of God’s holy mountain.”
This leads to further questions. Many videos available on the Internet demonstrate conclusively that children imitate the violent response of adult spectators of contact sports. By extension we must ask whether the encouragement of violent responses, emotionally or physically, in advertising media would also, by derivation, be opposed by Jewish ethical practice.
A remarkable comment on the Exodus story, (Exodus 12.12 and Deuteronomy 6.8) by Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamares (t) of Mileitchitz is relevant to the sports spectator: “‘for I (God) will go through the Land of Egypt in that night, I and not any intermediary’. Obviously the Holy One Blessed Be He could have given the children of Israel the power to avenge themselves upon the Egyptians. But God did not want to sanction the use of ‘the fist’ even for self defense, even at that time for while at that moment they might merely defend themselves against such evil doers, by means such the way of the fist spreads through the world and in the end defenders become aggressors. Therefore, the Holy One Blessed Be He took great pains to remove Israel completely from any participation in violence upon the evil doers, to such an extent that they were not even permitted even to see or observe those events”.
This passage should be pondered by all of us as spectators of contact sports.