At 4-feet-10, wearing sports goggles, I stood as the smallest captain the eighth-grade basketball team at Yeshivah of Flatbush ever knew.
Like many young Modern Orthodox boys (and girls), I grew up subsumed by sports. I knew the Beckett Sports Card guidebook better than the Bible. When not watching sports, I spent hours on the court, shooting hook shots or making the perfect John Stockton bounce pass. I cried when my team lost, and celebrated in victories I took no part in.
In short, sports was my religion.
Then religion became my religion and things grew complex.
In my Israeli yeshiva, from 2003 to 2005, I traded my knowledge of athletic statistics for a knowledge of Jewish law. I learned to grow leery of my body, of the physical world as a whole; physicality was something to transcend, to tame, not to embrace.
I learned that our traditions, even those grounded in the mundane world, are at odds with the idea of the Olympics (the ancient Games, held in honor of Zeus, were often accompanied by the sacrifice of 100 oxen to pagan gods), of sports, and of physical prowess as an end in itself.
Physical touch was transformed from something innocuous to something both powerful and dangerous, able to create the greatest physical intimacy and the lowest degradations of the soul.
Sports, if we thought about it at all, was relegated to the realm of the necessary-to-stay-healthy category; it was relaxation time we earned that would recharge our batteries for another dip into the sea of spirituality.
In the summer of 2008, my religious identity in flux, I felt unhappy in my spiritual pursuits; they seemed empty, unable to conjure up anything but anxiety. I neglected my own physicality for so long that it fought back.
I watched the Beijing Olympics to relax from it all.
The sight of America’s fish-in-the-form-of-man, Michael Phelps, as he transcended the boundaries of human limitations, made me question my spirituality. I felt ambivalent, uncertain of my identity.
I found relief in exercise.
I took my scrawny body to the gym a block away from my apartment and two blocks away from my spiritual home, the beit midrash. The moment I stepped into that air-conditioned but small, smelly room, I felt oddly empowered. And though I felt awkward, I was oozing self-consciousness.
After some time building muscle, I started to think differently. I understood anew certain parts of the Tanach that embrace the importance of physicality, even competition. I connected to the parts of the Tanach that appear superficial: the need for beautiful wives, our forefathers as warriors, the laws allowing soldiers physical concessions during battle. I understood the overreaching hubris and desire of the all-powerful, handsome King David, how the righteous leader could succumb to base desires.
As Phelps won medal after medal, the Olympics provided asylum from the inner ramblings of my soul. A chance to watch, in awe, as we celebrated man, not only God. Religious maturation doesn’t end, but the Beijing Games helped reintroduce my soul to my body. In Phelps’ historical accomplishments I found the pinnacle of physicality, of poetry in motion. I learned that I needed to treat the physical and spiritual worlds as separate beasts deserving of their own form of exploration and kindness.
I soon began to see the fruits of this effort. I saw moments in the playoffs, in perfect games, in the heroic battles for the puck that brought body and soul together. These were moments of grace and perfection. Through yoga and meditation, I felt the power of physical prayer, of movement and breathing as conduits of new spiritual experiences. I realized that much of the struggle arose when one world made unseemly demands on the other — when I denied the validity of each realm’s unique desires.
The London Olympics, which begin this week, won’t hold the same revelatory power the Beijing Games did for me. But they will remind me of the two worlds within me, the worlds of body and spirit, each of which stakes its singular claim.
And there’ll be Phelps, swimming elegantly for gold.
Joe Winkler is a freelance writer living on the Upper West Side.