Back in 2001, the Dodgers were playing the San Francisco Giants in the last game of a series, in the middle of a pennant race. The game fell on Yom Kippur. Shawn Green declined to play, not only sitting out an important game but sacrificing as well the record he was in the process of setting for the longest streak of consecutive games in the major leagues.
This year Green faced the same situation, except two games were involved: a Friday night game on Kol Nidre, and a Saturday day game the following afternoon. He struggled with his decision throughout the week:
"I need another day," said Green, who added that the issue has kept him awake at night. "I've been struggling hard with this. Obviously, it's very important to me, my religion is very important to me, too. It's a really tough deal." . . . "I've bounced back and forth and am just trying to do the right thing," he said . . . "It's hard to know what that is. I've really been toying with two different options: Play one of them or not play at all. I will miss at least one game."
He eventually decided on one game, and played the other.
It’s possible to argue he made the wrong decision.
It’s also possible to argue his Solomon-like solution misunderstood the purpose of Solomon’s split-the-baby proposal: to focus on the necessity of deciding one way or the other an important issue that could not be compromised. If he could in principle play one game on Yom Kippur, he could have played two. If you need to be in shul seeking divine forgiveness on Yom Kippur, you don’t play any baseball that day. In this view, Green sacrificed both principles.
But there is also a third view: that we have obligations to God, and obligations to others, and sometimes they conflict. And it is not always clear which one is paramount. And under certain circumstances it may be admirable to try to do both. In addition, with one game, the choice may be a lot easier than when there are two.
At my conservative shul, most congregants came both Friday night and Saturday. But most of them did not spend the entire day in shul on Saturday. Most left after the sermon or Yiskor service, and returned about four hours later for the Neilah service, an hour and a half before sundown. Few of them had any pressing conflict -- certainly nothing that kept them awake at night during the week trying to decide what to do.
But the important thing is that they were there. They could have been more observant -- we all could be more observant -- but they did observe.
So did Shawn Green. He joins the list that includes Hank Greenberg, the home run slugger for the Detroit Tigers, who sat out Yom Kippur in 1934 during the Tiger’s pennant race. As Steve Wilstein noted in “Caught Between Faith and Team:”
"Greenberg's decision electrified the American Jewish community, and generations of people remember that with incredible pride," said Martin Abramowitz . . . "Greenberg's choice (was) how to balance loyalty to parents, religion, and tradition with commitment to his American profession and his desire to fully participate in American life," historian Peter Levine wrote. Sitting out on Yom Kippur made Greenberg a model for second-generation Jews struggling with similar issues at work.
Wilstein also described the case of Ron Blomberg, the first designated hitter in baseball, who in 1971 at Yankee Stadium against Cleveland, chose to sit out on Yom Kippur and became known as “the Sundown Kid:”
"It was . . . nearing sundown at home, tie game, two outs in the bottom of the ninth with a man on third base," Blomberg told the Long Island Press. "I'm up. If I don't do it, we go past sundown, and if we go past sundown, I'm going to have to leave. I hit a single to center field and we won the game.”
Sandy Koufax is the most famous instance of sitting out Yom Kippur, leading to Don Drysdale’s famous remark:
Koufax attended synagogue in Minnesota instead of pitching in Game 1 of the '65 Series against the Twins. Don Drysdale pitched that day and gave up seven runs in 2 2-3 innings. When manager Walter Alston came out to pull him from the game, Drysdale cracked, "I bet right now you wish I was Jewish, too."
Shawn Green struggled with his decision, trying to do the right thing under circumstances perhaps less difficult, perhaps more difficult than those of his predecessors. Like most of my fellow congregants, he was only partially observant.
But because he did not for a moment consider playing both games -- his decision was only whether he should sit out two games or try to meet a competing obligation with the second -- and because struggling with our moral obligations not only to God but also to others is ultimately what Judaism asks, Shawn Green’s picture goes up there with Greenberg’s and Koufax’s.