Original photos: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images; Julian Finney/Getty Images
Original photos: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images; Julian Finney/Getty Images
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Federer, Nadal, and the Talmud

Are the two tennis masters in the French Open semifinals really just incarnations of two of Judaism’s wisest rabbis?

Jonathan L. Milevsky
June 07, 2019
Original photos: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images; Julian Finney/Getty Images
Original photos: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images; Julian Finney/Getty Images

Today, weather permitting, two friends will get together for the 39th time. At this encounter, they will challenge each other in ways that only each of them can. The meeting will be a measure of depth and precision, anticipation and creativity. But what makes this meeting special is not just that it has been going on for as long as it has—and with the same intensity, despite their age—but because they have been integral to each other and to the field in which they toil.

The two figures I speak of are Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two of the greatest tennis players of our generation, if not any generation, and the field on which they will find themselves this time is the clay of the French Open. But I can just as easily be referring to a beit midrash, a house of study, and the figures can be two illustrious scholars. I am thinking specifically of the third-century amoraic figures, Rabbi Yohanan ben Nappah and Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish, commonly known as Reish Lakish, the Talmudic sages who are known as much for their contribution to the Torah as for their background and relationship. In the Talmud, in Bava Metziah 84a, their first encounter is described as having occurred at an ocean. Immediately recognizing Reish Lakish’s strength, and maybe guessing at his gladiatorial background, R. Yohanan encourages him to put his powers into Torah. As an incentive, R. Yohanan offers Reish Lakish his sister’s hand in marriage. Reish Lakish agrees and they become inseparable.

The aptness of the comparison between these mythical sports figures and rabbinic sages, farfetched though it may seem, is crystallized by their respective styles of play and approaches to study. Federer is about precision, cutting points short in unexpected ways. Nadal is about power, and he is prepared to work to find a reply to everything sent his way. In the same way, the two rabbis are a study in contrasts. Reish Lakish could “crush mountains together,” despite his relative inexperience in the field compared to his opponent; but the latter more than counterbalanced this virtue by his own amount of knowledge. Reish Lakish specialized in taking points further, in drawing conclusions by association, but also in getting to the essence of a given legal category. It seems as if he was always prepared to keep the intellectual rally going, to offer an ever deeper insight into the subject matter, like a well placed crosscourt shot. It is no wonder that R. Yohanan says about him that he asked 25 questions about every teaching. Like Nadal, Reish Lakish had his quirks. He may not have needed two bottles by his seat, but Reish Lakish had to review a given teaching 40 times before he understood it. And like Federer’s respect for his sport and for those who preceded him, R. Yohanan revered the previous generation, and he knew their teaching intimately.

The comparisons do not end there. Like any tennis players, Nadal and Federer are bound by the rigid lines: The shots have to be restricted. R. Yohanan and Reish Lakish’s conduct in the beit midrash is no different: All the points made in their sessions, and all their reasoned arguments (sevarot) had to be grounded by verses from the Torah, based in logical argumentation, and/or needed to have corresponded to the accepted forms of interpretation. However, each figure worked within those parameters in different ways.

The two tennis players seem to divide the areas that they master. Federer specializes in grass; Nadal beats just about everyone on clay. In the same way, each of the two rabbinic figures is more knowledgeable in some fields. The law generally follows R. Yohanan, but there are a handful of cases when that is not the case. And it seems that R. Yohanan poses more questions to Reish Lakish on matters of sacrifices and purity than in other subjects. Not surprisingly, their different strengths and styles lead them to radically different conclusions. And although they agree many times, they disagree several hundred times too, often saying the opposite of each other.

Nevertheless, like our two sporting giants, the two rabbis have an immense amount of respect for each other. Although Nadal and Federer have suffered crushing losses to each other—after his Australian Open loss in 2009, Federer said “it’s killing me,” one possible interpretation of which is his inability to overcome Nadal—each player welcomes the opportunity to play his opponent. Likewise, for R. Yohanan, the questions posed by his chavruta, in Ketubot 84b, whom he calls his equal, were not only welcomed but necessary. Indeed, the absence of Reish Lakish ultimately meant his own death. We do not see as much emotion coming from Reish Lakish, but he truly valued the ideas that came from R. Yohanan. He said, “He taught me beautifully,” when repeating something in R. Yohanan’s name; and he even got angry when someone forgot to mention that a teaching came from R. Yohanan. He also took whatever R. Yohanan said seriously. In one midrashic compendium, the Yalkut Shimoni, it is said that, once Reish Lakish heard R. Yohanan say that one should never have a full smile on his face, he never again did so.

For both players and both sages, there appears to be an unwritten code of conduct. The strength possessed by Nadal needs to be left within the confines of the court; and the sharpness of Federer is placed in his bag along with his racket. Conversely, there is a danger if each player’s strength or precision moves outside its boundaries, in other words, if their unique characteristics get in the way of their relationship. This point brings us to the end of Reish Lakish’s life, which according to the Talmud came shortly after being at the receiving end of a comment about his history. The two were studying about knives, and R. Yohanan implied that Reish Lakish’s background gave him an upper hand on the subject. Reish Lakish died shortly thereafter, and not one young student was able to replace him as R. Yohanan’s chavruta. According to Daniel Boyarin, in his book Carnal Israel, the issue at the core of the final dispute between Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish related to the question of spiritual filiation replacing biological filiation, that is to say whether the spiritual reproduction of the Torah can substitute for the physical virility touted in Hellenic culture. For Boyarin, the end of the story shows that Reish Lakish, and the physicality of his presence, was not replaceable. But this issue also seems to be about the boundaries of their relationship. R. Yohanan’s own background meant that he was a fountain of knowledge, but his opponent was not like that; he was different. That difference, however, was what made him a good opponent. Reish Lakish viewed everything with fresh eyes and did so with unlimited determination. And R. Yohanan should not have overstepped his boundaries by bringing that up.

On a deeper level, the goal of both pairs is not defeating each other per se. From their earlier peers, R. Yohanan and Reish Lakish knew that the aim of their studies is to arrive at the truth. It is the view that, as long as both disputants are committed to that truth, their opinions are “words of the living God.” It is no wonder that the verse “the Torah of God is his will” (Psalms 45:5), makes the midrash on Psalms think of the teachings of R. Yohanan and Reish Lakish, as if to say they embody this concept. In a similar way, Federer and Nadal seem to go beyond winning and losing. In an article entitled “Love-Love: A Fresh Start at Finding Value and Virtues in Tennis,” Tommy Valentini draws on Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue to argue that, by focusing on the internal goods of sports, meaning those which we can control, such as improving our attitudes and commitment, we can transcend the measure of winning or losing. One component of this effort includes acknowledging that one can learn from other players. Nadal and Federer exemplify this idea: They respect each other’s abilities and welcome the opportunity to play each other, and grow from each other, regardless of the outcome. Let’s hope they get many more chances.


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Jonathan L. Milevsky holds a PhD in Religious Studies from McMaster University