Ah, summertime in Olympia. Despite the excessive (?) heat this week, I believe most of us can agree that summertime is truly special around here. Moods brighten, plants are in bloom, raincoats and fleeces are hung up and there is much to see and do.
One of my favorite summertime activities over the past few years has been playing softball. Almost 8 years ago a group of interested TBH members put together a softball team, the Stars of David. Over the years we have switched from the Thurston County league to the Olympia city league, changed parks, lost and added members and gained a regular coach, but the Stars taking the field each spring and summer has been something I have looked forward to.
The league in which we play is sanctioned by the USSSA–the United States Specialty Sports Association–the national governing body of slow pitch softball and other amateur recreational sports. While the general principles of baseball/softball are followed, as a co-ed recreational league, the league has some other unique rules as well. For example, our team must field 5 men and 5 women, and alternate in the batting order. To keep games moving, every batter starts with a 1-1 count, so only 3 balls make a walk and 2 strikes a strike-out. And in addition to a foul ball counting as a first or second strike, two foul balls can add up to be a third strike.
But one rule that has got me and some of my teammates irked is this odd one: if a man walks, he gets two bases and the woman who follows him in the batting order may automatically take first base. So if a pitcher (which is sometimes me) walks a male batter with the bases empty, suddenly there are runners on first and second. And if there is a runner on second and a man walks, suddenly a run scores as well. The reasoning is the presumption that the male players are going to be better hitters, and the tendency would be to try to intentionally walk the male batters to pitch to the female batters.
There are in my mind several problems with this rule. First the presumption is wrong. Tying skill to gender is blatantly sexist, and overlooks the fact that there both great male and female players. Second, it injects a level of competitiveness in a league that is meant to be fun and recreational. Third it denies women the equal opportunity to play in a game as full participants, and denies them the opportunity to have some fun. What’s potentially worse is female players may feel pressure from teammates not to hit when they may want to.
Many of the teams we play exercise this rule. This last Monday both teams without question sent their female batters to first base after a male walked. I’m convinced that these two games–which we lost–would have been closer if that rule did not exist. And one of the things I am proud of is that our coach, Dick Court, insists that women bat no matter what. In short, we do not exercise this rule. Though we have the right to have a female batter take first base after a walk, we do not use it.
Today is the Fourth of July. We celebrate the founding of our country, but more than simply marking a date in history, we celebrate the values upon which our country was founded. It is an opportunity to remember that despite all the social problems which still exist, the principles of equality and justice, due process and liberty which provide the foundation for our social contract are sound. The institutions we invest with securing these principles continue to function in our quest to become a more perfect union. As Jews, and especially as liberal Jews, we particularly note the benefit the United States and its guarantee of religious freedom has had for the growth and diversity of Judaism.
Today is a good day to reread our sacred civil documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Reading them reminds us that one of the foundations of our civil society is that of rights–that we have, because we are human, certain rights which must be protected. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” reads the Declaration. Yet rights which we are guaranteed as individuals must be balanced with the responsibility to exercise those rights in a way which benefits our society as a whole, and not just our selves. Exercising our rights is part of the social contract. At the same time, not exercising our rights for the benefit of others is also part of the social contract.
This concept exists within the Jewish legal tradition. Found in the Talmud is the concept “lifnim meshurat hadin.” Literally this means “beyond the line of the law” or as we might understand it, “beyond the letter of the law.” Essentially it is not exercising a legal right one is entitled to because it is “the right thing to do.” One example is in the Babylonian Talmud, Baba Kamma 99b (slightly paraphrased):
A woman came to Rabbi Hiyya to show him a coin for authentication, and he told her it was good. She later came back and told him others informed her it was no good, and that she could not pass it. Rabbi Hiyya told her to change it for a good one and put in the register that it was a bad transaction…But wouldn’t Rabbi Hiyya be exempt from liability because he is an expert? Yes, but he was acting lifnim meshurat hadin.
As a certified expert moneychanger, Rabbi Hiyya was of no legal obligation to refund his customer after he made an error in authentication. However, he did so anyway, which the Talmud characterizes as acting “beyond the letter of the law.” In other words, Rabbi Hiyya gave up his legal right to benefit another.
Think of current debates regarding gun ownership and responsibility. While the meaning of the Second Amendment has been called into question, we can safely say that even if one has an individual right to bear arms, it does not mean he or she has an obligation to bear arms. Perhaps for the sake of public safety, we should err on the side of not exercising this right.
Which brings us back to softball. I am glad that the Stars of David have taken a principled stand to not exercise a right we are entitled to. I wish that more teams would do so as well. On this day of celebrating our country and its sacred texts, let us remember that the strength of our community and on our society is sometimes dependent on what we don’t do, just as much as it is on what we do.