Why Don't Famous Jews Thank God Like Tim Tebow?
Four Rabbis, a reverend and a religion professor tackle the outspoken faith of the Broncos' QB.
I learned how to "Tebow" long before I learned who Tim Tebow was.
This is partially because I'm clueless when it comes to professional sports, but mostly because, at this point, the Denver Broncos' starting quarterback is as famous for his Christian faith as he is for his football skills.
Don't get me wrong — Tebow's game is fascinating on its own. A big portion of the Tim Tebow myth comes from the exciting, often bizarre way the quarterback manages to stage comebacks and lead his team to last-minute wins, as he did last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Many Bears fans are still smarting from a similarly dramatic overtime loss to the Broncos earlier this season.
But what increasingly makes Tebow such a phenomenon is his intense, outspoken Christianity, specifically his habit of thanking Jesus constantly. He points up to the sky when he or his team make a great play, thanks Jesus Christ in post-game interviews and kneels to pray — or "Tebows" — so often during games that actors, athletes, even other NFL players have begun imitating him. Saturday Night Live recently lampooned Tebow in a skit that featured Jesus visiting the Bronco locker room.
My question isn't why these people think God or Jesus has anything to do with their success, or why a higher power would feel compelled to intervene in sporting games or the music industry. As someone who was raised Jewish, my question is much more self-centered: Why don't famous Jews thank God the way famous Christians do?
I spoke with four rabbis, one local priest and a religion professor at Lake Forest College to find out.
Here's what they had to say.
An evangelical outspokenness
Rabbi Michael Sommer at Congregation B'Nai Torah in Highland Park suggests that, since Christianity encourages proselytizing, famous Christians like Tebow feel obligated to observe their faith publicly so they can spread it to others.
"We don't proselytize," Sommer said about Jews. "We don't believe that you have to believe as we believe or else."
Reverend David Perkins, from Highland Park Presbyterian Church, acknowledges an evangelical outspokenness in Christianity, but he also points out that Jesus preached humility as well. He cites a verse in Matthew that encourages Christians to pray behind closed doors.
"We have this proclamation tradition," Perkins explained, "but we also have this humility tradition, and I think there's a tension between the two."
Because Judaism lacks an evangelical streak, according to Sommer, most Jews keep their practices to themselves.
Unless they're making fun of them.
"Jewish movie stars will go to high holidays, but they won't advertise it on TV," Sommer said. "Unless you're Larry David and you're poking fun at it."
What complicates this comparison is that famous Jews like Larry David maintain a culturally Jewish identity while disregarding any religious elements — something that doesn't happen in Christianity, according to Rabbi Michael Schwab at North Shore Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park.
"You can identify yourself as a Jew and be proud of it … without being overtly connected to the religious side of things," Schwab said. "That's a little tougher to do with a Christian identity."
Rabbi Evan Moffic at Congregation Solel in Highland Park, however, thinks the difference between how Tebow addresses his religion and how people like Larry David or Woody Allen address theirs comes down to intent.
"I think Tim Tebow is doing it as a source of pride," Moffic said, "Woody Allen and others do it as a way of making jokes."
Herbert Braunstein, a senior religion professor at Lake Forest College, agrees that Jewish celebrities, like Woody Allen, are more likely to make fun of their roots publicly than give thanks for them. These celebrities, he suggests, offer negative reflections on Jewish life that "comes from a lack of positive orientation of Jews other than bagels and lox."
Liberal Jews just don't know how
Even if Jewish celebrities wanted to thank God as theatrically as Tebow does, Rabbi Schwab argues that most wouldn't know how.
"Many of the Jews who are in the spotlight are simply not as religious," Schwab said. "Therefore, you can have a Jew who is famously identified as being Jewish who wouldn't speak in religious terms."
Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, give thanks to God all the time, according to New York-based rabbi Geoff Mitelman, a friend of Rabbi Sommer's. If you ask an orthodox Jew how they are, and they're doing well, they'll respond "Baruch Hashem," which is Hebrew for "Thank God." Aside from reggae singer Matisyahu and Kosher Sex author Shmuley Boteach, however, there aren't many orthodox Jewish celebrities.
"Liberal Jews," Mitelman said, "don't have the language to talk about God in the way that works for them."
Human agency or God's will?
Mitelman also argues that Judaism emphasizes human agency, meaning that, if Tim Tebow was Jewish, he wouldn't feel compelled to thank God after a successful play because he would assume he had done it himself.
"We are partners with God," Mitelman said, "but we have to be the ones to do it."
Yet Christianity maintains a similar ideology, according to Rev. Perkins. He argues that you can credit God for giving you a gift, but that ultimately you choose to use it to the best of your ability.
"I don't think God takes sides in athletic disputes," Perkins said. He added, jokingly, that he refuses to say "Go Bears" from the pulpit on Sundays, despite protests from some in his congregation.
"If you lose the game, does that mean God wanted you to lose? It brings up all types of questions of the intentions of God."