Kobe Bryant and His Band of Merry Mensches


The Los Angeles Lakers are in the midst of one of the most baffling seasons I can remember. They’ve had blowout wins and losses, on the road and at home. One night they look like they didn’t know Hack-a-Howard was allowed in the NBA, and the next they look like a juggernaut. Their coaching change, from a defensive genius to interim superstar to offensive genius, serves as a useful metaphor for the turmoil they have undergone.

The best case scenario for the Lakers is to follow a similar path to the 2010-11 Miami Heat. The Heat had trouble integrating offseason acquisitions LeBron James and Chris Bosh and stumbled out the gate to a 9-8 record, before ripping off 21 victories in their next 22 games in route to the Finals. The Lakers have certainly had trouble integrating Dwight Howard, and haven’t even really had the chance to see what Steve Nash can do. It’s pretty hard to imagine that a team of four future Hall-of-Famers, under the direction of a known innovator, will finish the season around .500.

The worst case scenario is basically a continuation of what we have already seen. The Lakers have already seen the consequences of fielding one of the oldest rosters in the NBA with Nash and Pau Gasol’s injuries, and even their young superstar had offseason back surgery. They’ve already scrapped one offense and when, if, Steve Nash is fully healthy, they’ll likely change it again. Their schedule only gets harder from here; the Lakers failed to take advantage of a home-heavy schedule, and have gone 0-3 against potential Finals teams. Oh yeah, and Darius Morris is getting significant playing time.

Of course, there’s another possible scenario for the Lakers. The “astute” observers who bemoan our polarized, black-and-white, Twitter-focused, 24-hour news cycle following culture argue that the Lakers reality falls somewhere in between the extremes. While perhaps the Lakers won’t meet our inflated preseason expectations, they’re still good enough to challenge for a title. Seems reasonable.

I’ve watched probably half of the Lakers games this year, certainly enough to have an informed opinion, yet the only thing I can come up with is this: the Los Angeles Lakers are sooooo Jewish Talmudic.

***

When one begins to study the Torah there are the inevitable difficulties in understanding a dense religious text. In a supposedly comforting act, some rabbis will point to a famous quote in Judaism, from the Bamidbar Rabbah: “There are seventy faces of the Torah: Turn it around and around, for everything is in it.” The study of Halakha (Jewish law) is really the study of God’s mind, and was given directly to Moses at Mount Sinai. Seventy faces of law poses no problem to God, but it sure does for mere mortals.

Thousands of years ago there were two houses of scholars who studied Halakha, the House of Hillel and House of Shammai. They engaged in furious debate over the meaning of God’s word until, as the story goes, a booming voice from the heavens proclaimed “both these and these are the words of the living God.” Shortly thereafter these and subsequent debates were committed to paper as the Talmud. Today the Talmud is a 6,200 page exposition on Halakha that is structured as a series of competing arguments, but doesn’t actually contain any rulings. It’s as if when the Supreme Court heard a case they recorded their opinion, dissenting opinion and any concurring opinions, but then didn’t indicate which was which.

In Judaism, local customs and traditions resolve these contradictions. Many customs have become adopted universally by world Jewry, but others only persist among certain smaller groups of Jews. For example, while wearing a head covering has been universally adopted, Sephardic Jews consider rice kosher during Passover but Ashkenazi Jews do not. Thus, in a way, rice is simultaneously kosher and not kosher.

***

Imagine you gathered 25 knowledgeable basketball fans in an attempt to determine how good the Los Angeles Lakers truly are. After some healthy debate, and probably a few “Basketball Reasons” jokes, a vote is taken. Ten people vote that the Lakers are a championship favorite, seven vote that the Lakers are a top ten team, and eight vote that the Lakers will struggle to even make the playoffs. We’re no closer to an understanding of the Lakers. What a stupid way to decide things, yet, that’s pretty much how the Committee for Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) operates.

The CJLS is the head body of law for the Conservative movement. It is comprised of 25 rabbis who debate and ultimately vote on matters brought before them, but here’s the twist: only six affirmative votes are needed for a position to become law. Thus, on any given issue the CJLS officially has between one and four, often contradictory, positions. The rabbi for each congregation decides which of these positions is the most compelling to his community.

In the haste to be the first to commit an argument to paper, we rush too quickly towards definitive proclamations. Someone, somewhere, is proud of the extra 400 page views they got for their article “Why the Los Angeles Lakers Are the Worst Team in Basketball” after they lost their opening game. But the current Lakers team doesn’t exist at a single point somewhere on the spectrum between championship favorite and lottery bound, but rather simultaneously occupies the entirety of the spectrum. You can think the return of Steve Nash will vault them into first place, I can think their bench is too shallow to make the playoffs, and we are both right. The Lakers are an offensive juggernaut, and the Lakers do not have an offensive identity. Both these and these are the identity of the Lakers.

Instead of arguing about them, let’s admire the fact that, in a league where the second most Jewish player is the questionably Jewish Amar’e Stoudemire, the Lakers are the most Jewish team this side of Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Thank you to Ethan Sherwood Strauss for unknowingly inspring this post.

About Kevin Draper

Kevin “Franklin Mieuli” Draper was born and raised in Oakland, California, and loves it more than you can possibly imagine. Follow him on Twitter @kevinmdraper
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