I once gave a talk on Judaism and golf. Not famous Jewish golfers, or famous golfing Jews. My theme was a defense of the mitzvot, and how adhering to a set of rules enhances a sense of self, creates community, and elevates the mundane to its very opposite.
My text was Playing by the Rules: The Rules of Golf Explained and Illustrated from a Lifetime in the Game by Arnold Palmer. The book features the often arcane regulations of tournament golf — “If the player’s ball lies on the putting green, interference also occurs if such condition on the putting green intervenes on his line of putt” — with commentary and illustrative anecdotes by Palmer.
The text-and-commentary format, the sometimes impenetrable jargon, the close reading and arguments over ambiguities in the rules — Palmer’s book reminded me of nothing so much as a lost volume of Talmud. Rabbinic scholars would also recognize the distinction Palmer makes between halacha, or legal material (“The only situation in which a player can take partial relief from casual water is when the ball is in the bunker….”) and aggada, or homiletic material (“At the Masters, he once hit a ball on the par-five 15th that landed in a beer cup.”).
My point was that observant Judaism is not the only endeavor that seeks meaning in rules, and that far from taking away from the enjoyment of life, rules can actually enhance it. Golf derives its challenge and meaning from its traditions and restrictions. It might be easier to pick a ball up out of the sand and throw it overhand onto the green, but that wouldn’t be golf. Similarly, it would be easier to treat Shabbat like any other day, but those who observe it know that the various restrictions — on electricity, travel, and spending money — can actually be liberating.
But what happens when the rules seem to be repelling more followers than they attract? Jewish outreach experts are asking this all the time, as sobering assessments like the Pew study tell us that fewer and fewer young people consider themselves Jews “by religion.” Some Jewish organizations propose reengineering the prayer service because many young or disengaged Jews consider it too long or arcane. A few shuls are experimenting with eliminating mandatory dues. Others worry that restrictions on interfaith families are driving young people away from the synagogue.
These efforts are matched by a fear that by tinkering with Jewish tradition you end up undermining it, or that in trying to attract new adherents you alienate a core membership for whom the current rules are just fine, thank you.
Golf is in a similar place. According to the National Golf Foundation, the number of golfers in the United States has declined from about 30 million in 2003-2006 to about 25 million today. In the key 18-34 demographic, participation has dipped 30 percent in the past 20 years.
According to a recent New York Times article, young players complain that the sport “takes too long to play, is too difficult to learn, and has too many tiresome rules.” In response, the golf industry, “increasingly a victim of its own image and hidebound ways,” is experimenting with various new rules and innovations.
These include 15-inch holes, about the size of a pizza. There are proposals to allow mulligans, or do-overs, once a hole; to allow players to use a tee on every shot; and, yes, to permit the ball to be thrown out of a sand bunker.
Other rule changes would focus on that bête noir of Hebrew school and synagogue attendance: “the busy schedules of parents and families.” One change would allow parents and kids to play a limited number of holes, rather than paying for 18- or nine-hole rounds.
Of course, traditionalists are wary. “I don’t want to rig the game and cheapen it,” says Hall of Fame golfer Curtis Strange. “I don’t like any of that stuff.” In a letter to the Times, a reader from Monroe, NJ, sounded like any rabbi who every complained about lowered standards for bar and bat mitzva: “Making the cup the size of a dinner plate is to me just another sign of the continuing trend to make everything in life require less effort so as to achieve a satisfactory result, rather than an excellent one.”
So how do you keep innovation from being the enemy of change? “It’s important to note that innovation in a Jewish context does not mean making up something new out of whole cloth,” writes Rachel Cort, a young Jewish professional, at eJewishPhilanthropy.com, “but rather drawing on the authentic traditions of our past to create experiences that respond to the exigencies of our present moment.”
Or consider the words of Ted Rabbi — I mean Ted Bishop, the president of the PGA of America. “We’ve got to stop scaring people away from golf by telling them that there is only one way to play the game and it includes these specific guidelines,” he told the Times. “We’ve got to offer more forms of golf for people to try. We have to do something to get them into the fold, and then maybe they’ll have this idea it’s supposed to be fun.”