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Judaism on Steroids

Ryan Braun, the reigning MVP of baseball's National League, is having a rough offseason. On December 12, ESPN reported that Braun had tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug (PED) after a league-mandated drug test revealed elevated levels of testosterone in his system. That Ryan Braun is Jewish is probably irrelevant—but it certainly makes the story a whole lot more interesting.

Relevant Links
Braun's Temple  Richard Sandomir, New York Times. Why such interest in whether a ballplayer plays a game or worships on a High Holy Day? Call it the Greenberg-Koufax Yom Kippur Precedent.
The Golden Age of Jewish Ballplayers?  David Elfin, Moment. Profiles of Braun, Craig Breslow, Ike Davis, Danny Valencia, and Kevin Youkilis.

The test results are disappointing for a number of reasons. Braun was supposed to be one of the good guys, a leader of the new generation of ballplayers who have begun to rehabilitate professional baseball after years of rampant drug abuse. He's a consummate professional, a community leader, and, by all accounts, a genuinely nice guy. Also, did I mention that he's Jewish? By default, Braun inherited the mantle of Koufax, Greenberg, and Rosen as the Great Jewish Athlete, living out the dreams of middle-aged lawyers and doctors across the country. With this positive test, Braun has crushed the hopes of Jewish mothers and sons everywhere.       

The case is still far from over. Reports indicate that the positive test may have stemmed from medication that Braun was taking for a "private medical issue," and Braun's agent released a statement citing "highly unusual circumstances surrounding this case which will support Ryan's complete innocence." Meanwhile, Braun himself has denied all wrongdoing, calling the results "BS."

If the test is upheld, he will face a 50-game suspension and $1.87 million in lost wages; even if the case is overturned, this incident will remain a blemish on Braun's sterling reputation. The lingering impact may prove especially harmful because of baseball's emphasis on spectator involvement—fans choose the league All-Stars and media members decide every major award.  

But before we condemn the young star, it is important to remember that Braun is not the first of his kind to use questionable supplements to gain a competitive advantage. In fact, PEDs have a long history—both in baseball and in Judaism.

The widespread use of PEDs in baseball is nearly as old as the game itself. In 1889, pitcher Pud Galvin of the Pittsburgh Burghers began endorsing a testosterone supplement made from dog testicles. He won 23 games that season. Anecdotal evidence indicates that baseball legends Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Babe Ruth experimented with testosterone, amphetamines, and sheep testicle extract, respectively. By the 1970s, amphetamine use was rampant, and an increasing number of ballplayers soon began experimenting with anabolic steroids and human growth hormone. Cocaine reached epidemic levels in the 1980s.

Jewish sources confirm this human desire for self-improvement, but also discuss the potential moral and medical drawbacks. The most comprehensive study of medicine in the Bible and Talmud remains Biblisch-Talmudische Medizin (Biblical and Talmudic Medicine), published by Julius Preuss in 1911. Preuss, who was a doctor and Hebraic scholar, utilized a rigorous, analytical approach in studying the ancient texts, and this extensive volume reflects a lifetime of serious medical and Judaic scholarship.

Over 18 chapters, Preuss covers anatomy, neurology, psychology, obstetrics, sexual health, Jewish medical rituals, dermatology, and a range of obscure and familiar maladies as discussed in talmudic and biblical writings. He also chronicles ancient remedies, some fantastical, others familiar. For an earache: pour lukewarm kidney fluids in the ear (though melted chicken fat works in a pinch).  A fever calls for radishes; a cold for beets; and cabbage works across the board.  Wine, small fish, and leeks were known to aid digestion. Fred Rosner, who translated Preuss's tome in 1978, summed up the general health and nutrition advice of the Talmud: "Eat moderately, eat simply, eat slowly, and eat regularly."

However, the advice is not merely gastronomical. Rabbis throughout Jewish history also experimented with a range of concoctions meant to increase strength and stamina—kosher PEDs.

In tractate Gittin, the sage Abaye recommends a mixture of ground safflower boiled with wine to promote vascular and sexual health. Rabbi Yohanon appears to have been a fan of the formula and offers an emphatic endorsement: "This restored me to my youthful vigor!" Maimonides, in his treatise "The Regimen of Health," mentions oxymel, refined syrup of roses, and infusion of tamarind as effective means to increase strength and ward off disease.

Of course, Braun was not busted for high levels of tamarind in his system. Regardless of talmudic inspiration, cheating is certainly frowned upon in Jewish law. At the least, steroid use represents a violation of gneivat da'at, deceit; at most, it is downright theft. If steroids influenced Braun's on-field performance (which, I understand, is kind of the point), then he effectively robbed another worthy ballplayer of the MVP trophy, a spot on the All-Star team, and perhaps a lucrative spot on the Brewers' roster.

PEDs also violate the biblical prohibition of self-endangerment. Based on the verse "you shall guard yourself rigorously," rabbis derived a series of laws prohibiting physical or spiritual self-harm. Steroids may qualify as both: Physical consequences of steroid abuse include liver tumors and cancer, jaundice, high blood pressure and increased cholesterol, kidney tumors, fluid retention, and severe acne; men may experience shrinking of the testicles, reduced sperm count, infertility, baldness, breast development, and increased risk of prostate cancer. Psychologically, steroid abuse can lead to increased aggression, anxiety, and depression.   

Finally, studying talmudic medicine may also solve another part of the problem: Why would Ryan Braun take steroids in the first place? In seven years of major and minor league baseball he had never before been implicated in a drug test, and with baseball's increasingly strict testing policy, it was likely he would be caught. Why risk it?

"Three things weaken a man's strength," according to the Talmud: "traveling, anxiety, and sin." Traveling and anxiety are fixtures in a professional athlete's life, especially during the playoffs. What about sin? Well, on October 7, days before Braun tested positive, he went 2 for 3 and scored a run in the clinching game of the National League Division Series, a 3-2 Brewers' victory.

It was Yom Kippur.

Micah Stein is an avid fan of the Cleveland Indians; he is currently a Fellow at the Tikvah Fund.

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TheRealJoe on January 9, 2012 at 12:33 pm (Reply)
He's not Jewish. He may have a closeness to the Jewish community, but please stop making this into a whole Jewish guilt thing. That said, he's a great ball player who doesn't give off that "steroid feel." I believe he will survive this controversy.
Aviva Werner on January 10, 2012 at 9:53 am (Reply)
Unfortunately, history repeats itself. This article and lesson plan from our archives can serve as a great way to talk to middle school-age students about Ryan Braun and his current steroids scandal
Ron Kaplan on January 11, 2012 at 9:32 am (Reply)
While I found the biblical and Talmudic information interesting, there are many things wrong with the thinking of this piece. The writer says Braun's positive test has "crushed the hopes of Jewish mothers and sons everywhere" (what about dads?). Should Jews hold themselves to a higher standard? That plays into the stereotype that Jews think they're superior to everyone else. The writer also says that Braun's suspension, even if overturned, will "remain a blemish" on his reputation. Why? If it is overturned, it means Braun did no wrong, at least as far as the spirit of the law goes. (Many Olympic athletes have been disqualified because their prescription medicines, for ailments like asthma, contain banned substances.) Overturning Braun's suspension will mean that his taking whatever he took was justified. The defense that Braun "not the first to use questionable supplements" is the kind of thing a kid would tell his parents to excuse a poor decision. Finally, unless Braun took performance-enhancing drugs through his entire career without getting caught until now (unlikely), whatever he took this year did not greatly enhance his performance, since his numbers have been more or less the same since he made his major league debut.
DF on January 12, 2012 at 12:21 pm (Reply)
This article should not have been published. The writer pays lip service to the fact that Braun has strongly denied taking drugs, then proceeds to write as though it were conclusively established that Braun did precisely that. If theft and deception are part of ethics, as the writer instructs us, so is the concept of innocent until proven guilty. Remember those other athletes, the Duke Lacrosse players, who were "proven" guilty, not just accused? One should not write about Braun in connection with drugs until this case is over. Yes, that might take a long time, and an author will have to find something else to write about in the interim--but that's OK; we can wait. Ethics demand nothing less.

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