The Concept of Marit Ayin

As most of you probably know, I am a loyal fan of the New England Patriots. After so many decades of suffering with the Pats, the last 13 years have been so much fun and the team has rewarded their fans with 3 Super Bowl Championships and we certainly have hopes this year.

While I haven’t quite become a Detroit Lions’ fan over the past 26 years I’ve lived in Michigan, I have a soft spot in my heart for them and hope that someday, sometime, they will reward their fans with a championship although even one post season win would be a good place to start.

I watched most of yesterday’s Lions-Cowboys game and really thought that the Lions were going to pull it out somehow but it wasn’t to be. But, of course, everyone who watched the game today is talking about the very unusual event which took place in the 4th quarter when the Cowboys were called for defensive pass interference on a key play. The penalty would have given the Lions, who were ahead at the time, a first down in Cowboys territory with 6 minutes left in the game. After the call was announced on the field and the TV announcers and their “expert on NFL rules” all agreed that the call was correct, the referees reversed their ruling said it was not a penalty without giving any explanation as to why the “flag was picked up”. Of course, the Cowboys went on to win the game.

The game took place in Dallas, the home of the Cowboys who have in recent years been a disappointment . This is the team that was once called “America’s team” and some wonder whether the NFL would have a reason to want to see the Cowboys succeed. So, immediately people began to speculate as to whether the reversal of the call might have had something to do with the desire on the part of the league that the Cowboys win the game.

But, things really got interesting when it was reported in several media outlets that the head of officiating for the NFL had been on a Dallas Cowboys “party bus” during  the summer smiling with the owners of the team. Apparently, a video shows him looking in the words on one site “chummy” with team executives and the owner’s son.

Now, let me be very clear right here. I have no idea whether that means anything or not. And, I certainly don’t want to appear to be claiming that the reversal of the penalty call had anything to do with some kind of a desire that the Cowboys win or was a kind of a payback to a “friend” of the boss of the referees. I have no idea whether that’s the case and can’t be the judge.

So, why bring it all up? Because it is the ideal way to teach a concept of Jewish law called “Marit Ayin”, literally: “How it looks to the eye”.

According to Jewish legal tradition, one must avoid something that appears to be illegal or improper even if it is not. One must be very careful not to give the impression of impropriety even if no such impropriety exists. Thus, it would seem to me that the director of officials should not have been on “the party bus” with Dallas Cowboys’ officials even if it was completely harmless and had no effect whatsoever on the ruling on the field yesterday or at any other game.

Let me give you a couple of quick examples of “marit ayin”. According to Jewish law, if one is serving something that looks like it is not kosher (think almond milk at a meat meal or artificial bacon bits made of soy), one should have the packaging on the table so it is clear to everyone what is being served. There is no reason why eating either of these should be prohibited but one must be careful not to give the appearance that real milk at a meat meal or real bacon would be kosher.

Another example: if a couple comes to me to officiate at their wedding and want to have a more contemporary ketuba, wedding document, I will tell them they must also sign a “traditional” Conservative ketuba. But, if they want the contemporary ketuba signed and displayed publicly at the wedding, I will agree to that but will be very careful to say publicly that the couple also signed a traditional ketuba which is required according to Jewish law. This is done so as not to give the impression that the non-traditional ketuba is acceptable in and of itself.

And, finally a story: when I was working at Camp Ramah, we used to have small single serving boxes of cereal at breakfast. There was a rule that the kids could not take the boxes out of the hadar ochel, the dining room, and eat them either  in the bunks because of a fear of bugs and other animals (and to prevent waste). The kids were all aware of this rule and one morning I saw one of my campers with a box of cereal on the road back to the bunk. I reminded him of the rule and took it away from him. A minute later, while I was still holding the cereal, a bunch of campers from another bunk saw me and started complaining about how the rules were only for the kids and not for the staff and making fun of me for breaking the rule. I explained it patiently to them but they refused to believe my story. That is clearly marit ayin.

So, who knows if there was anything behind this non-penalty in the Lions game. What is important is that a person in a position of responsibility should not give any impression of impropriety because one can never tell the assumptions it leaves people with.

Good luck to the Lions next year. And, of course, Go Patriots!

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