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Super Bowl can be a spiritual experience

Without question, the Super Bowl is an expensive ticket, a gambler's paradise, a place for wardrobe malfunctions, unrealized dreams and magic moments.

But, now, it's being called a spiritual experience.

Or, as Rabbi Brad Hirschfield calls it: the Sacred Bowl.

And he offers plenty of reasons for his unorthodox view.

"Whether you are a viewer or a participant, it stretches our definition of what we can achieve and our capacity of achieving more," said Hirschfield, vice president of the New York city-based CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

And he finds it regrettable that more religious leaders don't key into what seems so obvious to him.

"Super Bowl Sunday is a different kind of Sunday across this country," said Hirschfield, "and it would be great if people who claim to worry about souls appreciated that as much as people who want to sell us cars and beer.

"Think about the buzz and excitement and connectedness that surround a Super Bowl game -- that's the language of a spiritual experience," said Hirschfield, who has appeared on "Nightline Up Close," "Frontline" and National Public Radio.

"The trick is to take all your human experiences seriously and understand that if it creates community, connection and teaches you to respect human freedom and accomplishment, those are all the things that a healthy experience should do. Anything that's that important to that many people is by definition a spiritual matter. I can't imagine any God that wants a religious experience limited to a few hours a week in a particular building.

"The real story is shame on religion for not appreciating how important a day it is as much as the people who advertise power tools."

For Hirschfield, the Super Bowl represents a national pilgrimage festival that some get to in person and others participate in vicariously from their living rooms or neighborhood bars -- "just as some will make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Rome and Mecca, while others make it in their hearts and minds, prayers and songs."

"At the first level, it creates intense community, just as religion does, around being Seattle fans or Pittsburgh fans, but it will also collect to all football fans," he said. "You can't love anything, in general, whether it's a person or a team, but a particular love of one thing should lead to a love of all.

"To be sure, loving your team only is always a bad idea, whether in sports or religion," he said, "but loving no team at all will leave you bored and lonely. The trick is to love a larger network of teams. That really is the test globally, but most either love only their own team or none at all, which gives us a world of spiritual seekers or lunatics willing to kill, and that's insufficient for this moment in history.

"Anyone may belong to a particular church and find community there, but the question is -- does membership in that church help the person to appreciate the churches beyond those walls?" said Hirschfield, an advocate of inter-faith dialogue.

A core teaching for traditional Jews, he said, is that all people are created in the image of God. "And sports reminds us that it's not just a philosophical concept, but that it's true, in our spirits and even in our bodies," he said. "In a world that separates body and spirit, sports reminds us that you can't. Any time religion separates bodies from souls, bad things happen, first to the bodies and then to their souls.

"When sports and religion are done right, we really feel the fullness of our freedom," said Hirschfield. "We really feel that we are as gods.

"We experience that sense of being in the zone that psychologists call 'the flow state,' of being where we are supposed to be, doing what we are supposed to do, with the people we want to do it with, and doing it all so well and naturally," he said. "And the glue in human relations is very sacred, like those times when a kid goes to a game with his dad.

"We know this stuff is sacred, but we're afraid to use that language because we've been taught not to," he said. "We have to bridge the gap between what we feel is sacred and what we've been taught."

For Hirschfield, the test of an experience is whether it makes people into better human beings and improves the world.

"And there are plenty of examples of 'yes' on both sides and in all candor, plenty when the answer is 'no,' " he said. "Which way it breaks is up to us -- whether we call ourselves fans or believers."


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