It happened at Armenia’s prestigious Demirchyan Sports Complex. Ten thousand people crowded the stands on November 25th for the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Youth World Boxing Championship – thousands remained outside for lack of space.
Young contestants from 70 nations flew in for the event. Israel sent a small delegation of some eight boxers, each the national champion in his weight class. Akiva Finkelstein (18) from Bet El, is Israel’s light welterweight (up to 140 lbs) champion. Born to Baruch – a published Torah scholar and real estate agent, and Michal – a midwife at a Jerusalem hospital, Akiva viewed the boxing schedule upon arrival and saw that his first fight was set for Saturday night.
Being a religious Jew, Akiva and his father had faced many difficult halakhic (Jewish legal) dilemmas at previous tournaments. Kosher food was always an issue. Other boxers delved into lavish steak dinners, while the Finkelsteins sufficed with fresh vegetables and canned kosher foods.
The standard procedure at boxing tournaments is to weigh in on the first day to assure that each contestant is within his designated weight class. But soon after arrival in Armenia, Akiva saw that the rules were slightly different. He immediately emailed his father stating that a new halakhic problem had arisen: the boxers had to weigh in on the same morning of any scheduled fight. For Akiva, this meant getting on the electric scale on Saturday morning, the Jewish Shabbat (Sabbath), when orthodox Jews refrain from actively using electricity.
Baruch joined his son in Armenia on Wednesday. He began negotiating with those in charge to try and have Akiva weighed in on Friday afternoon, before the onset of the Sabbath. The authorities wouldn’t bend.
Baruch patiently explained the problem to a high official in the International Boxing Association. After spending all the money to participate in the event and in view of the extenuating circumstances, Baruch told his son that if someone picks him up and places him on the scale while Akiva remains completely passive (in Jewish Law, this is called grama), that he could then weigh in on Saturday morning. The high official agreed to this arrangement, awkward as it was.
The Weigh In
Come Saturday morning, Akiva’s turn to get on the scale arrived. The high official who agreed to the special arrangement was there. But when the big boss of the event saw what was going on, he intervened to stop it. “The boy has to step on to the scale,” the man in charge said.
The high official who wanted to accommodate told Baruch, “It’s my boss. I can’t overrule him.” The otherwise simple procedure of weighing in fighters came to a halt, a verbal exchange began, and the room became quiet. Baruch argued his son’s case – the case of Judaism. Other board members expressed their opinion: “If it’s a religious issue and in the final analysis the Israeli contestant would fulfill our guidelines of being weighed on the same morning of the fight, so what do we care? Let’s comply with his request and place him on the scale.”
The boss heard them, was leaning towards agreeing, but then posed a question to Baruch. “These Jewish laws are centuries old, right? Then how did they know about electricity back then? It hadn’t been invented yet! What kind of a religion is this?”
Baruch wasn’t about to engage in a one-on- one study session with the big boss from Wales, England about the intricacies of electricity usage on the Sabbath in Jewish Law.
“These Jewish laws are centuries old, right? Then how did they know about electricity back then? It hadn’t been invented yet! What kind of a religion is this?”
The Boss’ Decision:
The boss made up his mind: “This Is utterly and completely absurd. I’ve never heard of anything like this in all my boxing years. And besides, what if this sets a precedent, and then maybe there will be a heavy guy who we can’t pick up. Forget this whole thing.” Turning to Baruch, he made his final call: “Your son either gets on the scale, or we disqualify him from his match tonight. He’ll be out of the championship.”
The Israeli coach turned to the Finkelsteins and said, “How can you back out of this? Had we known, we would have brought someone else from Israel to represent us in this weight class. You can’t just disqualify yourself over stepping on the stupid scale. No way!”
Akiva Finkelstein As A Kid:
Akiva began boxing when he was ten. From the outset, his coaches recognized his potential and said that if he works hard, he would represent Israel in the world championship when he turned 18. For eight years, Akiva had worked every single day for this moment.
His father even flew him to New York every summer to practice at Gleason’s World Famous Boxing Gym in Brooklyn. This is where Muhammed Ali trained along with many world boxing champions.
In addition to being a prize student in his Torah and secular studies, Akiva was completely focused on the 2012 World Championship for most of his childhood. It was his main aspiration.
And here the long-awaited moment had arrived and was in jeopardy over what appeared to all onlookers to be a trivial religious issue.
Baruch didn’t want to decide for his son. Akiva had sacrificed 8 years of his free time for this moment, and Baruch wasn’t going to be the one to take it away from him.
The room was completely quiet. The boss from Wales had given his final ultimatum. Baruch and all eyes were turned to 18-year- old Akiva.
Akiva tilted his head down and said, “I’m not getting on the scale. I can’t do it.”
The Int’l Boxing Association board promptly disqualified him. The Israeli coach was furious.
On Shabbat, Baruch and Akiva went to the only synagogue in the city where no one had prepared the Torah reading. Akiva accepted the challenge and read from the Torah.
The father and son got the earliest plane out and returned to Bet El, where Akiva went back to his Yeshiva.
I told this story to a Hanukkah gathering of my Israeli wife’s family. They are a mix of Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews, Religious, Hassidic, and non-religious Jews.
Some of the family members said: “This is utter stupidity. Some solution had to be found. Sometimes you have to be slightly flexible in your values, in order to accomplish a greater goal. Not to do so is senseless, blind extremism!”
Other family members said: “Akiva was put to the test and showed that his core values are more important than a life’s goal in sports. The Greeks passed decrees against our religion to extinguish it, and the Maccabees put their lives on the line to protect and defend our ideals. Akiva reinforced that very same victory.”
Editors Question: What would you have done? Are your convictions worth this kind of sacrifice? Join the conversation here.