The Greatest: Ali and a Strong Pluralism

Considered to be the greatest sports picture in the 20th Century, I have not been able to get this image of Muhammad Ali out of my head since he passed away last week.

Neil Leifer’s photograph captures the 23 -year-old heavy weight boxing champion Muhammad Ali standing triumphantly over the 34-year-old Sonny Liston. Ali had snatched the title from Liston 15 months earlier. One minute and 44 second into the first round, Ali hit Liston in the chin putting Liston down on the mat. In this iconic image Ali is screaming, “Get up and fight, sucker!”

This picture captures the image pf the spirit of a true competitor and gives us some insight into the life of a great athlete. In his life Ali was the consummate fighter. Fighting in the ring, fighting the draft, fighting racism, and fighting Parkinson’s. As President Roosevelt talked about in his famous 1910 Man in the Arena speech, even Ali failed he failed valiantly while ” daring greatly”.

In addition to all of this, this image of Ali standing over Liston has also come to symbolize my commitment to pluralism. I am not talking about the weak  sauce modern pluralism of “I am OK Your OK”. Just telling everyone “You Be You”  runs the risk of cultivating cold and dispassionate society in which no one cares about each other. I am talking about a strong pluralism in which there is actual mutuality and a sense of family while at the same time making room for deviance, diversity, and real differences. My commitment to pluralism is not despite my Orthodoxy , but because of it. As an Orthodox Jew by definition I think that my life choices are right. So what is my commitment to pluralism?

Living a life committed to Halacha is the greatest, but we are only our best when our competitors are at their best.  In my pluralism I want everyone to get up and fight. I sincerely hope that everyone else feels the same way. Together we need to make sure that everyone is at their best, only then will be mean something to win the title.

1 Response to “The Greatest: Ali and a Strong Pluralism”


  1. 1 Josh Satok June 17, 2016 at 2:37 pm

    I’m wondering- i know i’ve heard you talk about this pluralism idea, that it’s only worth it if everyone’s at their best. But do you think it applies to individuals and movements in the same way? That is, I can be pluralistic if I engage with my neighbour who’s a good Reform Jew, not just a half-hearted Reform Jew vs Orthodoxy is better off being pitted against a good version of Reform Judaism overall compared to a week movement . And I feel like there’s some sort of private/public mix that has to be thrown in- unlike Ali only being truly great if Liston’s performing at his peak, since the world can see Liston perform in the boxing match, with religion there’s the version you see and the version going on inside. The same can obviously be said for boxing- maybe Ali was a mess inside while still dominating in the ring- but there’s also, to me, an interesting question about the way someone might see you perform your Judaism vs your own personal Judaism, which aren’t as separate as I think they are in athletes, where there’s the personal self and then the competitor self.
    As a side note- interesting article in the Atlantic I read earlier today arguing to not use sports analogies in business – good timing to see if we should or shouldn’t use them in Judaism! http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/06/sport-metaphors/487433/


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