Since this is Duke, we all know what “GTHC” means, and it isn’t going to be an attempt at a clever pun based on who is in the Super Bowl this year. We all know that we have the better teams and that we’re going to play hard and beat our rivals. We also all know that UNC has been taking quite a beating in the press recently, with the national media picking up on the fact that there have been (and possibly still are) some very significant academic issues with some of UNC’s athletes. Something else we all know is that it is hard to read about UNC’s academic transgressions without, at least, a little bit of schadenfreude when we consider that (as The Chronicle has recently reported) Duke athletic teams are ranked first academically in the NCAA with a 98 percent graduation success rate. Winning both on and off the field is what being a student-athlete is about, and we can say with a great deal of faith that we see this at Duke.
This is in no small part because of how seriously we take scholarship at Duke. As tenting begins before the Duke/UNC home game, I find myself recalling Titus and thinking that perhaps there are aspects of his behavior worth emulating. Titus was the son of the Roman emperor Vespasian and the first son to succeed his father as emperor. Prior to becoming emperor, he was a revered military leader much like his father was. One of his significant accomplishments—for which he was awarded a great triumph in Rome, commemorated by the Arch of Titus—is effectively ending the first Jewish-Roman war in 70 A.D. with the sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. So I get how it may seem a little odd for a rabbi to be writing about someone who destroyed the spiritual center for the Jewish people and suggesting that there might be something worth emulating in his behavior. But you’re already two paragraphs in, so you may as well stick with me for a little longer.
After decades of Roman domination (partially our fault really, they were initially invited in) of Judea, there was a revolt that began in 66 A.D. and escalated very quickly. As a result of Roman setbacks, the Roman military governor of Syria brought down a significant force of professional soldiers with the intention of decisively putting down the Jewish rebellion. While it was a decisive battle, it did not go in the Roman’s favor. The Roman troops were defeated and the 12th Legion’s Aquila standard was lost—a massive and embarrassing setback for Rome. After four more years of conflict, first under Vespasian and then under Titus, the more than 60,000 professional Roman soldiers steadily conquered the remainder of the province until only Jerusalem remained. Just as it is now, Jerusalem was then the capital of Israel and the spiritual center of the Jewish faith.
Placing the city under siege, the Roman forces under Titus sought to break the morale of Jerusalem’s defenders in a variety of ways, including crucifying people who attempted to flee the city, but the city walls held against the Roman legions. Unfortunately, the leaders inside of Jerusalem were not united, and, as a result of their infighting, there was very little food left in the city. After a siege of seven months, the Romans succeeded in breaching the walls and proceeded to sack, pillage and burn the city. Accounts differ as to whether or not Titus ordered the Temple protected or burned, but, in the end, by either accident or design, it was destroyed along with the city. According to the historian Josephus, over one million Jews died defending Jerusalem, and close to one hundred thousand were taken as slaves by the Romans. By the standards of the Romans, it was a tremendous victory. The land route to Africa was once again secure, a major rebellion was crushed, and the empire would profit from the slaves taken and the treasures of the Temple. Yet, Titus refused the traditional victor’s wreath. For the Romans and many other people in the ancient world, war wasn’t just about the armed conflict but was seen as a manifestation of the divine on earth. According to the author Philostratus, Titus refused the wreath since he saw no glory in defeating a people he viewed as having been abandoned by their God, and Titus merely served as the means by which the God of Israel manifested his wrath against the nation.
Such a degree of humility in a victorious general and the son of the emperor is astonishing, to say the least. By any reasonable Roman standard, he was deserving of the wreath and far more, yet he refused. As much as Titus did horrific things to my ancestors in the land of Israel, I can’t help but believe that his example matters to us. There is a method of Jewish exegesis called a Kal v’homer, from “an easy case to a hard case,” that I think is useful here. If Titus was able in a case of life and death to recognize that there were larger things in play, how much more should we recognize that there is more to our rivalry with UNC than simply beating down the other school?
But we want to beat UNC. We want to defeat them utterly in sports and see them return home to Chapel Hill in defeat. And we want it to be clean—since there is no glory in defeating a demoralized foe. Our victory has to matter because our rival is not only worthy of rivalry but simply worthy. UNC is not a bad school—in fact, it is a rather good school. To allow the rivalry to extend beyond the arena and to attack them for things that don’t matter on the court is not worthy of us. They deserve to be treated better than that—to be treated the way we would wish them to treat us. The rivalry can be heated, but is also needs to be respectful.
While the academic issues plaguing UNC athletics are making headlines, they should be viewed as disappointing to us rather than a means of scoring points off of our rival. We’ll score those points on the court, and leave it to the investigators to deal with the rest. At the end of the day, we need UNC to be not only a great rival, but also recognized as a great school.
Jeremy Yoskowitz is the campus rabbi and assistant director for Jewish life. His column runs every other Thursday. Send Rabbi Jeremy a message on Twitter @TheDukeRav.