Q. My son is pretty quick, and his little league coach has been encouraging him to steal bases. I’m worried that this is improper behavior. A player deserves to advance if he earns it through a hit, or if the defense forfeits a base through an error. But is it really ethical to steal a base? We always try to discourage our children from stealing. TC
Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, The Jewish Ethicist responds.
A. Your query is most appropriate, for Jewish law definitely differs from secular law in its approach to ownership, particularly in the area of real estate. While every legal system has to balance strict justice with a degree of expediency, Jewish law tends more to the strict protection of property rights.
For example, in secular law we have the doctrine of “adverse possession,” whereby someone obtains valid title to real estate merely by virtue of extended and unchallenged possession. But in Jewish law, such possession confers title against a previous owner only if accompanied by a credible claim to legitimate purchase. A known squatter can never wrest ownership from a true title owner. So it sounds as though stealing bases could be a serious problem.
However, when we examine this issue more carefully we see that this distinction is valid only if the previous owner himself possesses clear evidence of ownership. Otherwise, Jewish law affirms that mere possession may in fact create certain rights. Indeed, in some cases where neither side has convincing evidence of title, then Jewish law explicitly recognizes that “might makes right” (kol de’alim gevar).
This is obviously the case regarding the bases in a baseball match. While the defending team carefully tries to prevent the offense from obtaining possession of the bases, they certainly have no valid title to these coveted lots. After all, the ostensible control of the bases changes at least twice each inning.
An additional lenient consideration is that since stealing bases is accepted in custom and in the rulebook, and the defending team wants the ability to steal bases when they are at bat, they presumably waive any legal right they might have to prevent stealing. Jewish law contains many instances where a fundamental legal right may be considered waived if it is clearly in the interest of all sides to suspend it.
So in this case Jewish tradition affirms the practice accepted in secular jurisprudence, and it is perfectly ethical and appropriate to steal bases in accordance with the rules of the game. Your boy’s coach is to be praised for encouraging his ability. Just make sure that your youngster shows good sportsmanship and doesn’t spike or otherwise rough the infielders. SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra, third chapter.
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