Rabbi Niles Goldstein is the author of The Challenge of the Soul: A Guide for the Spiritual Warrior, an approach to spiritual learning as seen through his eyes as a black belt martial artist. In his last blogs, he told us about his history in the rabbinate and in martial arts, and the strength of stamina. He is guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.
Over the past few months, I have been traveling around the country and talking about my newest book, The Challenge of the Soul: A Guide for the Spiritual Warrior. In it, I interweave the experiences I’ve had — and the lessons I’ve learned — in the course of both my 15 years in the rabbinate and during my 15 years of training in the martial arts (I have a black belt in karate). The overlap is remarkable, and I explore it in great depth.
While my new book offers an eight-step path toward self-empowerment and, ultimately, self-transcendence, there are two core principles that arise over and over again, not only in this book, but also in my previous work,Gonzo Judaism (which will appear in paperback in March). Clearly, these two concepts are of great import to me and to my approach to spirituality and religious life. They are courage and creativity.
What exactly is the challenge of the soul? What does it mean to be a spiritual warrior? First and foremost, it means that we must have the courage — or begin to develop it — to confront the trials of being human, to face the adversity inherent in our mortality. In this context, courage isn’t an end in itself, but a means to one: to inner growth, maturity, and eventually the ability to help others on their own journeys. Some of us are born with this capability; others must learn to cultivate it. Over time, though, as we become more and more self-confident, courage in the presence of challenge is not beyond anyone’s reach.
Courage is what makes creativity possible. If we can summon in our guts the ability to take risks (including the risk of failure), then almost anything becomes possible. Think about how this idea relates to the arts. Pablo Picasso learned how to draw conventional human figures long before his bold experiment with Cubism. Miles Davis trained in classical music prior to his daring journey into new and revolutionary forms of jazz. It wasn’t until both of these great artists had the fundamentals of their respective genres down cold — and the self-confidence that accompanied the experience — that they ventured out into uncharted territory.
How does this apply to the spiritual path? Some of history’s most successful spiritual warriors have overcome their obstacles and adversaries not by troops or swords but by courage and creativity. As far back as the Bible, David, long before he became a powerful king, faced the Philistine giant Goliath in a way that illustrates this principle. In the book of First Samuel, while the Israelite army stands paralyzed, too fearful to send forth one of its own soldiers to take on the hulking Philistine and his challenge to them to fight, the young and diminutive David offers himself as a challenger and potential champion of his people.
Many of us know what happens next. Goliath makes a bull rush toward David, expecting a conventional (and very easy) hand-to-hand engagement. Yet as the two men near each other, David reaches for a stone in his pouch, places it into his sling, and then hurls the projectile forward with a dexterity that collapses their distance. The stone smashes into the giant’s skull and knocks him unconscious. As David stands above the massive, prostrated Philistine, he picks up Goliath’s own sword and decapitates him with it. David, the future leader of the Israelite nation, emerges from this famous exchange unbowed and victorious because he uses bravery and innovation to overcome adversity.
David is a model for ways we might act when confronted by seemingly insurmountable challenges in our own, personal lives. This image of David does not mirror the restrained and serene version that was sculpted by Michelangelo many centuries later and that stands, still and almost complacent, in Florence. The true David, however, is far better characterized by audacity, by guts, and by a total refusal to submit to conventional tactics. He is a metaphor for anyone seeking the path of the spiritual warrior–a path of courage, creativity, and determination.
Rabbi Niles Goldstein’s book The Challenge of the Soul: A Guide for the Spiritual Warrior is out now. He has been blogging all week on MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.
Rabbi Niles Goldstein is the author of The Challenge of the Soul: A Guide for the Spiritual Warrior. In his last post he wrote about approaching spiritual learning as a martial artist. He is guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.
I recall a time in my life when I was tempted to give up, to walk away from something that I loved very much. As I think back on it today, stamina was the only thing that got me through the experience. In The Challenge of the Soul, I cite the important role that the martial arts have played in my own spiritual and rabbinic development, and how they can help us–through their practice and principles–to strive to become warriors of the spirit.
In my very traditional Shotokan karate system, you can only test for your black belt once a year–and it usually takes five or six years before your instructors will even allow you to participate in the exam, which takes place at the very end of a Special Training retreat. I’d put in those many years of practice, and my time had come to stand before my senior instructors and demonstrate my abilities as a karate practitioner. I was anxious, excited, and highly motivated. After half a decade of discipline, training, and knowing my place in the pecking order, I felt ready to be evaluated by my teachers.
By the time Special Training was over, I was exhausted, drained on every level of my being. I have come to see now, years later, how that was the point of placing the black belt exam at the end of our retreat. How do you test to see if someone truly has heart? Not at the start of our practice, when everybody is fresh, but at the end, when most of us are about to collapse and want nothing more than to go home and sleep. Who can push past their limits? Who can reach deep within themselves and successfully retrieve whatever remnants are left in their reservoirs of passion, skill, and determination? Who can uncover and display their lev, their innermost character and commitment?
After having trained regularly and intensively for a year to perform at my peak level and try to pass my exam, I gave it my best. I, along with the other black belt candidates, spent most of the day being observed on how well we performed in three key areas: basic techniques, forms, and sparring. At the end of the day, when the senior instructors called out the names of those who had been promoted, my name was not on the list. I had failed to pass. It’s hard to describe how despondent I felt after having put in so much time and effort, and having my desire thwarted. I would have to wait an entire year, according to the rules of my system, before I could try for my black belt again.
The days and weeks that followed were filled with self-pity and self-doubt. I wanted to quit. What more did my teachers want from me, and how much harder could I train? With the passage of some time, I knew that I couldn’t give up. I’d put too much of myself into karate, and it had given me back so much in return, especially during my highly cerebral studies in rabbinical school. One of those gifts was humility; I had to accept the fact that in the judgment of my senior instructors, I just wasn’t yet ready for my black belt. That knowledge hurt, but it propelled me forward. I had faith in myself–in my skills and my heart–and I regained the desire to continue my training. If I couldn’t get past this blow to my ego, I didn’t belong on the dojo floor.
“I’m glad you didn’t take the easy way out, like so many others,” one of my favorite teachers told me. “You just have to jump right back onto that horse and start riding again. The trail hasn’t gone anywhere.” While I had instructors to help me and to guide me by their example, it was absolutely clear to me that I had to overcome this challenge alone–of my own initiative, and harnessing my own powers of resiliency.
I passed the exam the following year and earned my black belt.
The guidance and support of others can be essential as we strive to overcome life’s obstacles. In the end, though, we alone are the final arbiters of the paths we take and the choices we make. Jean-Paul Sartre claimed that we are “condemned” to this freedom; others believe that it is in the decision-making process itself–that place of ambiguity where nothing is certain yet all is possible–that we as human beings find our highest natures. If we do not want that freedom to atrophy, it must be exercised, like a muscle, again and again. Each conscious moment presents us with a multiplicity of options, a maze of alternatives. How we choose to face and respond to them shapes our souls and directs our steps, and makes us models for those who follow us.
Rabbi Niles Goldstein’s book The Challenge of the Soul: A Guide for the Spiritual Warrior is out now. He is blogging all week on MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.
Rabbi Niles Goldstein is the author of The Challenge of the Soul: A Guide for the Spiritual Warrior, an approach to spiritual learning as seen through his eyes as a black belt martial artist. He is guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.
I recently had my ninth book published, The Challenge of the Soul: A Guide for the Spiritual Warrior. While I wrote the book primarily to help other seekers find strength and hope during times of trial, it is a very personal work. It is also filled with some powerful echoes from my previous book (or, rather, manifesto), Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for an Renewing Ancient Faith.
In my dual roles as both an ordained rabbi and a black belt martial artist, I have spent the past 15 years trying to bring my sometimes audacious, no-holds-barred approach to my own spiritual journey, as well as to my teaching, lecturing, and writing in my congregation and around the country. When I earned my black belt in karate just after rabbinic ordination, I had learned not only a specific set of combat skills but a wide array of tools that would help me in my vocation as a religious teacher and counselor — commitment, patience, humility, the power of repetition and practice, empathy, the ability to channel my strength in positive ways, self-sacrifice.
I had also learned to confront — and grow from — some of those darker aspects of my restless soul, the fears, insecurities, wounds, and anger that resided in hidden places within me.
Fighting taught me how to teach. And learn.
On the surface, Judaism and karate might seem to represent completely different, even oppositional disciplines. With time and experience, however, I have learned how each has complemented the other in my own life. For me, the two fields are deeply interconnected, complimentary expressions of the same inner path. Judaism has made me a better martial arts practitioner, and karate has made me a better rabbi. In The Challenge of the Soul, I explore how this phenomenon has worked, and in the blog entries that follow in the days ahead I will be writing about some essential concepts and principles that I think are critical to each of our unique spiritual journeys. I hope you have a good read — and a gonzo road ahead of you, one that helps push you along the way and past those forces that try to impede your progress.
Rabbi Niles Goldstein’s book The Challenge of the Soul: A Guide for the Spiritual Warrior is out now. Come back all week to read his guest blogs on MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.