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.