Spiritual Karate

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Somewhere between a field guide, an instruction manual, and a well-meaning memoir, Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein’s new book The Challenge of the Soul tries to create a step-by-step manual for realizing the spirituality in your life and rejuvenating it.

challenge of the soul goldsteinIt’s dedicated to fighting the problem of familiarity — that is, the establishment in our own minds of religion as something that’s easy and familiar and boring — and making each time that we engage with it a new time. Or, to make every fight a new fight, explains Goldstein, who, along with being a rabbi, has a black belt in karate.

From the placid, self-helpy cover and innocent title, you’d never realize it: this book’s real thesis statement is basically to take the divergent paths of Goldstein’s life, Judaism and karate, and form both philosophies into a coherent mission statement. The book’s more entertaining and far more apt subtitle is, A Guide for the Spiritual Warrior.

Or, as Goldstein writes in more detail:

We can never return to, or relive, our “virgin” moments: going to an overnight camp for the first time, experiencing our first day as a freshman at college, meeting our first love, taking our first step into a martial arts school or a rabbinical seminary. Those are powerful, energy-filled events, and at the time we went through them, they may have even scared us. With the passage of time, though, all we can hold on to are our memories of them…We live fully in the eternal now.

Goldstein’s writing style, down-to-Earth and jovially conversational, is a pleasure to read. Some of his points seem self-evident or contrived — for instance, “Engagement, not evasion, is the mark of a true warrior” — and at times he takes himself too seriously.

niles goldsteinBut he’s earned the right to. He was appointed his rabbinical ordination and his black belt two weeks apart, and he has a quirky, flexible, and teaching-ready mind about both. He flirts eagerly with the Gaon of Vilna and Søren Kierkegaard, and throws in his own life examples, from a temper tantrum ripping out a urinal at a trendy Manhattan nightclub to officiating at a Bukharan marriage ceremony in which the groom pulls down his pants under the wedding canopy. This ritual, Goldstein later realizes, is a Bukharan tradition:

“As I neared the conclusion of the ceremony, the bridegroom zipped his pants back up as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Then it dawned on me. Nothing unusual had occurred — at least not in a Bukharan wedding. I’d witnessed a new (but probably very ancient) Jewish religious tradition I’d never seen before, and as I reflected on its symbolism and most likely meaning, the whole thing eventually made sense…[b]y allowing himself to be truly open, through an overt (as well as metaphorical) act.”

This is the territory that Goldstein navigates — taking the oldest of the old, and making it forever new.

Posted on December 1, 2009

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