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 black belt 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. Come back all week to read his guest blogs on MyJew­ish­Learn­ing and the Jew­ish Book Council.