Arts & Culture

Niles Goldstein, Black Belts, and G-d

Niles Goldstein is famous for taking Judaism back to its roots: tradition, rebellion, mysticism and G-d. His last book Gonzo Judaism showed us the exciting, provocative and exhilarating parts of being Jewish and living Jewish lives. Now Niles get’s a … Read More

By / August 14, 2009


Niles Goldstein is famous for taking Judaism back to its roots: tradition, rebellion, mysticism and G-d. His last book Gonzo Judaism showed us the exciting, provocative and exhilarating parts of being Jewish and living Jewish lives. Now Niles get’s a littler more personal in his new book, "The Challenge of the Soul," where his part memoir, part soul-help book proves that G-d really does give kudos to the badass.

All about using adversity as opportunity, Niles mastered a black belt in karate, founded the New Shul in Tribeca, and is about to move in on one of many new, exciting directions. We sat down with Niles to hear more about his life, soul search and yetzer hara, evil inclinations. Read what he had to say here.

Press has called you the "Bad Boy Rabbi." I don’t know you well enough to say if that‘s true. Does the label resonate with you? Why, why not?

If that means, I’m unethical, then I’m not comfortable with that label. But if by "bad boy" – and this is what I think they meant in the article – that I didn’t play by other people’s rules, I was willing to push the boundaries, I broke a lot of people’s presumptuous stereotypes, I was hard drinking, womanizing, and liked to push the envelopes in ways that most ordained members of the clergy wouldn’t — in that sense, I don’t mind being called a "Bad Boy Rabbi."

Your new book, The Challenge of the Soul, is entirely immersed in G-d, spirituality, self-work. How much do you think these concepts will resonate with people in today’s world? And was this a fear of yours in writing it?

If they’re opened, they’re going to get it. What I’m offering is a challenge. I would challenge even your assumption. I think you’re 100 percent right, in the area of religion, that people don’t want to do the heavy lifting, they don’t want to do the work. But in other areas, going to the gym or starting up a business, people are willing to put long hours in those areas. So I would challenge the assumption that we live in an era that people don’t want to do the heavy lifting. I would challenge a culture, and the men and women lazy in this area, and I would say Why the hell are you not willing to invest the same kind of time into working on your soul? And if you’re not, I would say you are really missing the boat.

The first line in the book is from Hobbes: Human life is nasty, brutish, and short. The second line is, so the f*ck what? The real question is, if that’s true, what do we do next? Starting with that assumption and acknowledging that difficult reality, what do we do next? That is what the book is about.

In this book, you talk about your path through martial arts and rabbinical ordination which appeared to be an obvious path for you. Not all people are so certain about their direction. How were you?

To remain confident in my decisions, and in my passions and pursuits, was accepting the fact that I was surrounded by uncertain ambiguity, and at times, moments of very, very serious doubt and questioning. I had to make that leap — in a spiritual and physical sense. Some people spend their life at best taking baby steps. Then they are at their 80s and 90s and about to die, looking back in regret. That is one thing I resolved never to do. All the pervasive fear of my own mortality was the galvanizing force behind all of this. While I think I am a pretty confident person, and the book is about how to become confident and be bold in the face of adversity, I am very much in fear. How do you embrace fear without letting it paralyze you? That is the core of the whole book.

What is one teaching you encourage readers to take from your book?

One teaching, common to every thing I have written and sermon I’ve given, is that despite life’s uncertain ambiguity and moments of real terror and challenge, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It is possibly to mime courage and strength from within even in face of all that adversity if we have the right mindset and if we have developed the right skills. That takes patience, humility, study. I think that’s really the key.

If we accept as a given that life is uncertain, rather than sitting paralyzed at that awareness, through patience, belief and faith, learning from others and humility, we can still develop the strength and the skills we need to continue to grow. None of those things are going to go away. Growth ends when we succumb to fear. Or to sense of hopelessness. When you lost hope, you really lost it all.

What is one Jewish teaching or teacher you take with you wherever you go?

I think you could guess, if I had to reduce it to one, the Kotzker Rebbe. He understands the darkness so well. His teachings are on the mark. His incites are short, aphoristic, so powerful. HE would be the guy. He was so aware of how damaging our ego could be with our ability to move forward and grow and how it could serve as basically a wall to prevent G-d from entering our lives.

His teaching: Where is G-d? Wherever we allow G-d to enter.

G-d is everywhere. The burden is really on us, not on G-d. It’s about opening up, allowing ourselves, scary as hell, to become vulnerable and opened. And then transformable things can happen to us. Not just in spirituality but other areas of our lives as well.

How does it feel to have testimonials from Rabbi Zalman calling you an "insightful guide," or the editor-in-chief of ESPN saying, "When Jacob wrestled with the angel, he could have used Niles Goldstein his corner…?"

After nine books, like a lot of other authors, you learn not to take praise too seriously and not to take criticism too seriously.

To know I could touch the life of someone who is a secular sports writer as well as someone who is a modern day kabbbalist is a very cool thing. To know that someone, who makes it his business to write about sports, really resonated with what you wrote and respected what you wrote about religion meant a lot. These are two different kinds of people, two different stages of life, two different backgrounds, and both found meaning in this book. Obviously as an author I’d like to reach as broad an audience as possible. That meant a great deal.

What’s next? After fighting off bears, and Mormons, and starting up Shuls?

As I transition away from the congregational world, I am working on several projects right now looking to strive and have national impact on religious and spiritual life on America and the world. I’m continuing to write. In December, heading to Peru with my brother and father. One of my dreams before I die is to visit Iran.