Recently I’ve been spending time thinking about one of my favorite subjects – Judo – and how it can relate to Judaism, Jewish communities, and what we can learn from the sport to apply to our own lives. For those less familiar, Judo is a Japanese martial art and sport developed originally in 1882 by the founder, Jigoro Kano. Judo literally translates to the “gentle way” and it’s three main principals are “perfection of the human character”, “maximum efficiency, minimum effort” and “mutual welfare and benefit”. Since its inception, Judo has spread to every country, touched the lives of millions of people, and became an Olympic Sport in 1964. I discovered Judo when I was a freshman at UVM three years ago at the school club. I’ve been practicing ever since, and I hope to continue practicing for many years to come. One of the many reasons why I love Judo is that it’s so much more than just a sport. As a martial art, Judo encompasses an entire outlook on life and a spiritual perspective to approach all situations, both on and off the mats. This is the “do” of “Judo”, or the way of being. I believe there are many similarities and comparisons to make between Judo and Judaism (more than just the names) that offer new perspectives on what it means to practice religion, belong to a community, and to develop both oneself and one’s society. This article will examine each of those aspects of Judo and its relation to Judaism through what I’ve learned in my own experiences.
I’m an active person, perhaps even hyper-active. I have a lot of energy and I always need a challenge or else I bore easily and grow restless. Although I feel like I have always been interested in the philosophical and spiritual aspects of religion, I was never receptive to it because it was never practiced it in a way that I understood. Growing up, I’m sure like many young boys, learning about and practicing Judaism meant sitting in synagogue for long periods (I dreaded Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) which became unbearable. I’d either be daydreaming about playing outside or actually sneaking off to do so. Judaism became this thing like school that meant restricted autonomy over my body, as I was to sit still while it was assumed I was somehow going to absorb what was being taught to me. The issue for me wasn’t necessarily the message, but rather the medium. I don’t think I’m unique in this either, many people learn best by doing; they are kinesthetic learners. Yet how we learn in school and especially how we practice religion often neglects the somatic experience. One is always embodied while sitting or standing reciting prayers or reading texts, but there is hardly a connection made between mind and body while doing so. I believe in our understanding of education and religion, we tend to devalue the body and underestimate its role in our lives, learning, and spirit. Instead, we’re much more accustomed to living out our lives in our heads and imaginations. I also believe that this predominant “headiness” isn’t entirely true to the roots of religious practice. Belief in a religion cannot be thought of, it must be felt. We can’t just conceptualize an idea or belief, we have to experience it. One’s beliefs cannot just be theorized but they must be enacted as well to become real.
My first time trying Judo was really nothing less than a spiritual awakening for me. I was a lanky and unathletic freshman at UVM trying out clubs at the start of the school year. I had maybe heard of Judo a couple times before but had no idea what I was getting myself into. I came out of that first class amazed and elated by what I had just experienced. Having never done sports throughout grade school, this was the first time I had truly felt I had found an activity that spoke to me on a deeper level than I had felt ever before. It wasn’t that I was any good, I had been bruised and beaten by the end of that first class, but my spirits were soaring high. It wasn’t just on the surface level either; Judo awoke a powerful feeling in me that I had never felt before, and I knew right then that I found something that I’m wanted to devote my whole life to. Never in my life had I experienced this, not through religion, art, music, school, or anything. What’s incredible is that this feeling hasn’t gone away either. Still to this day I end each practice with a huge smile on my face even if I’m completely exhausted. So, why is it that this martial art evoked such a powerful response in me from the very first time I tried it, something which practicing Judaism had never been able to do for me growing up? I suspect because of the mind-body connection in Judo, which was never present in Judaism for me. It was a realization for me to consider that the mind and body aren’t just connected, but they are one in the same – the mind is the body and the body is the mind. My experiences with Judaism had always been practiced only on the cerebral level, which was never what I was receptive to. In many ways, Judo is a religion itself packaged into a martial art. My sensei always says that Judo draws in boys with the violence but it’s the philosophy which keeps them as they grow up. In Judo, you learn by experiencing and doing through the body first, and the wisdom will trickle up to your mind from within. I’ve had experiences where in the middle of practice I would get insights and ideas which had never occurred to me before; philosophical revelations and reflections which had seemed to spring up from a source within me. I can only attribute it to how I am as a learner, as I realized my somatic experience is a seemingly infinite realm of possibilities. These experiences in Judo, having insights materialize out of thin air through my own movement has shaped myself as a Jewish person. For me, practicing Judo is a form of practicing Judaism, because I need movement and exercise to connect to a higher spiritual place within. I can’t sit down and recite verses to attain that feeling of sacredness, it’s just not who I am. I’m not alone in this either when it comes to Judaism; the Na Nach movement in Israel is a common sight on the streets of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, a group of Hasidic Jews who express their Judaism through dancing to blaring techno music. My takeaway from this is that there’s no one prescription to learning or expressing spirituality and religion. Where it’s traditional amongst synagogues to express Judaism through reading, speaking, and listening, perhaps it’s best to incorporate movement into spiritual expression for those who are more kinesthetic learners than verbal or auditory. Where many young boys (speaking from my own experience, but girls are probably just as likely too) may not feel connected to Judaism through Saturday morning services, they may have that spark within them ignited by a Saturday morning hike up a mountain. Just as the body is a source of untapped potential for personal insight, I believe using movement and exercise are also untapped sources of potential for deeper spiritual connection for many, and thus a source of innovation for synagogues to tap into to engage youth in a more meaningful way.
Another aspect of Judo which I think could be helpful for practicing Judaism is how Judoka (a practitioner of Judo) will develop their own individualized practice. Each Judoka has a different body with varying weight, limb length, height, and more, meaning that what might be an easy move for one person could be far more difficult for another based on our physical differences. For my own practice, because I’m tall and have some shoulder injuries, I tend to use more foot-techniques in my Judo practice than hand or hip techniques to throw my opponents. What works well for me may not work well for others. Because he is shorter than most but is stocky and well-built, one of my training partners tends to use more hip-techniques for throws because of his lower height advantage.
What’s probably a larger influencer on a Judoka’s individualized practice isn’t just their physical characteristics, but who they’ve learned under. Since its possible to find a place to train Judo in most cities, Judokas will learn under many different teachers throughout their lifetime and take away something from each. Every teacher has their own unique way of teaching and performing moves. I’ve learned under three teachers mainly between Burlington and Boston, but I’ve also practiced Judo in my travels abroad in Prague and learned from that experience as well. I’ve taken lessons from each of my teachers to incorporate into my own practice, one which reflects something from each of them as well as my own personal flair. Through taking parts from each lineage of teaching, I’ve created my own “Zack-do”, my own unique practice of Judo.
I believe that in practicing Judaism we can learn a lot from how Judoka will create their own unique version of the martial art. Just as Judoka has varying body types in which they have an affinity to certain moves over others, not every Jew can be expected to have the same affinity towards a traditional spiritual practice. Practicing religion has to work for you, and only you can answer whether your way is or isn’t working. Where some may feel a deep spiritual connection in a synagogue amongst their community members, others may find that same connection in the forest amongst the trees. Another take-away is that just as Judoka are all on their own journey, so is each Jew a traveler on their spiritual journey. I grew up Reconstructionist which is my foundational influence for Judaism, but over the years I’ve experienced Judaism from many other perspectives, including Orthodox. I’ve taken what I felt was valuable from each experience and the teachers I’ve encountered to form my own perspective on Judaism. I believe it’s important to not box yourself in, but to be open minded and flexible to learn from all perspectives and find what truly speaks to you deep down. Just as Judoka develop their own personal style from their many teachers over the years, so can a Jewish person develop their own unique style of Jewish practice from their travels and learning under various teachers as well.
Judo is a unique sport in that it is an individual sport (as opposed to a team sport) but it’s practiced in the highly social setting of a dojo. A dojo isn’t just a place to train like a gym, it is a community of people who come together for the goal of improving themselves and their training partners. One of Judo’s core tenants is “mutual welfare and benefit”, meaning you practice to develop yourself and to be a vehicle for your partners to develop themselves too. This recognizes the interdependence between Judoka; to harm your training partner is to harm yourself, because without them you cannot improve yourself. Because of this dynamic, a highly tight-knit community forms around the sport. You see the same people each week and get to know them in an intimate way (fighting can be surprisingly intimate), while doing your best to help them improve. In this way of following the principals of Judo in the dojo, you get back what you give to others. Dojo’s are communities of intention, with each member attending to give their fullest attention and best efforts for the betterment of everyone. This isn’t too dissimilar from how congregants should be towards each other in the synagogue. My last article discussed the power of collective effervescence in religious gatherings and rituals, a phenomenon which can only occur when there is harmony amongst all members together. Such harmony can only occur when people feel safe in their community; when they feel deeply valued, acknowledged, and cared for like Judoka feel in their dojo. The idea of “mutual welfare and benefit” is an extraordinary concept in acknowledging the interconnection and interdependence which exists within a community setting. By giving their best to their training partners, a Judoka’s attainment of Judo will only increase – and the same could be argued for Judaism too. By coming to synagogue with intention and purpose in mind and uplifting those around you, you uplift yourself and create an environment which a spiritual practice only becomes more potent.
From these insights, I hope that I’ve provided some perspective into the world of Judo and how each Jewish person can learn about their own religious practice from the martial art. I feel that there’s a lot more I could go into and I could continue on forever about Judo and Judaism, but these are the main take-aways I’ve gathered on developing one’s internal spiritual pursuits and how to incorporate them into a Jewish community as well.