Niles Goldstein is famous for taking Judaism back to its roots: tradition, rebellion, mysticism and G-d. His last book, Gonzo Judaism, showed the exciting, provocative and exhilarating parts of being Jewish and living Jewish lives. His new book gets a littler more personal. The Challenge of the Soul is part memoir, part soul-help, and proves that G-d really does give kudos to the badass.
Goldstein is all about using adversity as opportunity. He’s a black belt in karate and founded the New Shul in Tribeca. In this new book, Goldstein reminds us that spirituality, and G-d, exist everywhere we let them in. It’s up to us to tap in for strength.
“We must accept that life is, fundamentally, a mystery,” Goldstein says in The Challenge of the Soul. “Our ability to respond effectively to that mystery, rather than becoming paralyzed by it, helps to define us.”
A self-proclaimed gonzo rabbi, Niles takes teachings from all sects of Judaism and other world religions to reinforce the idea that the purpose of religion is not to restrict us, but to develop us and let us live greater lives. The purpose, the goal in life: a balanced, and seeking, soul.
We talked with Niles about his life, soul search and yetzer hara, evil inclinations.
Busted Halo: The 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?
Niles Goldstein: 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.”
BH: 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?
NG: 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.
BH: 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?
NG: 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.
BH: What is one teaching you encourage readers to take from your book?
NG: 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 possible to mine courage and strength from within, even in the 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 a sense of hopelessness. When you’ve lost hope, you’ve really lost it all.
BH: What is one Jewish teaching or teacher you take with you wherever you go?
NG: I think you could guess, if I had to reduce it to one: the Kotzker Rebbe [a Hasidic leader in Poland born in the late 1700’s]. He understands the darkness so well. His teachings are on the mark. His insights are short, aphoristic, so powerful. He would be the guy. He was so aware of how damaging our ego could be to 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 transformational things can happen to us. Not just in spirituality but other areas of our lives as well.
BH: How does it feel to have Rabbi Zalman, one of the most respected modern-day Kabbalists, calling you an “insightful guide,” and the editor in chief of ESPN saying, “When Jacob wrestled with the angel, he could have used Niles Goldstein in his corner…?”
NG: 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 Kabbalist 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.
BH: What’s next? After scaring off bears, an affair with a bipolar Mormon, feeding the hungry in Chechnya and starting up a shul? [All on the record in The Challenge of the Soul.]
NG: [Laughs] 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 in America and the world. I’m continuing to write. In December, I’m heading to Peru with my brother and father. One of my dreams before I die is to visit Iran.