Kosher Karate

A martial arts discipline that began at Yeshiva University focuses on tradition and the mind, not winning.

"When I pray my kavana (intent) and my concentration are above average, because I train in tora dojo," says Ari Fuld, a resident of Efrat in the West Bank, a third dan in the unique martial art form known in the United States as the "Jewish karate."

Tora dojo is a method that combines "hard," sharp Japanese karate with "soft" Chinese martial arts, which focus on inner strength and flowing movement. This method encourages advanced students to study and experience other methods; each student who reaches the level of black belt receives a reading list of recommended Chinese texts. Moreover, there are no competitions. Practitioners, both religiously observant and secular, end each training session with chi kong (Chinese meditation).

At a time when the trend in martial arts is forgoing the spiritual aspect in favor of the most effective fighting techniques, tora dojo, which started within the American Jewish community, stands out. Through the rank of black belt, tora dojo is not very different from any other type of Japanese karate; training concentrates mostly on techniques from the Japanese shotokan method. However, after that point, students begin learning various types of kung fu, including pa kwa and white crane, as well as tai chi and other Chinese methods.

"Tora dojo is essentially a school of general martial arts. It enables personal development in the wide world of the martial arts," says Yali Rothenberg, 34, who has been practicing tora dojo for 18 years. "We aren't trying to prove which school is better or more effective - in the end, it all depends on the fighter, not the school. The focus is on learning and development."

"This is a Jewish discipline in the familial, traditional sense," adds Fuld, noting that three of his four children train. "After all, Judaism is about traditional learning and teaching, because something important is lost or eradicated with every change. This is also the case in the Chinese-Japanese world, and this is how we train, with much respect for the method."

Training with Gaydamak

Tora dojo began in the 1960s at Yeshiva University in New York, when professor Harvey Sober, a martial arts expert, concluded that yeshiva students needed karate training to strengthen their backs. The method's name is a play on words: "Tora" sounds like Torah but also means "tiger" in Japanese; dojo is a center for martial arts. The discipline received its kashrut certificate from the community and its rabbis.

It was imported to Israel in the early 1980s. There are now several clubs in the Jerusalem area and the center of the country. Disciples include Arcadi Gaydamak, who has frequent private lessons at his Caesarea home, led by his close adviser Gidi Marinovsky, a senior teacher of the method.

In the United States the system is taught at Jewish educational and cultural centers, including synagogues, and therefore the vast majority of the practitioners are Jews, many of them religiously observant. In Israel, many of the instructors have English-language accents, and many of the students wear skullcaps.

"This isn't a religious discipline, but it respects tradition, be it Jewish, Chinese or something else. Therefore, religious people feel more comfortable with us," says Arthur Gribetz, the chief trainer in Jerusalem and head of the school in Israel. He does not wear a skullcap, and considers himself Conservative.

"Openness is necessary for learning, and when you hear somebody religious explaining that during meditation he connects to a kind of higher power, it helps you to open yourself to the other," says Rothenberg, who is secular.

Gribetz notes that the founder of the system, Sober, was well-versed in Eastern philosophies and ideas. "Sober compared and contrasted Eastern and Jewish meditation, especially kabbala. He lectures about this at annual seminars in Israel," he says.

Fuld adds: "I am religious, and when I was studying at a yeshiva I was told that I have to pray with kavana but no rabbi told me how. I found I could connect to kavana through tora dojo, especially the meditation and guided imaging. After all, all prayer is a kind of meditation or trance."

Fuld says he once turned to "a great rabbi," and asked whether he was "transgressing boundaries." He says the rabbi told him, "Of course not. That is how prayer is supposed to be; the individual should be seeing himself as though he is standing before the Shekhinah," God's presence on earth.

Why is it so important that a karate student meditate?

"Because without this, the movement is technical and lacks content, and this is palpable at the higher levels. If the inner feeling isn't there, something is missing," says Fuld.

For Rothenberg, meditation is the most essential part of martial arts. "What distinguishes martial arts from other sports is the profundity, the inward contemplation," he says. "A good fighter is always aware of himself and his surroundings, because the victor is the one who adapts most quickly to changes. Therefore he has to be alert to his emotions and his opponent's emotions in order to read the opponent's moves and react accordingly - not in terms of thought, because there is no time for that, but rather movement. Meditation affords the tools for this, the concentration, the inner awareness and the awareness of the opponent's smallest nuances."

Rothenberg, who works at the Finance Ministry, says a fighter can take in everything the opponent does. "Not to clash with him head on, but rather to connect to him, to understand him. And this is good for all interactions, be it in fraught negotiations or a within a relationship or the family."

As for the lack of competitions, Gribetz explains, "If you want to win in competition, you have to neglect other things. Therefore, we feel that a discipline with competitions loses its principles and gradually disconnects from tradition."

Fuld adds that the school has more sublime aims than winning competitions. "Tora dojo includes hard physical work and it is also effective as self defense, but the aim is inner progress, progress as a human being, to neutralize the ego," he says.