Distilling the Essence of Judaism – The 5 Midot

hillel natanya tefillinA couple of years ago I began studying tae kwon do. This centuries old Korean martial arts tradition has become one of my routines, and I have become deeply engaged in the practice. Not surprisingly, I began immediately to see parallels with Judaism as well as distinct differences, and have enjoyed over the years talking with the Master of my tae kwon do studio about the lessons for my tradition that can be learned from tae kwon do and vise versa.

One of the things that has been most exciting for me is the pedagogy of this particular studio, and the important ways in which the master organizes and teaches the complicated and multi-level material necessary to advance through the belt stages and reach a level of mastery. This is of course exactly what we strive to do in Jewish education also, to teach a complex and ancient tradition to a new generation, and to encourage and empower their mastery of it.

One of the surprisingly simple yet effective techniques is to end each class with the students lined up according to belt level and to recite loudly the “Five Tenets of Tae Kwon Do”. The master calls out to the class to recite them, and on demand all of us, grown ups and kids together, shout out in a powerful voice – COURTESY, INTEGRITY, PERSEVERENCE, SELF CONTROL, INDOMITABLE SPIRIT.

Though simple, these five ideals guide everything we do in tae kwon do. Every kick, every punch, every stretch, every move and counter all teach these five personal qualities and traits. We are not just learning the content, or the information, we are learning to become a better person and to make the world a better place. Sounds a lot like Judaism and its teachings, no?

So I was inspired by this, both personally to integrate these wonderful qualities into my life and tae kwon do practice, and also to develop a set of distilled essential tenets of Judaism that I could teach in a similar manner in our religious education programs.

I am not the first to try and divine the core essence of Judaism and put it into a simple format. Of course the prophet Michah summarized it all in just three saying: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Michah 6:8), and Maimonides, centuries later, articulated 13 principals of faith that have been codified in song at the end of tefillot in the Adon Olam.

But I wanted something a bit different. Not necessarily beliefs, but Midot, personal character traits, qualities about which we could say: everything we teach in all of our many education programs actually goes to teach these core principles of character. I also wanted them to be Hebrew and rooted in tradition, though I wanted them to have understandable English language parallels that could be internalized by young and old, Hebrew speakers and non-Hebrew speakers alike.

Here’s what I came up with. They are all taken from traditional sources and each of these “pairs” of tenets can be found in the traditional tefillot. Tzedek U’Mishpat: Righteousness and Justice, Chayim V’Shalom: Life and Peace, Chesed V’Rachamim: Kindness and Mercy, Torah U’Mitzvot: Learning and Living, and Emet V’Emunah: Truth and Faith.

Shout them out. Commit them to memory. Teach them to others. And try, step by step, in a journey of “ten thousand kicks” to allow them to improve your character as we strive to repair our world.

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