Thursday, December 31, 2020

Karate Mussar

I recently watched an amazing mussar series.

Karate isn't exactly my thing. But, like many people who grew up in the 80s, I watched and loved The Karate Kid. The nice kid - awkward, poor and scrawny Daniel Larusso - is bullied by the mean kid; handsome, wealthy jock Johnny Lawrence. But then Daniel learns karate from wise mentor Mr. Miyagi, and defeats Johnny in the All-Valley Karate championships! It was an immensely satisfying tale for teenagers.

Recently a sequel series was made, called Cobra Kai. It features the original actors - Ralph Macchio and William Zabka - and is thus set an astonishing thirty-four years later! But what's really incredible is what they did with the storyline. 

Naturally, Daniel and Johnny are training the next generation. So you'd expect that Daniel, as the hero, is training the good kid, and Johnny, as the bully, is training the bad kid. But the series flips that. Johnny is the one training the good kid, and Daniel the bad kid!

But Cobra Kai goes much further. It spends most of the time presenting things from Johnny's perspective

For thirty-four years, one thing that we've known for sure is that Daniel was the good guy and Johnny was the bad guy. But the sequel flips that on its head. Sure, Johnny is no tzaddik, but he's a sympathetic character. He had a rough home life. He became a bully because he himself was bullied by his stepfather. And his version of what happened back in 1984 is very different from Daniel's version. The way he saw it, Daniel was trying to steal his girlfriend, and often provoked him. 

Since then, after struggling with alcohol and employment problems, Johnny is making a sincere effort to get his life back together, including training bullied kids who need self-confidence. Daniel, meanwhile, has a successful personal and professional life, and is basically a good guy, but is way too smug and vindictive, and not willing to see that Johnny might be a better person than he remembers. 

The mussar lesson here is powerful. First, there's the way in which we can be certain about a person for literally decades, and then turn out to be wrong. Second is how Daniel and Johnny, despite both being basically decent people, are still stuck with their childhood prejudices and are each convinced that the other is awful beyond redemption. The show portrays how each of them views everything that the other does through the lens of their experience as teenagers. Instead of being able to get along as old acquaintances, and to grow together, they keep spiraling downwards due to their conviction that the other is evil and must be taken down.

This is a point that I've been trying to make in this forum for several months now. As a non-American, I have the benefit of a certain detachedness from US politics, like the viewer of Cobra Kai. It makes it possible to see clearly how partisanship and tribalism influence people to interpret everything that the other side does in the worst possible light. I've been trying to encourage people to try to look at things from the perspective of others, but with limited effect. 

The main argument that I use is as follows: If many people that you otherwise regard as basically good people see things so entirely differently from you, then surely there must be some merit in their perspective, even if they are ultimately wrong? I mean, I am sympathetic to why charedim are opposed to IDF service (it's not because they think that Torah protects, it's because it fundamentally threatens their way of life) and I can even understand why the charedi Gedolim banned my books. Surely if tens of millions of people view things very differently from you, including plenty of people from your own background and social circles, then one should try to understand their perspective and not condemn them as utterly foolish/ evil? 

If nothing that I wrote convinces you, then maybe try watching Cobra Kai. 

As 2020 ends, I hope that you appreciate the time that I took to write the many dozens of posts that appeared here this year. It would be nice if you could make a donation to support our work at The Biblical Museum of Natural History, at this link. Failing that (or in addition), please spread the word about our live online tours. Thank you!

25 comments:

  1. As all your posts are self-serving, and all somehow teach the 'gedolim' or 'haredim' a lesson as to how wrong they are, were, and always will be, why should anyone support you for your time and effort in writing these pieces? Please get over it already and just move on.

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    1. You just can't help yourself, can you, Johnny?

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    2. The projection in your post is so bright, I need to wear shades just to look at it.

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    3. wow, rude and condescending would be too nice...why r u bothering to read and even comment if u seem to despise this writer..please get over it already and just move on

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    4. As I see it, you just went against the entire point of the article above. Rav Slifkin wrote that we should try to look at others' points of view and specifically mentioned being sympathetic towards the Charedi viewpoint.
      Second, nobody is forcing you to read these articles. If you don't like them, then in your own words, just move on.

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    5. Are you sure you read the post correctly? I believe Dr. Slifkin is saying that if good people hold an opinion that you disagree with it is good to grant some validity to their point of view--i.e. the point of view of the Haredim has some validity. He is not teaching the Haredim a "lesson". I believe he is saying be circumspect in your criticism of others' viewpoints especially when you know they are good people and many hold that viewpoint. Many years ago I was in Geula with my daughter-in-law and several of my grandchildren. There was a demonstration protesting a police investigation of a murder because the victim's body was still in police custody. Garbage containers were overturned and there was smoke and fire everywhere, putting anyone near the scene which included myself and my family in danger of being hurt and forcing us to take an alternative bus route home. I complained to my Rabbi about this and he said: "Yes, we can condemn their exact actions, but we need to praise their love of Torah as well and when things are calmer explain how their actions hurt others". These were wise words I believe.

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    6. @Johnny, If you dislike the posts then why are you here?

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    7. Turk, one reason would be to steer people away from R' Slifkin's ideas. (I say this as a fan of R' Slifkin.)

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    8. @Turk Hill surely it's a good idea to expose oneself to what the 'other side' thinks and says No? In a certain sense then it's potentially admirable for @Johnny to be here and fits perfectly with the theme of the article. Of course if one just comes to troll then that's less productive

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  2. F Scott Fitzgerald is quoted as saying: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Apparently it's easier to relieve the cognitive dissonance with Fundamental Attribution Error-an individual's tendency to attribute another's actions to their character or personality, while attributing their behavior to external situational factors outside of their control
    KT

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    1. The problem is that most people don't have a first-rate intelligence and never will. What should they do? It's not a simple question. The danger is leading people to moral relativism...

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    2. I liked F Scott Fitzgerald's books.

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  3. I also liked the turn around. But the charm wore off after the first 2 episodes. Maybe I should try another episode or 2.

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  4. Now go back 80 years in time and consider that tens of millions of Germans view things very differently from you. Just because there is some merit in their perspective doesn't mean that they aren't an existential threat to you.

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  5. I know a karate rabbi, too. Rabbi Bar-Ron practices both karate and Jewish martial arts.

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  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  7. My previous comment was directed to "Johnny". If you can correct the placement it would be appreciated.

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  8. This post continthe tradition of the MO community of attempting to live equally in the secular world as the Torah world.

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  9. Thanks for the recommendation - quite enjoying it.

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  10. I also grew up on the karate kid and was very excited to watch the cobra Kai.
    However, I was extremely disappointed by the crude language and sexual content with the Cobra Kai. The series was full with messages that I would never want my kids (or myself) watching. The message that R Slifkin pointed out is very true and agree 100 percent. However, in general, I was very disturbed by the series in general.
    Enclosed is a link of an article that discusses this issue in length and I totally agree to what is written in the article.
    https://lolalambchops.com/cobra-kai-parents-guide/

    I wish for the day that TV shows nowadays will be like the original karate kid, which was full of good messages without the crude language and 'mature' content.

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    1. I did like the twist of characters. Who we thought was originally bad was good and who we thought was inherently good turned bad later.

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  11. "Basically good" people can believe in horrible things.

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  12. I enjoyed your article, and promptly Googled "Cobra Kai". Sadly, it's not a movie, but a serialized, for-pay (Netflix) product. Thankfully, my ten-year-old, 47" flat-screen TV is "dumb" (not Internet-capable), and the thought of streaming the series (let alone, anything) on my (comparatively-small) 24" computer monitor ("fed" by a twenty-year-old, 32-bit computer) is ridiculous. "Cobra Kai" might well be an acceptable source of Mussar, but open the door to *it* and you open the door to the rest of Netflix's questionable content. Thanks, but no thanks. Reese's.

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  13. Studies have actually shown that those on the Right are much more knowledgeable of the views of those on the other side than vice versa. It probably has to do with the overwhelming cultural and media messages they are bombarded with.

    Pretty much any right-winger can tell you why a leftist believes what he does, whereas all you'll get out of left-wingers in response to the same question will be "they hate, they're ignorant," and so on.

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