It is generally not judicious to quarrel with an Orthodox rabbi over scriptural interpretations, but these days it is just as inadvisable to get into a physical altercation with a bearded black hat.
Cases in point are two American rabbis, both Orthodox, who are currently in the news for their sinews, rather than their sermons.
Down in La Costa, 30 miles north of San Diego, a 22-year old rabbi is being hailed as a rising MMA star. The acronym stands for Mixed Martial Arts, a full combat contact sport, which allows both hitting and grappling and supposedly originated in ancient Greece.
Rabbi Yossi Eilfort is on the staff of Chabad of La Costa and had his first match three weeks ago. Fighting under the nom de guerre of “The Rabbi,” he won by a technical knockout in the second round.
Eilfort studied Krav Maga, which the Israeli army originated, for 12 years and only took up MMA six months ago. He sounded almost apologetic after his victory, confessing, “I was very uncomfortable hitting someone. I actually held back. Before taking up MMA, I had never hit anyone.”
Most amazed by Eilfort’s development is his trainer, Theirry Socoudjoa, who hails from the Cameroons. “I never figured a rabbi would be interested in fighting,” he said. “But I was stoked. He never quits.”
Eilfort is now passing on his skills to the next generation. “Teaching Jewish youngsters self-defense and the importance of self-defense within the Jewish community is the main reason I took up this training,” Eilfort said.
Meanwhile in the Big Apple, Rabbi Gary Moskowitz --who earned the Japanese honorific title of Sensei, or “master teacher” -– is passing on his karate skills (he is a seventh degree black belt) to his students, who dub themselves “The Savage Skullcaps.”
Newspapers have conferred the sobriquet of “Rambowitz” on the 56-year old Queens rabbi, mainly in tribute to his early years as a tough New year street cop.
“One day I got a call that a big muscular guy was rampaging in Times Square and 15 policemen couldn’t subdue him,” Markowitz told The Journal. “I went over and took him down in 10 seconds.”
He early on learned the importance of self-defense growing up as one of the few Jewish boys in a rough section of The Bronx inhabited mainly by African-American and Hispanic kids.
“I wore a yarmulke, so I was an obvious target,” Moskowitz recalled. “Once a bunch of them dragged me up six flights of stairs to the roof top and dangled me over the ledge.”
At 14, he went to a summer camp run by the militant Jewish Defence League and at the end “graduated” by doing 400 push-ups.
In recent months, New York has been plagued by “knock-out” gangs, which surround a passer-by and try to knock him out with one punch.
In response, Moskowitz has started a class for some 300 Jews, ranging from 4 to 80 years, teaching them the fine points of karate, jiu jitsu and tai chi (which Moskowitz has Hebraized to “chai” chi) at his aptly named Wellness Synagogue.
He draws his inspiration from the Hebrew Bible, which he considers the blueprint for healthy living through ingesting kosher food, resting on the Sabbath and keeping clean through immersion in the mikveh.
Even prayer can be an aid to physical health. “Have you ever attended a service at a black church,” he asks. “The worshippers are constantly in motion, waving their arms moving their legs.”