Six months of grueling black belt training in the elements of the Sierra Nevada Mountains changed the course of Dr. Ariel Mayse’s life, causing a metamorphous that lead him to Judaism. The intense focus, discipline and contemplation required to master the physical challenges of the work and the environment were a formula for self-discovery that caused the breakthrough. “It also taught me a fundamental that when you pour out all of your physical energy and you have that kind of spirit coursing through you something else appears. Some sort of other power can come through when you have that kind of absolute focus and concentration,” said Mayse. Martial arts opened up the door of spirituality for Mayse, who was taught by a sensei who understood martial arts as not only a physical discipline, but as a spiritual art.
That power, a kind of gravitational force connecting Mayse to the profound, seems to have traveled with him during different periods of his life. His second year of college provides another example, where Mayse made an exciting discovery. Through Hasidism, an influential mystical Jewish movement, and through studying Hasidic texts, he found a Jewish spiritual vocabulary for similar spiritual experiences he had with martial arts. What he realized in those texts was the existence of an indigenous Jewish spiritual language that gave him a vocabulary to verbally explicate those experiences. “I was able to say that this is something that I know not only in an intellectual sense but I know also in the language of the heart,” he added.
At Harvard Graduate School, where he earned his doctorate in Jewish Studies, Mayse said he met a profound mentor, Rabbi Arthur Green. “With Art I found a true master,” said Mayse, “I found someone whom I respected not only as a great scholar but someone who is a giant of the world of the spirit as well, which is really what I was looking for.” During his time at Harvard, however, he had not been exposed to a certain passion he would later find during his studies in Israel.
After he and his wife, Adina, had been married for a year, they decided to move to Jerusalem where Mayse studied at the Shalom Hartman Institute for three years and taught at Yeshivat Orayta for four years. “I had many wonderful students and that was an amazing experience,” said Mayse.
Living in Israel, Mayse understood for the first time the power of having that many great scholars, spiritual masters, public intellectuals and ordinary people all together in Jerusalem. A California native who grew up in a secular Jewish home, decorated with a Menorah and a Christmas tree on holidays, Mayse came from a town with a small Jewish population and had never seen anything like this before. “To be able to see the extraordinary creativity and broad new horizons that comes from that kind of critical mass was really extraordinary,” said Mayse.
While writing his doctoral dissertation, he spent five or six days a week at the National Library of Israel located at the Hebrew University campus. “The greatest scholars of the Jewish world spend their time there and if I had a question about a book I could just walk across the hall and ask the author who was most likely sitting there,” Mayse recalled. It was in the Gershom Scholem collection at the National Library that he discovered his love for Jewish manuscripts. The collection, based on the personal library of Scholem, a renowned researcher of the Kabbalah, is a reading library specializing in the fields of Kabbalah, Hasidism and Jewish mysticism.
At the Hartman Institute, Mayse found a unique kind of deeply engaged scholarship. It was a scholarship for the sake of generating a vibrant, intellectually curious, and morally responsible Jewish future, according to Mayse. “The goal was to create scholarship that really mattered and change the way that people think and the way that people think about the world around them, the texts around them, and people around them,” said Mayse. “I got to be brought into that firsthand,” he added.
As the new Director of Jewish Studies at Hebrew College in Newton, he plans to integrate these lessons into the classroom. Manuscripts are something Mayse always gives to his students in order to remind them that the printed book is not always the final word. He hopes to be able to demonstrate to his students the great variety and intellectual excitement of the Jewish tradition. It is important to Mayse that the Jewish Studies Program maintains its academic rigor without any sense of compromise, but at the same time “to teach texts, ideas, and the Hebrew language, and to teach them from the heart, as well as from the head.”
Though Mayse speaks with great excitement about his work, he will tell you his true passion is his family. His wife, Adina, his three-and-a-half-year-old son Ezra, and his one-and-a-half-year-old son Nahum, were joined by a third sibling just last week. “My children at every moment are in their most delightful way tearing down all of my arrogance and showing me what the power of true innocence and true honesty is,” said Mayse.
The minute he thinks he has developed an ability to avoid getting frustrated with his kids or with the difficulties of daily life, they find a way to demonstrate to him that he still has a lot of inner work to do. Before having children, Mayse thought of himself as one who asked interesting questions and had profound thoughts. That is until he had the opportunity to see into the mind of his three-and-a-half-year-old son.
“Then I realized what a deep thought is. They question everything. For them, nothing is obvious and for that reason they ask the most amazing questions. Why am I here? Why am I me? What is this world about?”
In Mayse’s mind, these are questions for those of us who have been subject to the “routinization” of life, we forget how to ask. He also compared it to one of the great lessons of Hasidism. “Never grow old, keep things with a constant sense of wonder and be perpetually in a quest for the new,” he said.
Being a teacher for over half his life, teaching came naturally to him. He started teaching karate when he was 13. But perhaps more importantly, being a man of ideas, intellectual curiosity and introspection seems to have come naturally to him. Martial arts functioned as a conduit through which Mayse found his faith. Martial arts taught him about a power greater than himself, and in the power of religion he found a moral force for the good in the contemporary world. “Religion and the honest quest for God should compel people to act in a higher way, to be striving for self transcendence, to get beyond personal motivations, to be a force of goodness and blessing in the world.”