Integrating Endurance Sports and Judaism

A few weeks ago I was speaking to one of the students at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, where I teach. I know she runs a bit and had participated recently in the Jerusalem marathon. Just as small talk, I asked her how her running was going. The student, somewhat new to a Jewishly observant lifestyle, offered an intriguing response. “Running” she said, “is a lot like davening every day. It’s just something you start doing, and you keep on doing.”

At the same time I was also reading Haruki Murakumi’s book, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.” Murakami likened his running to his writing novels. Basically, it’s just something he picked up at one point in his life, after he was already an adult, and found that it worked for him. Obviously, he’s very good at writing novels. He’s a good runner, but I would categorize him as an average avid runner.

Both of these incidents started me reflecting on my own life. What is the connection between my devotion to Judaism and my addiction to endurance sports? These are the two parts of my life that worked the best for me, parts of my life that just clicked for me without me even having to think about them. The study of Talmud and endurance sports. The first day I opened a page of Talmud and began to study it just made sense to me. I was 22 years old at the time, knew a bit of Hebrew but had never seen any rabbinic text in my life. Of course, I couldn’t understand everything right away, but when I could figure out the flow of the arguments, the artistry of the dialect, when I could tease out the abstract principles lurking behind the concrete statements, I was simply hooked and entranced. Talmud is still not always easy and I’m not always sure why I devote so much of my life to studying, writing and teaching. But I know that it always works for me. It just seems to be part of whom I was created to be.

The same has been true in not all that different a way with running and triathlon. I participated in my first triathlon seven years ago and I really haven’t stopped since then. Of course it’s not always easy (just ask my friend with whom I recently ran 71k, from Modiin, through Hod Hasharon, to Tel Aviv). I often get asked why I do such crazy things. Why do I push myself to run and bike (and sometimes swim) for such long distances? What’s the point? Clearly it’s not just to get in shape. You don’t need to do an Ironman (I’ve done two)┬áto stay in shape. Running 42.2 kilometers is no more healthy than running 10-12. And the truth is, I don’t know exactly why. It just works with the body that I have, both the physical and the mental side. It seems to be part of whom I was created to be.

I’m starting this blog to publicly explore what seems to have already been discovered by Murakami and the student with whom I spoke. They both seemed to know that the intellectual parts of their lives (Judaism/writing novels) were similar in some ways to the endurance sports in which they were engaged. I have a strong hunch that in my life the two are connected as well. Both bring meaning to my life and structure who I am as a human being. They complement each other. But for seven years I’ve been trying to isolate the two. I’ve tried to justify to myself and others why I’ve been wasting so much time running and biking when I could have been devoting more time to study. I’m done with that. From here on in I’m not a talmud scholar who does triathlon as a hobby nor am I a triathlete who has a day job teaching talmud (and long nights writing about it).

I’m both.

About the Author
Joshua Kulp is Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem where he has been teaching for 20 years; His publications include The Schechter Haggadah, a critical commentary on the seder and Haggadah, and Reconstructing the Talmud: An Introduction to the Academic Study of Talmud; When he's not teaching, studying or writing, he's out there on the roads and trails, running and biking (and occasionally swimming). He lives in Modiin with his wife, Julie Zuckerman, and their four children, Yadin, Zoey, Anan and Rakia