Cobra Kai: The Sensei vs the Rabbi
Jewish wisdom goes a few rounds with the Okinawa-inspired karate philosophy.
Cobra Kai, the binge-worthy successor of the Karate Kid movies, is awesome. It picks up with Johnny Lawrence, the antagonist of the first film, 35 years later, when he decides to reopen his old Cobra Kai dojo. When Daniel LaRusso (the original hero) sees that his arch rival has revived the school which bullied him, he opens his own school, Miyagi Do karate. The franchise has always paired Daniel’s sensei Mr. Miyagi’s eastern philosophy with karate action. But are the Miyagi-inspired aphorisms simple fortune cookie wisdom? Or can they go toe-to-toe with the wisdom of the Jewish sages?
(FYI, I know fortune cookies go with Chinese food and Mr. Miyagi was Japanese. But fortune cookies were really American to begin with, so you’ll excuse the malapropism worthy of Johnny Lawrence.)
No Mercy! Well sometimes… but not always.
The most stark philosophical difference between the competing dojos of Cobra Kai and Miyagi Do is how one finishes the fight. Cobra Kai’s motto is NO MERCY! The ruthless and unforgiving ideology will not tolerate weakness or insult. Miyagi Do’s counter-philosophy – that karate should only be used for self-defense – would seem to be the wiser of the two, allowing for redemption, friendship, and correction.
The Hebrew word for mercy, rachamim, is also a synonym for compassion and is closely associated with the holiest name of God. In fact, God has 13 attributes of mercy that were necessary to invoke in order to redeem the Jewish people after the sin of the Golden Calf. So clearly, mercy is the higher of the two outlooks.
But mercy isn’t always the correct decision. The Talmud teaches, "Whoever is kind to the cruel will end up being cruel to the kind." If there was one rivalry that might be more well-known than Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence, it is that of Cain and Abel. The two brothers made an offering to God. Abel’s was accepted, Cain’s was rejected. So Cain kills Abel. But what many don’t know is that according to the Midrashic literature, Abel initially won the fight but granted his brother mercy. Cain then seized the opportunity and was the only one to walk away.
We see an example of this in season 2 when Johnny's former sensei, John Kreese, returns to the new Cobra Kai dojo. Johnny should have turned away his once abusive and manipulative mentor. But he takes pity on him, allowing him to teach by his side. But it’s not long before Kreese turns Johnny’s students against him, warping them into twisted, cruel bullies themselves. Had Johnny exercised judgment instead of mercy, he could have been spared a lot of pain.
"Not Matter Who's Stronger. Matter Who's Smarter!" Or is it something else?
Whether it is breaking wooden boards or slicing blocks of ice, strength is a massive element of karate. But what makes someone truly strong? Is it physical strength, or an inner strength that comes from confidence and stability? Daniel’s teachings have no physical strength training. They focus instead on balance, trust, form, and mental clarity.
Judaism views strength in a completely different light. Ethics of the Fathers teaches, “Who is a strong person? He who subdues his negative inclinations. He who is slow to anger is better than the strongest man and one who controls his passions is better than a conqueror.” That’s a bold claim. If I had five skeleton-costumed attackers chasing after me, I’m not sure if knowing I can turn down a second slice of cake would help me win the fight.
However, if we define strength as the ability to withstand great force or pressure, there is no force or pressure greater than our own incessant internal temptations.
If you look at the first Karate Kid movie, the reason why Daniel ended up getting jumped by the skeleton-dressed Cobra Kais was because he felt the need to dish out some watery payback after being bullied. Did Johnny deserve it? Absolutely…. until you hear Johnny’s side of the story in season 1 of the show. “At the Halloween dance, I’m sitting there minding my own business. He douses me with the water hose. I haven’t seen the guy in months and he turns a water hose on my head.”
Had the two of them let their pride go and not been held captive to pettiness, they both could have probably gotten what they wanted, and with far less effort. That’s true strength.
Inner Peace, the Ultimate Balancing Act
If there is anything that Miyagi Do’s philosophy championed, it is balance. Daniel’s students practice their moves on the see-sawing water board, they must conquer inner turmoil while extending awareness. Daniel executes his tournament-winning crane kick from a deep state of balance. And of course, the cultivation of the elegant but delicate bonsai tree is a perfect symbol of calm and peace.
In Judaism we refer to peace as shalom. But shalom isn’t just the cessation of war and conflict, it’s the meeting of all needs or being whole. Is achieving shalom as easy as meditating on a tree branch? Unfortunately not, as the more karate Daniel invests into teaching the balance of Miyagi Do, the more his car business and family life suffer.
The truth is, most of our role models rarely have well-balanced lives. Just because you won the All Valley Karate Tournament doesn’t mean you’re going to be happy. In the Ethics of the Fathers we find the instruction to “Love peace, pursue peace.” Peace isn’t passive; it’s something that must be worked on and sought after. To truly be at peace, all aspects of your life need to be in balance – career, physical health, spiritual pursuits, community, and friends and family.
Most people can maybe excel in three of those areas at a given time. But all five? That takes real work. But all too often, we fall for the delusion that excelling more at what we’re already good at will solve the problem. If only I had more money. If only I had a slimmer body. If only I could earn my black belt! However, pulling away and engaging in those other areas can oftentimes solve the problem. So maybe Mr. Miyagi understood this balance better than I’ve given him credit for.
“Daniel-san, sometime better be bothered on full stomach than empty one.”
The Hardest Lesson Is Facing the Consequences
What makes the show Cobra Kai so satisfying is that it takes small moments from the original movies and expounds on them, creating both conflict as well as heartfelt gratification. A young Japanese girl that Daniel saved in Karate Kid 2 saves his car company 30 years later. Johnny’s friend Tommy’s famous taunt “Get him a body bag” gets paid off when the character dies of cancer and medics zip up his black bag.
In Cobra Kai everything matters and has consequences. There could be no bigger piece of Jewish wisdom than that idea. Every choice we make affects our lives, the people around us, and the world at large in ways we can’t possibly conceive. So in pursuit of balance, strength, and achieving victory, maybe don’t binge watch the new season in one sitting.