Humanity’s current alienation from nature is unprecedented. As Wendell Berry explained in his seminal 1977 work The Unsettling of America, we are confronted with a “crisis of culture,” reflected in a “crisis of agriculture,” rooted in the simple fact that modern people have become disconnected from nature and the natural cycles we depend upon for survival. In less than fifty years, modern Western culture – particularly in the United States – has shifted from relying on small family farms that dotted the countryside to relying on an industrial food system run by massive corporate farms.
This rift from our food source is mirrored in our everyday relationship to nature. Richard Louv explains in his recent work, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, that “our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature,” at the cost of mental, spiritual and physical health. Citing research that the rise in Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), obesity, and autism could be directly related to what he calls nature-deficit disorder, Louv concludes that “[t]ime in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health (and also, by the way, in our own)”. (120).
In my personal spiritual journey, I have found Louv’s conclusion to be profoundly true – that through deep nature connection, I have been able to heal and find clarity in my personal life. I see an expressed need for a return to nature in others as well. Disconnection from nature fuels increased spiritual seeking and an urgent desire to find meaningful community.
As a disproportionately urbanized people, Jews exemplify the modern trend toward nature-disconnection. We are, however, also uniquely situated to reclaim a cultural heritage that will guide us back into a deep relationship with nature. We think of Judaism as an urban religion, but our 3,000 year-old tradition is deeply rooted in an ancient aboriginal mindset and way of being that is inherently connected to Creation. As Rabbi Gershon Winkler explains in Magic of the Ordinary, “in its aboriginal form Jewish spirituality has less to do with religion that it does with direct, uninhibited experience with Creator through Creation.” (11). Winkler further explains, “What was once a holistic spirit path that encompassed all the nuances and dynamics of the spirituality of earth and body ha[s] over the centuries mutated into a parochial focus on religion as an institution by itself.” (12). At its core, Rabbi Winkler teaches, Judaism “emphasizes the sacredness of the earth, and that all organisms, even stars and planets, are imbued by the Creator with a divine consciousness.” (7).
Until the very recent establishment of the State of Israel, the greater part of the Jewish people have been cut off from an enduring land connection for the better part of the last two thousand years. Given the state of nature disconnection we experience in modern life, it makes sense that “aboriginal” Jewishness is dormant today. Yet, we need look no further than our Torah portions, prayers, and yearly holiday cycle to see that our earth-based traditions are within easy reach.
The Torah teaches that the human (Adam) is made of the earth (Adamah). (Genesis 2:7). In our Creation story, after everything in nature but Adam has been created, G-d turns to Creation that came before Adam and proclaims: “Let us make Adam in our image, after our likeness.” (Genesis 1:26). Strikingly, this is the only moment in the Torah where G-d speaks in the first person plural (“we”), signaling a critical aspect of the Creation story. As the 17th Century Rabbi Cordovero explains, “in creating the human, G-d incorporated all of the attributes of all the animals and plants and minerals and so on that had been created up to this point. In each of us, then, are the attributes and powers of all the creatures of the earth.” (Cordovero, Shi’ur HaKomah, Torah, chpt. 4.). Fundamentally, our tradition teaches that we are inextricably connected to and reflected by nature. To disconnect from nature is to disconnect from ourselves.
Our prayers provide constant reminders of our essential nature-connection. In the psalms, we are reminded that not only humans, but all of Creation relates to and praises G-d. (Psalm 145:10 – “All your creations praise you”; Psalm 148 – “Praise the Creator sun and moon, all bright stars … mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, wild and tamed beasts, creeping things and winged birds”; Psalm 150:6 “All souls praise G-d”).
The Shema, the central Jewish prayer that teaches us to listen, teaches that G-d is the infinite, unifying force of all things in Creation (“G-d is One”) and directs us to love G-d with all of our heart, soul and might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). The subsequent verses of the Shema demonstrate how inextricably connected we are to Creation and the consequences of our disconnection. If we follow the path of love outlined by the Shema, we are taught rain will nourish our grain for bread, grapes for wine, and grass for our cows; but if we go astray and worship ‘alien gods,’ the rain will dry up, and trouble will follow. (Deuteronomy 11:13-17). While many recoil from this last portion as an idle threat of a vengeful, paternal G-d, given today’s reality of global climate change and Wall Street gone awry, we may understand this not as an irrelevant edict but as ancient wisdom and warning that articulates an intricate relationship of action and consequence within an ecology more tightly woven than we currently understand; one which we might heed through a shift in our lives and culture.
The Jewish tradition provides us with a built-in operating system that connects us to the earth by connecting us to the cycles of nature. Rabbi Jill Hammer explains, “The cycle of the Jewish year, like many calendrical cycles, takes note of and weaves itself into the natural seasons: Passover falling in the spring, the new year of Rosh Hashanah in the autumn, Chanukah in the winter, and so forth. One of the most important ways of tying the earth to the spirit is to fully celebrate the holidays as they pertain to the seasons and cycles of the earth.” Tel Shemesh.
As we deepen our understanding of how Judaism today relates to our aboriginal roots, we will gain more understanding of how to relate our modern traditions to our ancient earth-connected ways. For example, the traditional period between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B’av, where we mourn the destruction of the Temple, is based on a more ancient tradition. At the beginning of the summer solstice, at the onset of killing summer heat and drought, our Babylonian ancestors annually mourned the death of the “life-death-rebirth” deity Tammuz namesake of the month Tammuz. This is not to suggest that we should return to worshiping Sumerian gods, but that we can reconnect to our ancient roots to more deeply understand our current cyclical daily, monthly and yearly practices as they relate to the natural world around us.
Returning to earth-based roots of Judaism is the goal of Wilderness Torah, which I co-founded and co-direct. With the mission to awaken and celebrate the earth-based traditions of Judaism to nourish the connections between self, community, earth, and Spirit, Wilderness Torah creates experiences aligned with the cycles of nature and the cycles of our lives. Through an annual cycle of land-based pilgrimage festivals, one of its primary program areas, Wilderness Torah celebrates holidays in their original context. At the Sukkot on the Farm Festival, for example, multi-generational community gathers on a local, organic farm for 4 days to immerse in the essence of the harvest holiday, while renewing the ancient water libation ritual performed in Temple times, to awaken our consciousness to the central role of water in our agricultural cycle and our lives.
When I asked Tali Weinberg, a friend, colleague and former farm manager for the Adamah farm at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, why we need to reintegrate our earth-based roots back into Judaism, she explained: “When humans are disconnected from the earth, we are not only separated from an intimate knowledge of the sources of our food, medicine, shelter, and all the things we need to sustain our lives, we are separated from our sense of human identity. This is equally true for Jews with regard to an authentic sense of Jewish identity. Jews cannot know their Jewish selves without this connection.” At a time when concern for the environment and Jewish identity are both at all time highs, there is no better time to reclaim and awaken our aboriginal, earth-based ways as a means toward strengthening the Jewish tent today and inspiring the next generations of Jews to truly understand what it means to embark on Tikkun Olam.
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