Religion & Beliefs
Shul Hopping #2: Lost In The Woods
If you want to remove technology from your life for Shabbat, what better place than the woods? Read More
I lost my Blackberry on the 4th of July. Then, on a whim, I decided to go camping for the weekend in Connecticut with my cousin and his friend. Somehow, I happily ended up off the grid of digital life. I still don’t know the name of the city, or town, or state park we ended up in, but none of that mattered. Not more than five feet from our picnic table, and ten feet from our tent, flowed a brook that babbled, ceaselessly, like a good Jewish character from the stories of Sholem Aleichem. I knew I found the right place to pray in private if the desire arose. John Muir, along with many other thinkers, referred to the wilderness, or nature, as God’s Cathedral. Why not God’s Synagogue as well?
Before the Sabbath began we cooked our food for the Friday night meal: steaks, both skirt and shoulder, four different types of sausages (hot, Italian, regular, and Swedish), chicken cutlets, hot dogs, deli roll, potato kugel, and challah hot dog buns. To top off our Jewish takeover of the standard barbeque experience, one of my fellow tent-mates brought plastic Kiddush cups with raised pictures of a bushel of grapes on them to hold the sparkling, non-alcoholic grape juice. (I imagine no one in the world drinks this besides Jews, similar to Tofutti Cuties. Think about it.)
The night carried on and darkness made itself cozy. The fire tired out, leaving us in the ninth plague if not for slivers of light slicing through our camp from our neighbor’s tent. We could not see the age old trees that looked like majestic knights protecting us from modernity, nor could we even see the path to the bathroom stall. All three of us sat apart, in the silence of the wild, thinking. I decided that now, in the dark, sitting on a mossy, slimy rock, with my naked feet in the rushing waters of this personal brook, to attempt personalized prayer, to figure out what prayer might entail unencumbered by religious rituals.
Praying alone in the dark with the remnants of rain dripping down from the trees, I felt a strange note of ambivalence. In dialogue with a supposed Divinity, surrounded by the enormity of nature, I felt both singular and insignificant. Singular in that I, a tiny piece of sand in the infinite universe might possibly talk to the Creator of that universe, but insignificant in my arrogance and presumptuousness in approaching this possibly infinite God with my minuscule needs. While in a community surrounded by hundreds of worshippers I can muster the chutzpah to feel important, here I could not help but feel as vital as the water bug crawling up the hairs on my leg.
Continuing in my prayer, I realized that we perpetuate the myth that we can break cleanly, even in the haven of our own thoughts, from our previous lives. If anything it is there, in the deepest parts of ourselves, where we cannot shed the skins of our past. Consequently, my first ever foray into private prayer entailed an acceptance of what I normally associate with prayer: praise, supplications, thanksgiving, and introspection. Did I want these elements; did I need these components? As a typical American, I leaned heavily on introspection and supplication, both self-focused actions.
So there I sat, with my feet cold but comfortable, trying to think of what this scene looked like in sunlight. The trees, I recalled, looked like broccoli, or the ends of carrots, sticking out of the ground, which only giants could pull out. The water: steady, slight, subtle, glistening with the reflected sun, brushed up against the rocks. Now, at night, with my eyes closed for no practical purpose, I attempted to heighten my other senses. I smelled the sharp air of a forest night. The brook no longer babbled, but in my head it argued, echoing the sounds of a Beit Midrash, a place of religious learning in which hundreds of groups of twos and threes argue loudly over dense religious texts. Then quiet. For a second, I believed I could hear an individual rush of a drop of water. Focusing on this drop, this single drop in the flowing water, I prayed, emptied of all but the desire to know my deepest will.
I asked myself, what in my holy of holies did I want more than anything in my life? In a sense, this fulfilled both the introspection and the supplication aspect of prayer because I could only ask for something if I could comprehend my desires. I will keep the answer to myself because this column concerns us all, I hope, and not just he inner ramblings of one specific lost soul. Alongside this answer, digging deep in the ruins of my personality, I connected to the transcendent beauty of nature. I marveled at the fact that the wonders of nature mostly arouse humanly love, rarely lust. Our encounters with nature most often guide us to goodness, not to voraciousness. Surely this carries some weight, I thought, some significance in the general question of spirituality and materialism, in the philosophical sense, but who knows. However, even with this enlarged sense of universal love I could not avoid the complexities of privatized religion.
Privatized religions promises much, but delivers less than we hope. We rush towards a personal religion because it respects our autonomy as thinkers of depth, as well as honors the singularity of each person’s experiences. In that sense, it can bestow some of these gifts, but it often holds out the carrot of much more lofty gifts. It dangles in your face the dreams of unmediated knowledge and experience of “your” God. We each transform into our own personal Abraham, Jesus, Buddha, or Mohammed, but therein we find the problem. The God of your definition, if we choose logical consistency, will never exist as a true and complete Other. We cannot create a conception of the divine ex nihilo. At best, it will signify a grab-bag God in which you choose a Divinity based on anything really: logic, emotions, experiences, family dynamics, and other religions. In this sense, personalized religion, one in which we transcend organized religion, is a myth. We will always live in the shadow of someone else’s conception of the Divine, even if we choose not to believe in that idea. Think of the Jewish joke, or possibly adage at this point, of the need to have a Shul you specifically do not attend.
I could not run away from this thought as I realized a similar, but slightly different problem with praying alone in the dark: We end up living a religious life that reflects our needs instead of one that reflects the demands of God. Religion, we usually assume, does not only foster positive feelings of connection, comfort and meaning, but also, if not mainly, attempts to foster worship. Worship entails sacrifice and servility to something other than your needs. If we assume this then privatized religion not only becomes a myth, but begins to border on self-worship. The concept itself morphs into an oxymoron.
I felt this acutely as I awoke from trance-like state to realize that my friends had left. Not for naught did the Talmudic rabbis demand that synagogues have windows so that we can see the people of the outside world. When we pray alone, we do just that: we pray with our thoughts turned inwards, not on our neighbor whose business just buckled, or on another neighbor whose husband struggles with a serious disease, or to move away from provincialism, we tend to neglect broader communal and global issues. One can’t help but notice the insightful power of the ritual prayers written in plural form. Save us, redeem us, provide for us instead of what do I want, or provide for me, or save me. This difference hides, I believe, one of the contemporary problems to any type of religious life. For me, as an American living in a consumerist, rights based society, servility and self-transcendence represent some of the greatest challenges to a religious lifestyle.
In the end, I realize these ideas contain a certain hole, or partake in circularity. The roots of organized religion stem from the unique experiences of individual visionaries. However, living in this influx-of-information age, we can never wipe our slates clean, or return to a Tabula Rasa. We simply know too much to feel compelled by one vision, one version of anything really. After all of this I understood that a critique of personalized religion does not preclude its meaningfulness, nor does it automatically guide us back to the rigid hugs of organized religion. Rather, like much else in life, it leaves us stuck in ambiguity, forced to make a choice without the classical methods of choice to rely on. Ironically, we live in a world in which many of us, if we still want to connect to religion, must create a religion for ourselves. Yet, a true personalized religion cannot exist, while the option of picking and choosing will not, most likely, satisfy our need to belong to something larger than ourselves. With this in mind, even nature loses some of its luster. Even the most gorgeous of sights, whether a powerful waterfall, or the quiet beauty of an ant line carrying food back home, I realize, will not decide any questions for me, or guide me on any one path. That choice still remains mine alone.