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Finding God Outdoors

Jewish identity and ecological identity may seem like strange bed-fellows. Yet our identity is our sense of our self: who we are: what grounds us in our selves and the world. Knowing who we are implies knowing who we are relative to others. How we are different, and, just as importantly, how we are similar. At times, some of us Jews are so fearful about preserving our people and our tradition that we think the way to do so is to hunker down and focus on our uniqueness as Jews, our difference, the things that set us apart-our laws, our texts, our Jewish institutions, our communal life. But the dark side of concentrating too much attention on our difference, our uniqueness, is the narrowing of our worldview and ourselves. We can develop a limited view of life and its possibilities, and unwittingly push away our young people and adults who are hungry to explore the wider world. In their landmark book The Jew Within, in which they report on their intensive interviews of moderately affiliated American Jews between the ages of thirty and fifty, Steven Cohen and Arnie Eisen noted that the respondents exhibited a distaste for religious language that emphasized the differences between Jews and non-Jews and an attraction to language that was more universal. The ways in which we are similar to other people-all of whom are made in the image of God– is the flip side of what we usually think of as Jewish identity. But this dimension-our universality–seems to get short shrift in Jewish life and Jewish education.

Jewish Identity and Nature

Its not just other people that we are similar to; it’s all of Creation. We are similar in that we, like the earth, the air, the waters, the flyers, the swimmers, the runners, are all creatures of God-metaphorically if not literally–and we are all connected: all part of God’s interwoven universe-each with a divine purpose that contributes to the perfection of the whole. So what I would like to suggest here is that our Jewish identity includes our relationship to nature. In the secular world in the fields of biology and psychology, scientists and researchers have determined that a relationship with nature is not only a fundamental part of identity but even essential to our health and well-being. In his critically acclaimed book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv cites researchers whose work supports this idea. Renowned Harvard scientist EO Wilson, argues that humans have an innate affinity for the natural world which he calls “biophilia,” a biologically-based need for connection to nature. The psychologist Erik Erikson described the child’s need, particularly in middle youth to establish, hideaways, tree-houses, forts, nests–sacred spots often found in natural settings away from the constriction of the adult world. Stephen Kellert, professor of social ecology at Yale says that experience in nature helps shape how children think; it helps them to analyze, synthesize and evaluate. Others have found that involvement with nature yields a positive effect on concentration and creativity, and is therapeutic for children with attentional problems.

Nature and Spirituality

I’d like to suggest that a relationship with nature, a kinship with all life, is essential to the unfolding of our spiritual identities. A healthy relationship or identification with nature does not necessarily involve recognizing plants and stars and weather patterns; it does not depend on long treks in the wilderness or hugging trees or communicating with animals-it’s simply about experiencing the wider world and all of its gifts: feeling a sense of uplift at the sight of a flock of migrating geese, noticing the artistry in an ear of corn, appreciating the fragrance of honeysuckle and fresh cut grass. The natural world is the primary source of sensory stimulation and nature cultivates our senses-particularly those of sight, smell, touch, taste and our kinesthetic sense. Through our senses, we gain a stronger sense of our selves. If we listen to them we can begin to know what draws us and what pushes us away. The more refined our senses, the more bright and alive the world becomes to us, the more we feel connected to it and the more at home we are in it, the more at peace. Children especially live through their senses. Sensory experience is the pathway from a child’s exterior world to her hidden, interior emotional world. Researchers (Robin Moore) suggest that freedom to explore and play in the outdoor environment is essential for the healthy development of an interior life. The senses help children and all of us to dig deeper beneath the surface of the outer world to discover its mysteries and at the same time connect us more deeply to our own inner worlds. n this interior space, we find refuge and the kernal of a spiritual life. As the young–and the rest of us–spend less and less time out of doors and more time focused on computer screens and television and a myriad of gadgets, our senses become dulled. Physiologically and psychologically, our senses narrow, our inner worlds narrow. The more cluttered our minds, the more constricted our hearts, the less space there is inside for God to inhabit. Natural settings also stimulate the imagination. Diverse terraine–cliffs, ravines, plains of waving wheat, a giant beech tree, a lilly pond, a rock-outcrop, an ant hill–all serve as the medium of invention and creativity. Often on my morning walks, I run into a young mother supervising her 2 3-year old sons, garbed in galoshes and raincoats finding endless fascination in a small puddle in the midst of a dirt road. They spend hours industriously filling their pails and pouring them out, happily splashing around this 5 foot long muddy rut, imagining only God knows what. Nature presents the young and old—with something so much greater than we are as individuals; it offers an environment where we can contemplate all that is eternal. On an exceptionally clear night, a group of self-involved teenagers can climb up to the roof of an apt building in NY city, see the moon and the stars, forget their obsessions and preoccupations, and have a sense of infinity. For a brief moment, they lose themselves into the flow of life. Unknowingly they enter into prayer. Perhaps it is because of nature’s bounty and limitless diversity, that our hearts soften and open to the other–animal, vegetable and miracle–in Barbara Kingsolver’s phrasing. Perhaps it is because we feel a sense of freedom and a desire to explore when we are out of doors that our imaginations roam and ask open-ended questions about the nature of the universe, about the mystery of life, about the possible existence of God.

Encountering God

The importance of nature as the domaine of God should not be underestimated. Cohen and Eisen were surprised to find that the Jews in their study do believe in God, but they don’t expect to find God in synagogue, prayerbooks, or Jewish texts (157). Rather they found God in private or universal settings and most of them associated God with a force in nature; they were more comfortable with God who rules all the earth than the God of Israel. They claimed that the God they encountered in synagogue was too commanding and “too Jewish.” (162) In fact, the God of the cosmos that many people find in nature IS the Jewish God. The problem is that we are not communicating this message effectively, whole-heartedly. We have only to look at the Bible to remind ourselves of this. From the beginning of our history, our ancestors encountered God in natural settings at specified places: at an oak of moreh, atop a mountain near Bethel or on the shores of the Jabok river. Our ancestors faith and their identity was nurtured in nature. Noah learned about the deepest meaning of life, he became fully realized by responding to the needs of all the creatures in the ark. Abraham fulfilled his mandate to be a blessing–not just to his own people-but to all the families of the earth by having his heart opened on a walking odyssey through the varied terraine of the land of Israel-a land largely unpeopled, but inhabited by diverse wildlife. In the harshness of the desert Hagar encountered God and found an oasis so she could revive Ishmael from the brink of death. Isaac kept his fields; farming was his meditation; he sowed and reaped 100fold. Rebecca’s spiritual practice-at least as a girl-involved caring for animals. She drew water from the well to quench the thirst of every single camel and brought them home to feed them bran and fodder. Moses learned the way of water from the ark of his childhood; his experience with water shaped his faith and opened him to trust at the waters of the Red Sea. And perhaps most significantly the whole band of wandering Israelites found God in nature; their identity was forged outdoors on the land. Indeed in last week’s Torah portion, we encounter a catalogue of seemingly endless place names-the Israelites journeyed from Ramses and camped at Succoth; then they journeyed from Sukkot and camped at Etham, then from Etham to Pi-Hahiroth, and on and on. While many consider this litany to be utterly boring–the word litany often holds a negative valance for people– the real meaning of litany is prayer and I hear this recitation as an evocative mantra. Every place is named-every place is remembered; every place is inhabited by God. Every place that we make our home is holy ground. It’s not just the Bible proper that cultivates an awareness of a universal God in nature. Our psalms, particularly those of the Friday night liturgy sing out to God in nature and our greatest song, the Song of Songs finds God-without ever using God’s name–in the continuum of body and land. There is no more universal sense of God than this. Cooped up in the concrete box of a classroom-under humanity’s dominion, kids don’t stand much of a chance of finding God. But outdoors, feet touching the earth, bodies immersed in the wind, Ruach Elohim, there’s a real likelihood they and we might remember our Creator.


Taking Judaism Out of Doors None of this is rocket science. It seems so elementary and obvious that we would find God outdoors. What surprises me is that Jewish leaders and board members aren’t clamoring for more outdoor Jewish educational experiences and hiring Jewish eco-educators, and that funders aren’t jumping at the opportunity to pour money into this work. The point is that we need to take this outdoor education–this farm and wilderness education, this authentic Jewish spiritual education–seriously. We need to give it the dignity it deserves and infuse our curricula and our Jewish life with it. And if the biological, psychological and spiritual arguments are not convincing enough of the supreme value of this approach to Jewish education, then maybe the threat of global climate change is. Fostered by our lack of appreciation for the natural world and our wild and unconstrained overuse of it, global climate change is threatening to alter the face of life on earth. The prospects are frightening. It is imperative that we as Jews find ways to engage in environmental repair and not get sucked into the despair or indifference. It is our children who must bear the burden of the consequences of the environmental crisis; let’s find hopeful and celebratory ways to support them and inspire them and help them cultivate a garden of possibilities. Lets keep them engaged in the world and keep them Jewish at the same time. I’d like to share a bit of my own idea of what the Jewish community could look like if it takes seriously its ecological identity–its spiritual identity. In our tradition, on Tisha B’Av, out of our confrontation with the realities of the ruin, pain and sorrow of the world, out of our lament, the Messiah is born. For me, the messiah takes the form of a gardener or farmer-like God who planted a garden, like Noah who planted a vineyard, like the shulamite who tended an orchard. Now it is up to us to actually-not metaphorically-plant our own garden, an Urban Eden. I imagine us transforming the manicured lawns of synagogues and schools into small farms and gardens exploding with a fantastic profusion of fruits and vegetables. Perennial gardens, spice gardens, vegetable gardens, meditation gardens, perfume gardens; orchards; Edible landscapes. I imagine children, teens, 20-somethings, parents and elders, affiliated and alienated growing apples for Rosh Hashanah, pumpkins, squash and etrogim for Sukkot, potatoes for latkes and blueberries for jam for Hanukah: apricots, strawberries, walnuts, pistachios and figs for Tu B’Sh’vat, karpas for Pesach, and wheat for Shavuot. And not just for us. Gardens are for giving, for gleaning, for tzedakah, for those who have not. Gardens are for healing; they spread a shelter of peace; they offer hope to those in grief. They soften the hearts of the hardened, the cynical, the wiseguys, the problem children. Gardens beautify neighborhoods and build communities and leaders; Gardens cultivate our imagination and our senses and our sensitivity and our spirituality. They teach us skills that we may actually need to survive in this lifetime. They stand for health and life and all that is good, and without saying a word, they mitigate against the environmental crisis, the food crisis and the oil crisis. The most powerful solutions are often also the simplest; the most elemental. This is not too difficult for you, for us. It is time to grow Eden in our own backyards.


This essay was original given as the Keynote at CAJE on August 11, 2008.

Called the mother of the Jewish environmental movement, Ellen Bernstein founded Shomrei Adamah, the first national Jewish environmental organization, in 1988. She is author of The Splendor of Creation and other books on Judaism and ecology. She teaches at Hebrew College and is launching a new program: Urban Eden. For more info, visit Art by Andrea Guerra. All rights reserved. Andrea Guerra (c) 2008.

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