My husband and I have just moved back to Seattle. I am a native Pacific Northwestener and as such get great joy from being outdoors. Not so for my New Yorker husband. It is only despite many an objection that I am able to coax him into the great outdoors. He offers strong protestations and even thrusts Judaism at me as a basis for his nature avoidance, claiming that Jews are an indoors people — intellectuals, pray-ers and House of Study folks. Help! I know in my heart that this cannot be true and with summer looming this has become a pressing issue.
What could be more Jewish than nature? But I appreciate his disconnect. It is perfectly understandable to perceive Judaism as an indoor sport. However, he may be using his religion as a ploy to ditch a potentially intimidating experience or to dodge an activity clearly outside of his comfort zone. It is your job to initiate him, ever so gently, into the magnificence of nature and to the inspirational qualities of this precious earth. If Judaism is the palette upon which he has chosen to launch his conversation, then so be it. Here I offer to you a short “Jews & Nature Treatise,” six points strong.
1. The Rationalist Approach
Maimonides, in his work, the Mishnah Torah, goes to great lengths and much detail in describing the natural world and its wonders. After setting forth his basic notion that the “foundation of foundations and the firmest pillar of all wisdom is to know there is a First Being,” and in an effort to explicate the commandment to love and be in awe of the Almighty, he urges us to devote time to reflect on the great works, planets, stars, mountains, glaciers and wonderful creatures of this universe. We can best understand the matchless wisdom of God and thereby come to love and esteem the Creator. In Maimonides’ thought, then, nature leads to belief.
2. The Mystical Angle
A mystical advance to the Divine urges an encounter with nature. Throughout our tradition from the days of early Kabbalists in Tzfat to the days of the Baal Shem Tov in Eastern Europe, nature was a force to experience first hand. Where most parishioners gathered in synagogues, those adherents to Lurianic Kabbalah in Tzfat advocated stepping out into the fields to greet the Sabbath, imitating Rabbi Chanina of the Talmud, who would wrap himself in his cloak and say, “Come, let us go and greet the Shabbat Queen.” Much later, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chassidism, would spend lengthy days alone in the woods and surrounded by nature. Reb Nachman of Bratzlav famously declared that every blade of grass is urged to grow. This seeing of the Divine in every element of nature was a break from the more typical search for God on the page of the Talmud and lent a new value to the natural world.
3. A Patriarchal Past
Three Patriarchal scenes: One cannot help but notice the spiritual inspiration situated in nature found in the Torah. It was outdoors to where God led Abraham to help him understand the promise of his children being as numberless as the stars:
And he brought him outside, and said, Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if you are able to count them; and he said to him, So shall your children be. It is the aroma of the celestial outdoors that persuades Isaac to bless Jacob.
And he came near, and kissed him; and he smelled the smell of his garment, and blessed him, and said, “See, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which the Lord has blessed.” Indeed, it was out camping where Jacob dreamed of a ladder grounded on earth reaching heavenward,
And he lighted upon a certain place, and remained there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.
Quite the outdoorsmen, our forefathers were.
4. Experiential Existentialism
It is no accident that the Torah was given in the desert wilderness of Mount Sinai. Our very existence as a people is grounded in the outdoors. Our tradition esteems the barren qualities of the desert terrain, in contradistinction to the pulsating city civilizations of the day found in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The desert is the great equalizer, teaching humility, accessibility and vulnerability. The vast emptiness of the desert instructs us to empty and un-entitle ourselves with a humility learned uncompromisingly by the vast wasteland of the desert. To experience the desert in all its grandeur is to embrace a compelling seemingly unfathomable infinity. A place fitting for our introduction to God.
5. Heschel-ian Radical Amazement
To really get a powerful feeling for the deep connection between Jewish spirituality and nature, look no further than the rapturous, Psalm 104. Whose heart cannot help but resonate with the splendor described here:
He sends the springs into the valleys, they flow between the mountains. They give drink to every beast of the field; the wild asses quench their thirst. Beside them dwell the birds of the sky, among the branches they sing. He waters the mountains from his high abode; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your works. He makes the grass grow for the cattle, and plants for the service of man, that he may bring forth food from the earth; And wine that gladdens the heart of man, and oil to make his face shine, and bread which strengthens man’s heart. The trees of the Lord have their fill; the cedars of Lebanon, which he has planted. Where the birds make their nests; as for the stork, the cypress trees are her house. The high mountains are a refuge for the wild goats; and the rocks for the badgers. He appointed the moon for seasons; the sun knows its setting time. You make darkness, and it is night; when all the beasts of the forest creep forth. The young lions roar for their prey, and seek their food from God. The sun rises, they gather themselves together, and lie down in their dens.
6. Modern and Secular Connections
If none of this convinces, it might be helpful to note that the very founder of the “Outward Bound” movement was a German Jew. He listed “natural world” as the eighth of his “Ten Expeditionary Learning Principles,” justifying it this way: “A direct and respectful relationship with the natural world refreshes the human spirit and teaches the important ideas of recurring cycles and cause and effect. Students learn to become stewards of the earth and of future generations.”
Hopefully, these six points one for each of the six days of creation should do the trick!