For our faith to grow, we must celebrate its roots in nature
When our ancestors received the Torah, they stood at a mountain. When we celebrate receiving the Torah on Shavuot, we will stand in the pews. They looked at the sky; we will look at the ceiling. They were warmed by the sun; we will be cooled by the air conditioning.
I am a rabbi in a synagogue. But before I am a rabbi in a synagogue, I am a rabbi in the world.
Increasingly, our Judaism is walled in, confined to the fixed seats in the standard rooms designed with vaulted ceilings and an elaborate ark. There are variations — some sanctuaries have windows of clear or stained glass, seats that move or are fixed and bolted, men and women sitting separately or together. Nonetheless, they are resolutely indoor spaces. We invoke the stars as we look up to the lighting fixtures. As Churchill said, we shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us.
But outside is the world. Essayist E.B. White once wrote that everything changed the day man walked on the moon because instead of going outside to see the moon, people watched it inside on their television sets. That peculiar reversal afflicts Jewish worship, as well. We bless the natural world without being in it. We praise God’s creation as we sit in concrete boxes fashioned by human beings.
For generations, this was accepted and understood. Today, I believe we will lose young Jews if we do not take Torah to the streets — and to the beaches, to the mountains and to the forests.
Nearly three centuries ago, Chasidism revitalized the spiritual life of Jewry. There is a reason Chasidism grew up in the forest, as there is a reason why Jewish camping is the most successful modern movement in Jewish life. If you live in a city, at night you see the magnificence of the lights — a testament to the grandeur of humanity. If you go to the country, you see the canopy of constellations — a testament to the grandeur of God.
Which is more likely to inspire the devotion that is the wellspring of Torah?
This is hardly a new idea. Judaism was born in the desert; we are a people of tents and star-sewn nights. Wandering by fire and smoke, we scraped manna from the ground. As we entered the Promised Land, crops and harvests shaped the cadences of life.
Today, numerous groups are recalling our origins, such as Wilderness Torah, synagogues that create trips and experiences, and groups like Chabad that consciously practice outdoor worship. In Los Angeles alone there is Nashuva in Temescal Canyon, Open Temple, the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue with beachside services, and others. And when at Sinai Temple we inaugurated our millennial initiative earlier this year, it was understood that it had to focus outside our walls. Inspiration lives more in clouds than in concrete.
As the rabbi of a mainstream congregation who understands all the challenges of parking and building maintenance, I want those of us comfortable in our seats to start pushing the walls outward. We have to send our clergy and train our laypeople to initiate prayer anywhere and everywhere. There should be minyanim at the mall, blessings in the bar and Torah under the trees. Even large synagogues must increasingly create small, organic experiences particularly focused on the outdoors: shabbatonim at camps and retreats, morning minyan hikes, Shabbat services in the park as we now do for families on Friday evenings. Grander possibilities, too, may take hold: worship cruises or Shabbat at the Hollywood Bowl.
Younger people are not drawn to the spaces their elders have created. They are drawn to the world — to the bustle of people in the market and the stillness of solitude on the mountaintop. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” as the Psalmist wrote. Our love of nature looks beyond the beauty to its Source. It is a therapeutic value and a spiritual imperative.
The Torah begins with human beings in a garden, and cultivating nature is part of our tradition, as well. Planting and reaping and sowing are the rhythms of the Jewish year. This holiday of Shavuot is the culmination of the harvest. This was the first day when Israelites would bring fruit from the “seven species” of the Land: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates (Deuteronomy 8:8). Having grown the food, offering it was a product of their labor and their love.
We are accustomed to study on the holiday, but surely we also should touch the soil and understand anew that the Torah began not in urban structures but on hills and pastures. On this holiday of Shavuot, we stood at Sinai, amid thunder and lightning. The power of the natural world enfolded Israel and prepared them for the spiritual peak of history. The Torah may be studied, cherished and taught indoors, but it was given in the immensity of open space.
The return to Eretz Yisrael, to the land of Israel, was a renewal of the Jewish connection to the earth. We in the Diaspora more fully embrace our tradition and our past when we cleanse our souls by dirtying our hands.
There are great advantages to buildings — the gathering together, the fixed place for community, the facilities and, of course, dryness and comfort. Many are artistically and sensitively rendered. No one would advocate abandoning our structured communities. The place of spaces for worship, as for all sorts of gatherings, is certain and secure. Buildings give us classrooms, opportunities to memorialize, a sense of fixed and settled places.
But we have to grow past the walls, to create flash mobs of Torah, where spontaneous and genuine learning happens.
When I first went to Camp Ramah as a child, I came home and asked my father, the rabbi of a large congregation in Philadelphia, why we needed a building. I had just prayed all summer long next to a tree, and it had a power beyond what I found in my home synagogue. My father told me that when he was growing up, neither he nor his friends felt as accepted as the Irish Catholics of Boston. The non-Jewish community worshipped in magnificent churches and the Jewish community believed, all across America, that if one day our synagogues could be as grand, we would be equal. So when his generation grew to adulthood, they wanted buildings as beautiful as the Christian churches, to show they had arrived. The fact that you don’t need them, my father said, means we succeeded.
Jews have long since arrived. The structures of modern Jewish life are stolid, imposing and sometimes genuinely magnificent. But we inhabit a rich, blooming garden of a world. To live in Los Angeles and never pray on the sand, or while hiking a trail, is to turn one’s back on so much that God has given.
When my niece, a rabbinical student, was married, we celebrated Kabbalat Shabbat in the forest. We sang “Lecha Dodi,” and it was possible to envision the mystics of Safed, where the prayer was written, watching the sun setting over the mountains. I saw the shadow tracery of the branches dance on the ground as the sky darkened. Shabbat did not come through the window; it came through the world.
I cannot move our Saturday morning service to the middle of Wilshire Boulevard or to Will Rogers State Historic Park. There is no place for a thousand congregants or the various accommodations that must be made in a modern city. But it is time to begin to think about when we can step out of our building. As we do taschlich by the ocean, we should create regular opportunities to touch the earth, to pray on a mountaintop or by a beach, to walk and learn, to remember that God’s first and greatest act is creation.
The story is told of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great 19th century Jewish thinker and leader, that late in life he told his students he was off to hike in the Alps. When they asked him why, at his advanced age, he would undertake such a difficult trip, he answered: “Because I am soon to come before God. And when I do, I know God will say to me, ‘So, Shimshon, did you see My Alps?’ ”
When God asks if we offered praise in the beautiful corners of his world, let us be able to answer “yes.” Take your prayer to the park, your minyan to the mountain and your blessings to the beach.
Will returning to nature “save Judaism”? Who knows. But it will certainly save some Jews.
There is a blessing in our tradition for seeing natural wonders — oseh ma’aseh bereshit — the One who accomplished the work of creation. Let us step out from behind the walls, throw our arms and voices up to the sky, and bless God, whose miracles fill the earth.
David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple. His most recent book is “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press).