RJ: Did a defining experience lead you to nature/the woods?
Rabbi Kevin Kleinman, assistant rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth
Israel, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania; and creator and former director of URJ Kutz
Camp’s Teva Outdoor Experience, which teaches high school students leadership
skills and Jewish environmental ethics through rock climbing, hiking, rafting,
and camping expeditions: When I was 12, I climbed Mt. Katahdin in Maine
with a group from my summer camp. After camping by a pristine lake, we began
summiting the mountain via a three-foot-wide path called “Knife Edge.” It was
very cloudy and rainy. Some campers traversed on their hands and knees. I was in
awe of nature, afraid as much as inspired by the beauty around me.
I grew as a person on that trip. Passing through “Knife Edge” gave me
confidence that I could face physical and emotional challenges in life. And it
planted seeds for more time spent outdoors, white river rafting, trekking in
Nepal, swimming in mountain lakes, sleeping under the stars. Being closer to the
elements and removed from the structures of urban and suburban life allow me to
clear my mind and connect to people and God in a more raw way.
Rabbi Mike Comins, Jewish educator, Israeli desert guide, founder
of TorahTrek Spiritual Wilderness Adventures (www.torahtrek.com), and author of A Wild
Faith: Jewish Ways Into Wilderness; Wilderness Ways Into Judaism and
Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on the Difficulty of
Prayer and What To Do About It (both Jewish Lights): I grew up
backpacking with my family in the Sierra (California), so being in the
wilderness was quite normal for me. What I missed, though, was a Jewish
experience of spirituality in wilderness.
After reading about the Native American Vision Quest—four days alone in the
wilderness, in a circle the size of a bedroom, fasting, praying, and
meditating—I headed for the Rockies to try it. In preparation, I was taught a
Daoist body meditation called Chi Quong designed to exchange chi, or
energy, with the trees, rivers, everything around us. At first I didn’t feel
comfortable; I hated New Age “energy” talk. But I suspended judgment, and to my
great surprise, I felt chi right away—a tingling on the skin, a kind of
magnetic pull, and a warmth where the chi was flowing. I kept thinking,
I’m a rabbi and this is pagan. So I tried the meditation over again,
hoping I was imagining it all and waiting for the chi to go away. But it
Soon I remembered the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlov (1772–1810), the
Chasidic master who prayed regularly in nature and shared the Kabbalists’ belief
that wise, healing Divine energy circulated throughout the world and carried our
prayers. He called it chiut (“life-force”), from chayyim (life).
Chi; chiut. Even if it was a coincidence, it seemed like both words were
referring to the same thing.
Over the last 11 years, my ability to sense and direct chi/chiut has
deepened. I feel God every day, most strongly in the natural
Why do many people feel more “spiritual” or closer to God in nature
than in a synagogue?
Rabbi Jamie Korngold, former ultramarathon runner; author of God in the
Wilderness (Doubleday); and founder of Adventure Rabbi (www.AdventureRabbi.org): It’s quite
possible that God tried to talk to Moses in the city. But with all the
distractions of everyday life—the noise of the marketplace, the dust from the
caravans, and his friends saying hello as he passed by—Moses didn’t notice God’s
call. So, too, when we are “off the grid” in wilderness, we have the time to
slow down and notice God opportunities.
Rabbi Mike Comins: When we have a profoundly spiritual experience,
such as a God-moment in nature, neurons are firing on the right side of the
brain—home of our intuition, creativity, and emotions. Language and conceptual
thinking activate the left brain. My pet peeve about synagogue services is that
we sit down and start reading. We activate the wrong hemisphere! If prayer is to
be heartfelt, we have to get to the other side! Fortunately, we have music,
which enhances prayer by bringing in our senses (first processed on the right
side). Our emotions are more easily stirred; we embody the words.
In wilderness—hiking, skiing, paddling—all of our senses are activated: We’re
already right-brain. Getting to God from here is a whole lot easier.
Rabbi Kevin Kleinman: There is a Chasidic story about a boy who left
the synagogue each morning during his daily prayers to go into the woods. One
day his grandfather followed him and watched as his grandson davened
(prayed) amid animals and trees.
“Why do you go outside to pray?” he asked.
“When I am in nature I feel closer to God,” the boy replied.
“Don’t you know that God is the same everywhere?”
“I know,” said the boy, “but I’m not.”
In nature people often realize they’re part of something larger than
themselves, the whole web of life.
During the last NFTY convention I led a shacharit (morning) service in
a clearing alongside the Potomac River. The teens went off by themselves for a
time, reciting words from the prayer book or thoughts in their hearts while
standing along the shore of the river or among the trees. When we came back
together, sharing insights we’d had while praying with nature, there was a
calmer, more peaceful mood in the group. This is the power of praying in the
Rabbi Jamie Korngold: Creating a community is much more organic in the
wilderness, because we really need each other to survive. On Passover, I take
180 people from all over the world to the desert of Moab, Utah. We hike two
miles up a canyon trail to an immense red rock arch spanning 140 feet, under
which we hold our seder. The participants have to help each other over
challenging terrain. Before someone can even ask for a hand, he/she looks up to
find someone else reaching out to help—and how often in life does someone just
offer you a hand?
How did the ancient Israelites view the wilderness or the natural
Rabbi Jamie Korngold: For hundreds of years before the People of the
Book had the Book (the Torah), our ancestors communicated with God on top of
mountains or by rivers in their own words and rituals. Unlike our belief today
that God is in all places at all times, the ancients believed that God lived in
heaven; mountaintops, trees, and water which fell from heaven would bring them
closer to the realm of God.
In time, our leaders worried that Jews might start worshiping the mountains
themselves, as their pagan neighbors did. So as a deterrent to assimilation,
they built the Temple in Jerusalem and established the practice of having Jews
convene there. This set the stage for interior worship in synagogues throughout
Surely by now, thousands of years later, we can safely reclaim the outdoor
practices of our biblical ancestors.
Rabbi Mike Comins: There is no word in the Torah for the modern term
“wilderness,” a place without roads and structures. It had to be invented in
modern Hebrew ( eretz b’reisheet, literally, “land of Genesis”), because
in biblical times there was no separation, physically or mentally, from the
When modern Jews elevated reason above all else, we theologized God out of
the world of our senses and moved almost all Jewish activity and ritual under a
roof. Consequently, too many Jews who experience the sacred in nature are
receiving the message: Your most profound spiritual moments have no
connection to contemporary Judaism. Considering that Judaism started in
wilderness, this belief is as ironic as it is tragic.
If we have a spiritual experience in the wilderness, how might we best
make meaning of it?
Rabbi Mike Comins: Martin Buber’s distinction between I-Thou and I-it
relationships can be helpful. If you think of the other person as a means to an
end, it’s I-it. But in an I-Thou relationship, you are in communion with another
human being. The same applies to nature. Buber insists that we can have an
I-Thou with an animal or a tree. We can experience a Redwood as a source of
lumber for the deck, or as a wondrous, living manifestation of God’s creation.
After making this I-Thou connection with the earth, we can never again treat
nature as a mere commodity.
Rabbi Owen Gottlieb, PhD candidate and Jim Joseph Fellow in Jewish Studies
and Education; Teva-certified Jewish and environmental educator; co-editor of
The Gender Gap: A Congregational Guide for Beginning the Conversation about
Men’s Involvement in Synagogue Life (URJ Press); and blogger (www.mysticalcreative.com): Years
ago, I attended my first Shabbat on the Beach service with the Malibu Jewish
Center and Synagogue. As the sun set, we lit candles and began to sing the
bracha (blessing). Just moments into our singing, dolphins broke water
offshore. I was in awe. I learned that the dolphins had become part of the
Shabbat on the Beach ritual; whenever the singing started, the dolphins greeted
That night, praying Maariv Aravim, the prayer for the God who brings
on evenings, gave new meaning to my contemplations of God, who sets the
constellations in the heavens, rolls light from darkness at dusk—and sets the
dolphins in the ocean amid the waves.
Whenever we’re awed by beauty, we can raise our thoughts to contemplate the
Divine Source of awe.
Rabbi Mike Comins: Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Awe precedes
faith; it is at the root of faith. We must grow in awe in order to
reach faith. Awe rather than faith is the cardinal attitude of the religious
Wilderness is the everyday gateway to awe. Heschel was famous for beginning a
lecture: “I’ve just seen a miracle, I’ve just seen a miracle! I saw the sunset.”
Rabbi Jamie Korngold: One Rosh Hashanah, 175 people from all over the
U.S. joined us for a two-day retreat in the high mountains of Colorado. In a
high Alpine meadow surrounded by gold aspen trees, a red tail hawk soaring
overhead in the blue sky, we created a circle and unrolled both Torahs. Most of
the people had never seen a Torah up close before. Now, everyone was holding a
piece of the Torah.
Imagine how transformative it is to be surrounded by Creation—water, sky, and
mountains—to stand shoulder to shoulder with your community, to sing and hear
the ancient melodies of our people, and then to hear the rabbi say: “Here is
your Torah. Come up and hold it. Reclaim it.”
What other lessons might we learn from the wilderness?
Rabbi Kevin Kleinman: Nothing is wasted in nature. When a tree dies
and falls to the forest floor, it decomposes, becoming soil that provides
valuable nutrients for other growing things, regenerating the wild. If we listen
to wilderness, we too will not squander the finite resources on earth.
Rabbi Mike Comins: When you see a wide horizon of mountains from a
peak you have climbed, you feel humble and grateful to be alive—and you know
that there are no limits to what you can do.
When Jacob wrestles the ish, the man or angel at the Jabbok River who
gives him the name Israel, he doesn’t discover a new theological or intellectual
truth, but his own ability. The verse reads, “You have wrestled with God and
vatuchal ” (Gen. 32:29). Vatuchal is usually translated “you
prevailed,” but it actually means “you were able.” Jacob has spent
his life running in fear, avoiding confrontations. Suddenly he has to fight for
his life. The sweaty, dangerous wrestling match is actually a gift: Jacob
discovers his own strength, his courage to stand up to danger. For this he is
Wilderness is like the ish for us. It tests our bodies and our
spirit. Do I have the maturity to prepare properly and pay attention to the
dangers? Will I act wisely under pressure? Do I have the courage to take risks?
Will I stay to help rescue another person when my own life is at stake?
How can I begin experiencing the connection between Judaism and
Rabbi Kevin Kleinman: Try observing Jewish holidays near your home
with nature in mind. Build a sukkah in your backyard and take in the pleasure of
time with friends and families underneath the stars. Plant trees on Tu B’shvat
or, if you live on the East Coast, tap a maple tree in honor of the annual
rebirth of trees. And the next time your family goes on a hike, relaxes at the
beach, or even sits in the backyard, mark your togetherness in nature by naming
the things you are thankful for.
Rabbi Owen Gottlieb: Start with taking some quiet time at a local
park. There’s no need to feed the ducks or busy oneself: simply observe—breathe,
watch, and listen. Be still, or move slowly and gently. Quiet contemplation
often makes the difference between a restless mind and a moment of serenity and