It’s Only Natural: The Powerful Connection of Jewish Spirituality in the Great Outdoors

by Rabbi Michael Comins

Have you ever met anyone who read a book in a library and then decided that God exists? Have you ever heard a person say, “I go to Shabbat services because I want to say my theology out loud, with the same words I used last week?”

People get to God, if they get to God, because of God-moments, not God-concepts. While the ideas in prayer are important, it is the experience of prayer – facilitated by poetry, music, introspection and community – that moves people. Words like “transcendence,” “heart” and “connection” are used to describe meaningful services, not “intellectually satisfying.”

More Spiritual Dynamics, Less Theology

As Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shlomi puts it, “Theology is the afterthought of the believer.” That’s why the most influential theological writers of our time begin with lived experience. Buber speaks of I-thou, Heschel of wonder and awe, Soloveitchik of the experience of faith. They describe the spiritual dynamics of encountering the Divine in great detail, and largely ignore philosophical discussions on the why and what of God in favor of exploring the how and the who.

Instead of theological speculation about God, we can ask, what makes some moments transcendent, how do we get more of them, and what do we do with them? Regarding prayer, we can talk less about what happens on God’s end and more about what makes prayer work on our end. Instead of “why do bad things happen to good people,” and other insoluble dilemmas, we can ask, what makes for a good prayer session, how do I uncover my heart’s truest yearnings, how do I put those yearnings into words, and how does prayer help me cope with loss?

Involving the Body

When I’m thinking conceptually, doing math, speaking analytically, or writing prose, as I am right now, the neurons are firing on the left side of my brain. When I’m playing the guitar, biking, drawing, standing in awe before a sunset or responding to injustice – in other words, when I’m emoting, creating art, thinking intuitively, exercising or otherwise living in the present with awareness primarily on my senses – more synapses are firing in the right brain. For most people, most of the time, God-moments happen when we’re in right brain consciousness.

But what happens when we enter a synagogue service? We open a book and start reading. We activate the left side.

Fortunately, we have an incredible way of putting the words of the Siddur into our hearts. That way is music. Little wonder that today most liberal synagogues have a full fledged band on staff or that the most popular synagogues and minyanim have turned their services into one continuous song.

Why does music stimulate the right brain and transform the worship experience? Because it engages the body.

Our bodies are intimately involved with our emotions and our feelings. If you want to know how someone is feeling or whether they are telling the truth, do you give more weight to their words or to their facial expressions? And while our minds have many subterfuges, our bodies rarely lie.

So the more we inhabit our bodies, the better our chances of having a God-moment. It’s not surprising that Yoga, most styles of meditation and other body practices continue to gain in popularity. It’s not surprising that traditional Jews shuckle with fervor, or that the singing of a niggun (a wordless melody) is central to Chasidic practice, or that so many Reform Rabbis are songleaders.

Nor is it surprising that we outdoor Jewish educators get credit just for doing the same service or Torah study in nature that we usually do under a synagogue roof. On a trail, your senses are already engaged, your attention is focused on the present, and your vision is not limited to the familiar (the sanctuary) or the two-dimensional (prayer book). Getting to a God-moment is much easier from there.

But why settle for what you can do elsewhere? There is so much more that Jewish educators can and should do in the natural world.

The Unique Classroom that is Wild Nature

To understand why nature is the world’s greatest classroom for teaching the Jewish educator’s most difficult subjects, God and prayer, we turn to Abraham Joshua Heschel. His magnum opus on Jewish belief, God in Search of Man, begins with an extended treatment of wonder and awe.

The Hebrew word yirah, writes Heschel, refers to both “fear” and “awe.” What, he asks, is the difference? If a lightening storm is about to descend on us, a healthy response would be to get as far away as possible. But if we can safely watch, we are attracted. We want to get close. We somehow know that genuine living, and its meaning, are found here.

Awe is a composite term. Think of the most awesome event you know. Most say child-birth. What makes it awesome? We are lost in a swirl of emotions caused by danger and beauty, by being so close to the great mystery of life and death. Somehow, in moments like this, we intuit that this life has importance, that we are called to serve life, and that the source of this call is deep within this world, and somehow beyond it.

This, writes Heschel, is what leads us to God.

Awe precedes faith; it is at the root of faith. We must grow in awe in order to reach faith. We must be guided by awe to be worthy of faith. Awe rather than faith is the cardinal attitude of the religious Jew (italics in the original; A. J. Heschel, God in Search of Man [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1955] p. 77).

Nature is the everyday home of wonder, the place where most people regularly and reliably experience awe. You can’t walk down a trail without seeing beauty and decay, the pulse of life and the reality of death. Suddenly the question of God is compelling to the most non-religious of people. Suddenly expressing gratitude through prayer makes sense, and the introspective process of teshuvah is easier in a place where the usual routines and habits no longer apply. There is no better place to teach the spiritual dynamics of Judaism.

Jewish education has greatly improved in recent years due to the out-of-the-box thinking of educators and funders. We would do well to think out-of-the-building as well.

Rabbi and Israeli desert guide, Mike Comins is founder of TorahTrek Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality.

This article is from a series prepared by presenters at Judaism2030: A Working Conference for a Vibrant Jewish Future.