Nature is One of the 70 Languages of Torah

mooseBy Dr Gabe Goldman

“What’s Jewish about a Moose?” is the title of a program I offer that teaches about Jewish values, practices and beliefs through direct nature experiences. Recently I presented the “Moose Program” on Shabbat afternoon at a Conservative congregation in New Jersey. The 55 people who attended ranged in age from 2 to 90 years-old and were not typical “outdoor” types. In fact, as several admitted, their concept of “camping” would have to include a Holiday Inn! Nevertheless, over the course of the hour-long program, these confirmed suburbanites enthusiastically handled a variety of animal skins, bones, plants and tree barks as they learned about nature’s role in Judaism. They examined deer hides in various stages of being transformed into Torah parchment. They held an oak gall (a naturally, genetically altered form of leaf caused by wasps laying eggs in live oak trees) and discovered that for thousands of years it has been the source of ink for writing Torah scrolls. They learned how traditional Jewish holiday foods derive from local growing and climate conditions. And they found out that moose is the largest kosher animal roaming the wilds of North America.

In 1994 when I left my position as curriculum director of a major metropolitan Bureau of Jewish Education to become a fulltime Jewish nature educator, there was no name for this approach – my first business card simply read “Dr. Gabe Goldman: Have Tent-Will Travel.” At that time, while American Jews had started to learn about the role of environmentalism in Jewish tradition (thanks to Ellen Bernstein and Shomrei Adamah), they had yet to consider the role of nature itself in Judaism. Thankfully, this is no longer the case. Today, Jewish Experiential Nature Education or JENE (pronounced as “genie”) embraces the widest diversity of nature education now taking place in Jewish schools and camps. It includes: camping, hiking and adventure trips, environmental teachings, Jewish nature crafts, organic gardens and using natural teaching resources in the classroom.

JENE does not exist in a vacuum. It is supported by a rich body of experiential education literature as well as decades of evaluation documenting the benefits of outdoor education[1]. JENE works, first of all, for the same reasons Outward Bound and NOLS work: it is active, multi-sensory, challenging, community-building, immediate, novel and tailor-made for individual learning[2]. Additionally, JENE works for reasons that are entirely beyond the scope of secular education:

  • It makes visible the kavanah of Creation, the experiential understanding that everything (and every part of everything) was created with purpose and meaning.
  • It offers opportunities of Ahavat HaShem (G-d’s Love) and Yirat Shemayim (Fear of the Heavens), the two types of spiritual experiences (according to Rambam) that enable human beings to apprehend the Divine.

As important as JENE’s function is as a teaching tool, its function as a learning tool is equally so. When our examination of Jewish life is informed by an understanding of nature and the pre-technological ways in which our ancestors lived, we discover entirely different questions about and new insights into Jewish tradition. Sometimes these questions are merely interesting, such as “What kind of bush was the burning bush?” Sometimes these questions are more important, because they ask why we perform specific Jewish practices – why do we beat the willow branches from our lulavim on the floor of the synagogue on Hoshanah Rabah? Why do we eat horseradish on Pesach even though it was forbidden by the Rabbis as a “danger to our health?”

Then, there are times when the JENE approach results in truly new and profound perspectives on traditional Jewish materials. An excellent example of this is the well-known story of the Binding of Isaac. A “JENE analysis” of the story reveals three unique questions:

  • Why does Abraham haul firewood from Beersheva to Jerusalem when it was readily available along his entire route? This area is not deep desert, and the text tells us explicitly that the hills of Jerusalem have enough trees and branches to form a thicket strong enough to catch a ram.
  • Why does Abraham make a fire at the bottom of the mountain? Logic and practicality would dictate that he make it at the top of the mountain where he needs it. While some commentators have opted to understand the phrase “he held fire… in his hand” to mean “fire-making equipment,” that is not what the text says.
  • Why does Abraham carry his knife while he is hiking up the mountain? No one, not in ancient times or today, carries a knife rather than putting it in a pocket or sheath. Imagine what you would do if you were hiking with a guide who stopped before an exceptionally high climb to remove his/her knife from its sheath and carry it instead.

These questions open the door to multiple answers. Perhaps Abraham was intentionally giving Isaac hints about what was going to happen. Maybe Abraham was testing Isaac to see if he would question why his father was behaving so oddly. Maybe Abraham simply wanted to carry out his assignment as quickly as possible – and not have to search for wood or take the time to make a fire once he reached the top of the mountain. Whatever the answer, JENE questions expand the conversation about the Binding of Isaac in ways unique to Jewish study.

At the conclusion of my New Jersey program, the participants and I went outdoors for a special Havdalah experience during which I lit the Havdalah candle with a bowdrill, an ancient technique of rubbing sticks together. Contrary to popular belief, rubbing sticks does not create a flame but rather a pea-size glowing coal that must then be put into a tinderball (a bundle of dry leaves and plant fluff). Having done this, I began to blow gently on the tinderball, and soon the entire inside of the ball was a glowing red color. I demonstrated that I could carry this ball in my hand, opening and closing my fingers to let in oxygen or stop the flow of oxygen, ensuring the ball neither went out nor burst into flames before I wanted it to. Then, I swung the ball in circles around my head to let the oxygen flow into it until flames erupted.

As we lit the Havdalah candle from the flaming ball, I could hear one of the participants say, “Wow, so that’s how Abraham carried fire in his hand.” I can imagine no more persuasive endorsement of the JENE approach to Jewish education than that excited exclamation and the joyful smile of comprehension that accompanied it.

[1] American Institutes for Research. (2005). Effects of outdoor education programs for children in California. Palo Alto, CA.

[2] American Planning Association. (2003). How cities use parks to … help children learn. Chicago, IL.

Dr Gabe Goldman is Director of Experiential Education at the Pittsburgh Agency for Jewish Education.