August 9, 2007
Books: Does a Jew pray in the woods?
In the past 50 years, the world has become accustomed to viewing Jews as city dwellers terrified of nature. Woody Allen's lobster-fearing neurotic is only the most obvious example of this stereotype. |
Yet Rabbi Mike Comins, author of "A Wild Faith," wants us to know that Judaism and nature have long been entwined, and that there is nothing paganistic about a Jew, let alone a rabbi, talking to trees.
As Comins puts it, "Those who find God in nature have more in common with the creators of Judaism than those who do not."
One need only recall that Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot are all holidays celebrating the harvest, that Moses led the Israelites for 40 years through the wilderness and communicated with God on Mount Sinai and that God appears in the form of clouds and fire.
Comins, who used to lead desert retreats in Israel and for some years now has led Torah Trek wilderness hikes in Los Angeles, cites Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Buber as two of his biggest influences. Heschel might be most famous for marching for civil rights with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but he also wrote of the awe, wonder and grandeur of nature. In "I and Thou" (Free Press, 1971), Buber wrote of the need to pay attention to the other, whether the other is inanimate or animate.
In "A Wild Faith," Comins writes of entering a receptive mode, where we have a heightened awareness of our surroundings in nature. He provides more than 40 exercises to undertake while in nature, such as Four Winds, Seven Directions prayers, which borrow heavily from Native American tribal rituals. For instance, he suggests that we may pray to the east for providing us with light, courage and a chance at rebirth.
Native American tribes are not the only non-Jewish influence on Comins. A practitioner of tai chi and yoga, he believes in the Kabbalistic notion of God flowing through a river of light into all of nature. The river of light is not unlike the energy conveyed in tai chi.
Some of the prayers may seem contrived even to religious Jews, but it is hard not to be moved by Comins' soulful exploration of Jewish spirituality. After reading his book, we might not feel the need to pray to an inanimate object but many of us will pay more attention to the sound of our feet touching the earth, the smell of our breath and the rustle of the leaves, and maybe we will see divinity in all of those places.