Archive for the 'Spirituality' Category

Earth Based Judaism – Reclaiming Our Roots, Reconnecting to Nature

Originally Published by ZEEK.

Humanity’s current alienation from nature is unprecedented. As Wendell Berry explained in his seminal 1977 work The Unsettling of America, we are confronted with a “crisis of culture,” reflected in a “crisis of agriculture,” rooted in the simple fact that modern people have become disconnected from nature and the natural cycles we depend upon for survival. In less than fifty years, modern Western culture – particularly in the United States – has shifted from relying on small family farms that dotted the countryside to relying on an industrial food system run by massive corporate farms.

Maimonides meets Christ: Portland Tuv Ha’Aretz visits St. Andrew Lutheran Church



On April 18, my co-steering committee member Sylvia Frankel and I were invited to speak to the congregation of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Beaverton, Oregon, a nearby city most famous for being the home of Nike. It was an opportunity to address the congregation for one of a series of learning and study sessions; this one was called Food and Spirituality from a Jewish Perspective.

About 25 people attended, including Lead Pastor Mark Brocker and Associate Pastor Robyn Hartwig, and members of the St. Andrew Green Team, a group of congregants who work on sustainability issues within the St. Andrew community.

New Podcast Episode with Wilderness Torah’s Julie Wolk

Listen to our new PODCAST, Episode 5 by clicking here!

Co-Founder Julie Wolk sits down with me on the latest Hazon Podcast. Listen to what Wilderness Torah is doing to revitalize the American Jewish Community. Also, don’t forget you can subscribe on iTunes by searching “Hazon”.

Also, don’t forget that it is Earth Day this week, so check out all the options going on in your area. For a good listing, check this website out

They have a map where you can choose where you live and find out what is going on near you!

On Nisan and on Recalling

cherry blossom chrysler

The month Nisan begins tonight and with it, so many associations. Last year, I wrote about the practice of refraining from eating Matzah from Rosh Hodesh Nisan (i.e. tonight) until Passover. Most people make, if any, the association of dreaded Pesach cleaning and preparation. I’ll be writing some about that in a few days or next week, God willing, but for now, let’s stick to things connected specifically to Rosh Hodesh Nisan.

One association fewer people make is that Birkat haIlanot, the blessing over blooming trees, is typically said in the month of Nisan:

Leading the Way to Sustainability

These days, it seems everyone is talking about “going green.” Never has such a simple sounding term had so much meaning.  For nonprofit overnight Jewish camps, their staff and lay leaders, this means changing old habits, teaching campers about how and why to make changes, and ensuring a vibrant future for their camps.

Many camps have begun to implement green practices, taking action to decrease their carbon footprint, and impart a positive environmental message to their campers.  Steps have included forgoing paper, plastic, and Styrofoam in favor of using reusable tableware and reducing non-biodegradable waste, using solar power for heating, providing campers and staff with environmentally friendly water bottles, changing light bulbs to reduce carbon emissions, and more!  Several camps have also planted gardens and are teaching their campers about healthy cooking and organics.

“The Ear Tests Words as The Palate Tastes Food”


When Job reflected upon the wisdom of God’s creation “Truly the ear tests words as the palate tastes food” (12:11), could he have been alluding to the remarkable evolutionary development of the bones in our middle ear?  According to Natalie Angier in her article in the Science Times section of the New York Times today,

“Imagine what a dinner conversation would be like if you had decent table manners, but the ears of a lizard.  Not only would you have to stop eating whenever you wanted to speak, but, because parts of your ears are now attached to your jaw, you’d have to stop eating whenever you wanted to hear anybody else….Sometimes its the little things in life that make all the difference – in this case, the three littlest bones in the human body.  Tucked in our auditory canal, just on the inner side of the eardrum, are the musically named malleus, incus, and stapes, each minibone, each ossicle, about the size of a small freshwater pearl  and jointly the basis of one of evolution’s greatest inventions, the mammalian middle ear.  The middle ear gives us our sound bite, our capacity to masticate without being forced to turn a momentary deaf ear to the world, as most vertebrates are.   Who can say whether we humans would have become so voraciously verbal if not for the practice our ancestors had of jawboning around the wildebeest spit.”

Sukkot Drash Tishrei 21 5770/Oct. 9, 2009

Author’s note: The following is a drash I gave at my shul two days ago. My shul, Havurah Shalom in Portland, Oregon, is a participatory congregation.


We are in the final days of Sukkot, one of Judaism’s three harvest festivals, and one of my favorite times of year. The traditional observance of Sukkot: building a booth, decorating it with greens and seasonal fruits and veggies, eating and sleeping under its roof through which we must be able to see the stars, all highlight and make holy things we do every day: living in our homes, eating meals together, even sleeping. Perhaps this is why I look forward to Sukkot so much, or perhaps that it often coincides with my birthday (I’m still young enough to enjoy rather than dread it), or perhaps simply that it happens during the autumn, my favorite season of the year.

Judaism is particularly connected to food, and Sukkot especially to the bounty of our fall harvest. Now is the time for the first apples of the season, in all their amazing varieties, for winter squashes, for root vegetables, and for the last of summer’s abundance: the tomatoes, the zucchini, the pesto made from homemade basil. It is a time to celebrate the simple pleasure of growing and cooking and eating.

An Urban Sukkah


Building a sukkah is easier said than done when living in an urban apartment building. When we tired of fashioning one in the kitchen next to a tall window using poles, string, and s’khakh (in this case evergreen branches) we embarked on the adventure of a communal urban sukkah outside our building’s basement. Only a handful of building residents protested, claiming that the sukkah violated the separation of church and state (don’t ask). Most, however, were interested and curious. What has transpired over the years is something we never would have imagined. Next to the bike racks and behind the trash, five diversely Jewish families transformed a concrete slab into a behavioral enactment of sustainability.

Elephants in our Refrigerator


Recently, Michael Pollan linked the reduction of medical costs to the even more controversial reformation of the food industry, what he calls the elephant in the national debate about the health care crisis. While Washington dukes out the legislative challenges to securing a healthier national environment, the country’s children have already returned to another school year and the Jewish New Year is upon us. Can we really wait for all this legislation to be enacted? Not me. I’m joining others who believe that change begins at the kitchen table. This year we are going to do a family food tashlich and symbolically cast away the elephants in our own refrigerators, the habitual bad food practices of everyday life.

D.I.Y. Et Pret A Manger

This blog is not the right place for it, but still, Roger Cohen has really gotten on my nerves over the last year or so.  His ranting about how wonderful Iran is and how great it is for the Jews there made me question my devotion to the New York Times.  His  piece “Advantage France,” in Sunday’s paper, about some of the differences between the French diet and the American diet, may have me beginning to change my mind.  I’ve only spent a few days in France, and only in Paris, but I’m guessing he’s exaggerating somewhat.  Nevertheless, the idea of Americans adopting any diet (or lifestyle, really) that required not only combining the ingredients and cooking them, but processing them to begin with (filleting the fish, making the pasta, etc) does sound beautiful and absurd.  The idea of connecting to food on a “gut” level and a geographic one far predates the terroir of which Cohen writes, at least in Jewish tradition.

Fruit In Its Season

Yesterday was the first day (finally!) of my local farmers’ market here in NJ, and I’ll admit I went a bit fruit happy, coming home loaded with local blueberries, strawberries, and cherries. It took some detective work to figure out what things were not local–the farmer may be Pennsylvania Dutch but those sure aren’t local peaches, not yet. I’m much stricter about eating fruit locally and seasonally than I am vegetables. I can go months without fresh berries or stone fruit, hoping that it counts towards my balanced diet if I eat many servings of fruit in the summer and far fewer in the winter. Sure, there are days towards late February when I am sick of citrus fruit, grapes, and bananas, and look longingly towards the plums flown in from California. But in my heart, I know they will disappoint me.

Torah vs. “Text” or, Don’t Study With Your Mouth Full

SMS till you drop -- mobile phone ad on van in Kampala, Uganda by on Flickr

“Rabbi Shimon taught: ‘…Three who dine at a table and exchange words of Torah are considered as having eaten at God’s table…’”  (Pirke Avot 3:4)  I suppose a discussion of religion is considered verboten almost everywhere by certain people, but not in Jewish culture.  Then again, we like to talk politics in public, too!  But in the days of the Mishna, of course the conversation was only with the other people at the table.  After all, there was no e-mail, no phones…  and no text messages!  I remember, when cell phones were first becoming popular, my friend railing against people who would answer calls during dinner.  I agreed with her, but felt there should be some wiggle-room:  what if your friend is calling to say she’ll be late?  What if he needs directions to the restaurant?  Also, why should it bother me at the next table?  I understand if it is the person you’re dining with, but the “noise” argument makes no sense, since you wouldn’t be bothered by the people at the next table having a normal conversation.  Nowadays, we’re all used to this and most of us are pretty polite about it (music on the subway is a different story entirely, but I’ll restrain myself for now.)  Text messages, though around for years, have recently become more of a problem according to the NYT Dining section.

Passover Inspiration in the Desert

Many thanks to Julie Wolk for this guest post. Julie is co-founder of Wilderness Torah, a Bay Area organization using earth-based Jewish spirituality to help individuals deepen their connection to Community, Earth, Spirit and Self through celebratory land-based festivals (like Sukkot on the Farm, Pesach in the Desert and Shavuot on the Mountain), rituals, rites of passage, and experiential Judaism in the wilderness and agricultural contexts that are at the roots of our tradition.


I’ve just returned transformed after five days in the California desert with sixty fellow Pesach journeyers. The whole experience was so totally outrageous that it felt completely natural. Who would have thought that getting back to the land, connecting in community, praying and creating ritual, and taking time for ourselves could be such a transformative experience? Well, we did have an idea I guess…

The Case for Matzo

Matzo Factory

Pesach is known biblically as “The festival of Matzo,” so let’s face it, matzo is intrinsically connected with the festival, love it or hate it. Much debate exists among rabbinic scholars as to whether the obligation to partake in matzo is unique to the sedarim or to the entire festival. There a number of positions on this idea throughout the lay community as well, some of us eating matzo for the whole time, others eating it while they partake in other forms of hametz, and others who rid themselves of matzo following the seder altogether.

For the past couple of days I’ve heard and been wished an interesting little quip in relation to Pesach, “Have a great holiday, don’t eat too much matzo!” Each time I hear this I cannot help but to get into a ten-minute debate with myself over the “ok-ness” of the idea of “not eating too much matzo.” Can one really eat too much matzo on a holiday that revolves around it? Can we have Hannukah without a menorah? Yom Kippor without fasting? The simple answer, of course, is no. And when thinking about how valuable and important this strange unleavened bread has been to the Jewish people for millennia, that “no” has an even greater resonance.