Developing an Earth-Based Jewish Practice

On December 17, 2022, I ran a 16mm film processing workshop at IGNITE, Toronto’s inaugural Tikkun Leil Chanukah, a night-long Jewish arts and learning festival. Around a dozen folks had the chance to pick up a film camera, feel the hand-wound motor whir, and capture images from our surroundings. Illuminated by red light, in a makeshift dark room, we developed the film in a bath of chemistry as we set intention with a blessing and sang a niggun (a wordless melody). We untangled the roll of film, wound it onto a spool, set up the projector and watched the developed images flicker on a wall, where they held a new life and unexpected power.

“It was so tactile!” someone exclaimed in appreciation afterwards. “Now my son can understand what those scratches and specks our phone’s film filters are trying to imitate,” another participant shared. I think people were moved by the experience of collaborative, creative work that engaged with the materials that make images. 

Still from Dark Room, Bright Lights Film Workshop @ IGNITE, Holy Blossom, Toronto.

In my own Jewish life, I am trying to find tactile experiences of holy moments through Jewish practice, because it can be a powerful feeling. I am hoping to find, like many of us, the life and energy in Judaism that feels authentic, connected and relational—towards other people and also with the “more-than-human” world. This phrase used to describe nature, popularized by ecologist and philosopher David Abram, emphasizes humanity’s connection with other animals, plants, and landforms that are necessary for the flourishing of our biosphere. Opportunities for such experiential explorations with the more-than-human world are not always easy to find in a Jewish world that places a higher priority on intellectual acuity and knowledge. Though, over the last few years I have been reinvigorated by slowly discovering the deep roots that connect us to the Earth through embodied Jewish practice. The term I have come to use to describe this holistic, ecological approach is “Earth-Based Judaism,” which I have been learning about while being in ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal’s Earth-Based Judaism certification program

The language used in Earth-Based Judaism provides a framework that encourages my cohort to try out new approaches when connecting to the Divine. The connection is forged by working in nature, through respect, awareness, and our senses; the goal is to think about elemental experiences that feel enlivening to each of us. I hope to figure out how to attain and create moments that emote powerful experiences of Jewish connection similar to what occurred at the film workshop. 

I want to ensure my Jewish life is aligned and interwoven with ecologies that sustain it. 

One act pulling me towards this spiritual shimmer has been composting, and taking it more seriously. My teacher, Rabbi Natan Margalit frames composting as coming out of a framework of trumat hadeshen (Leviticus 6:24) a biblical commandment where every night the priests must remove the sacrifices’ ashes from outside the Israelite camp. After putting my food scraps and leaves from our yard into a tumbler, which turns into  nutrient-filled compost weeks later, feels like I have been granted access to a surprisingly direct experience of techiyat hameitim, giving life to the dead. Something for which we traditionally thank God for in our daily prayers. 

Putting some kitchen scraps into a compost tumbler.

Another dear practice, which I interpret as Earth-Based, is hitbodedut, an approach to prayer popularized by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. (Rabbi Noam Lerman recently shared with me that it was a practice most-likely picked up by Rebbe Nachman from female relatives, who had less access to the Hebrew of the siddur in 18th century Poland.) Hitbodedut involves going out into nature, preferably at night, and speaking your heart out to God. Instead of free-writing, it is free-speaking. One should speak without stopping, Rebbe Nachman teaches, so that one’s words can mingle with the whispers of the wind, the grasses and trees that are always singing and praying. This practice of bundling up, trudging outside, and noticing what thoughts and words surface, does indeed feel deepened by having a sense of the more-than-human world that surrounds me and is part of the shared hitbodedut experience. Leading Annex Shul High Holy Days for the last three years in different parks around Toronto, I noted many people in our community got to sense the possibilities of hitbodedut, and the advantages of inviting the natural world to seep into our prayers more directly. 

My locally-foraged Four Species set for Sukkot.

With my inclination towards Jewish practices centered around body and earth, I am seeking, and sometimes finding, practices that are more connective throughout the cycle of the year, including foraging the local four species during Sukkot. As well as fashioning an oil chanukiyah out of a maple branch. I bless not only the light, but also the generative depths of the darkness from which the flames emerge. I am inspired by other frameworks that I hope will continue to guide and move me, most notably, eco-kashrut, a movement to expand Jewish eating practices to take into account issues of environmental justice and sustainability. And the work of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute who are leaders in advocating for an Earth-based feminist Judaism. 

Chanukiah from a Maple branch.

May this season help us find love and connection by trusting the wisdom of our bodies, by deepening into the guidance of our ancestral traditions, by embracing our own intuitive knowledge and by being responsive partners to our sacred surroundings. 

Header image photo by Aaron Rotenberg.

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