An Ancient Call
In working on my book about “kosher” backpacking, one thing stands out – Judaism isn’t really big on the outdoors. Even Sukkot, which to me screams “outdoor holiday,” is commoditized and safely packaged, even among the Ultra-Orthodox. Sure, there’s camp, but take your kids to one, and it’s not about outdoor adventure. It’s about Zionism, progressivism, peanut allergies, head lice checks, and for the love of all that is holy making sure JEWISH CONTINUITY happens…or something else that renders the outdoor experience secondary or tertiary.
Years ago, I completed daf yomi, but don’t get excited, most of my shiurim were on my own, in the military, with nothing but Rashi. I’m no scholar, just a guy that deeply cares to know everything I can about being a Jew. When it comes to something I’ve read, I’m blessed with incredible recall capabilities. My questions, as a backpacker, climber, and overall outdoor enthusiast, about can I daven outside? can you have a minyan in the woods? prompted me to write my book as I consulted with Orthodox rabbis and received my answers. Having studied Talmud Bavli as a basis to inform my queries made it that much easier to get responses that made sense.
I’m still left with a sense of disquiet given an overwhelming love of nature and my overwhelming love of Judaism. Standing at the foot of an Alaskan glacier in the Chugach Mountains, the blue-green waters of an alpine tarn, standing, as in my picture accompanying this post, on the Penobscot Bay, I feel in tune with something Divine. If I had my druthers, I’d daven shacharit right across the road as the sun rises over Bald Hill Cove on the Penobscot River.
Rambam put in Sefer Ahavah on Kri’at Shema the following:
“בראש האילן או בראש הכותל קורא במקומו ומברך לפניה ולאחריה”, or “one standing at the top of a tree or the top of a wall may read [the Shema] where he is.”
So technically speaking, I may daven in the woods, but the context sounds more like, “if you find yourself in this situation, you may.” It’s not an endorsement of deliberately davening in the outdoors.
Shulchan Aruch and other treatments permit davening outdoors, with qualifications, like not praying in an open field. Since it’s favorable, however, to daven in a place designed for davening (or for learning), aside from perhaps requisite brachot accompanying Sukkos, or Lag B’Omer festivities, there’s not a significant push to hold minyan in the mountains in observant communities. And since it’s preferable to pray with a minyan…
As one rabbi I talked to about this put it, “Nu, 40 years in the wilderness just isn’t enough for you?”
To their credit, many Reform congregations (probably Renewal weirdos, too), do try and hold outdoor services. But the reverence of the outdoors, for me, is ruined by chucking a Torah in the back of the hatchback and rolling to the park for Shabbos. Reverence for taking the community outside does not reconcile with the irreverence accorded Torah.
There’s an ancient call, when one is standing among the seaweed and barnacle-covered rocks on a beach. There’s an ancient call, standing in a grove of sequoias, their soapy scent filling your nostrils. Something takes hold of you when your bare feet touch a sandy shore or a mossy forest floor.
Maybe the rabbis were wise to avoid venerating the nature experience. After all, plenty of preliterate cultures carved out hearts of animals and humans for the sake of influencing their relationship to the natural world. Perhaps, too, they worried we’d start comparing the beauty of where we live in Diaspora to Israel, and start thinking, “promised, shomised, the Maine Coast is where it’s at.”
Whatever it is, on a sunny day especially, hot or cold, I listen to the Divine sending that ancient call.