Monday, February 14, 2011

The rural roots of Hasidism -- and my love of nature

A while back I heard a Chabad rabbi remark at how annoyed he was that people were portraying the Baal Shem Tov ("Master of the Good Name," founder of Hasidic Judaism) as "that guy living out in the woods."  Somehow, the rabbi felt this was an insult to the Baal Shem Tov's memory, making him into some sort of backwoods simpleton instead of a great Torah scholar.  I beg to differ.  I think the fact that that he spend a period of time wandering and meditating in the Carpathian Mountains contributed to the deep spirituality that he later taught his disciples.  In fact, I would even go so far as to say that rural life was an essential part of the origins of early Hasidism. 

Like many American Jews, I grew up hearing about how Jews in medieval Europe were locked into urban ghettos where the sun never shined and nature was totally absent -- so much so, that lovers met in the cemetery because it was the only green place in the ghetto.  That was true in some locations, but not in Eastern Europe where Hasidism began in the mid-18th century.  True, there were restrictions on Jews in The Tzar's domain (the expression "Beyond the Pale" comes from this period, referring to the Pale of Jewish settlement in Russia where Jews were required to live) and they were limited in what occupations they could pursue, etc., but for the most part, Jewish life was happening in small towns (stetls), not big urban centers.  Jews might not have owned land (in many places they were forbidden to), but they certainly saw trees, mountains and rivers on a daily basis.  Nature was up close and everywhere.

This point was driven home to me when, in 1997, I traveled to Uman, Ukraine, to the grave of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov.  I was struck by how, even today, this is a very rural area.  Many people were still drawing water from wells with buckets, plowing with horses, and tethering goats in their front yard.  Goods were bought and sold in open air markets.  Everywhere there were sights and sounds that made the details of Hasidic stories come alive.  I walked along the Bug River, mentioned frequently in Hasidic lore, climbed the rocks along its banks, visited the Sophia Park and saw what was probably the bridge that inspired that most famous saying of Rebbe Nachman:  "All the world is just a narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to fear."  (Read the full story of my Uman pilgrimage)

On that pilgrimage, I became very much aware how connected to nature those early Hasidim must have been -- and how much their urban descendants of today have lost.   As I have written here before, the Hasidic world -- and much of the Hasidic community in general -- is suffering from a serious case of Nature Deficit Disorder.  Back when I lived in the city, people thought me very odd for wanting to spend time alone in the park, or take the shortcut through the golf course to get away from the sounds of traffic on the Sabbath.  Everyone rushed from one place to another in such a hurry, there was no time to smell the flowers -- if indeed anyone even noticed the flowers were there.   I don't ever remember anyone pointing out a bird or butterfly, and when I did so, there was little or no interest in it.

To the urban Hasidim, the outdoors was merely an inconvenient gap between one building and another.  There was a disturbing expectation that, as I  became more "acclimated" to Hasidic life, I would eventually give up the goyim naches (gentile pleasures) of nature study and settle into the urban Jewish world.  Nobody seemed to understand that it was the Baal Shem Tov's connection to nature -- so very obvious to me! -- that had drawn me to Hasidism in the first place.  More and more, I felt an extreme disconnect between the beautiful teachings I was reading and the modern reality I was seeing.  In 1988, my wife and I left the city, never to return -- but we have remained observant Jews.

So here I am, many years later, a Hasid living without a local community in the Great North Woods of Minnesota.  Critics accuse me of assimilating into rural American culture -- how little they know!  It is they who have really assimilated -- into an urban life that would have been as alien to the Baal Shem Tov as if he had landed on Mars.   Every morning I wake up to the sound of a live rooster crowing -- and I make the special blessing that one says upon hearing a rooster at dawn.  When was the last time my urban friends did that?  On clear Saturday nights we end the Sabbath by literally going out and looking for three stars.  I will make shehechiyanu, the blessing that thanks God for reaching another season, when the first Canadian geese come honking back in the spring.  There are so many other things in our daily life that resonate with early Hasidism, that I feel closer to the Hasidic masters here than I ever did in the city.   Which is one reason I started this blog -- not to kvetch (complain) but to share some of the wonderful nature experiences that have deepened my love and understanding of Torah.


MojoMan said...

This is beautiful. It gives me hope.

David Green said...

In a world where I thought I was alone, this gives me hope. I am a Chassidic working Buckaroo living in Arizona. My Chabad Rabbi always says to be a real Orthodox Jew I need to live in the city, in a Jewish community. I have struggled with this for many years. As I don't find it in Torah. I am very blessed in finding this article and your teaching. Baruch Hashem!

Yonassan Gershom said...

David, I get the same argument all the time. Fact is, I am autistic and was alone even when I lived in the city, I was never really accepted in the community, was always an outlier. I spent time in Chabad years ago and learned a lot, but they never did understand my need for solitude or my feelings for animals. So eventually I left Chabad and became Breslov. My philosophy now is "bloom where you are planted." And I think people like you and I have things to teach our fellow Jews in the city. After all, if Moses had never left Egypt he would not have seen the burning bush. Some things can only be learned AWAY from the city.

As I said in the article, Hasidism started out as a rural movement. Unfortunately, in many communities the connection to nature has been urbanized away. You might be interested in a Yahoo group called rural-frum, whose members are mostly observant Jews living in the country. I'm a moderator there, although I don't participate much lately. Activity tends to go in spurts, but reading the past messages is interesting.

Also, go to and download a free PDF copy of the book of the same title by Richard Schwartz. In the appendix is a dialogue between Schwartz and me on "nature deficit disorder" among frum Jews that you might find interesting. Enjoy!