Groundswell: Zelig Golden on Earth-Based Judaism

Environment, Latest
Rain dance at sukkot - Photo credit: Darren Miller for Wilderness Torah

Rabbi Zelig Golden is a founder and executive director of Wilderness Torah, a Bay-Area organization that seeks to promote earth-based Judaism. 

What do you see as your role in confronting the climate crisis?

I would say our role as human beings is to remember that we are the earth, and that we have a profound impact and influence. This is physical, this is spiritual and this is cultural. It’s physical because that which we put into the atmosphere impacts the atmosphere. It’s spiritual because our spiritual lives need to inform a certain conduct on Earth. And it’s cultural—this is where it gets very specific about Judaism.

Judaism is an indigenous culture that was based on being and remaining in harmony with its climate. In a land where water was scarce, we were rain-praying people, and therefore the very center of our spirituality had to do with participating in the balance of the natural world through our cultural expressions. Sukkot is the primary example—it’s the culmination of the whole cycle of teshuvah from the beginning of Elul through Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. In the last days of Sukkot, through Hoshana Rabbah and then Shemini Atzeret, we pray for rain in earnest. Our entire spiritual process up until then is about balancing our inner spiritual lives, our communal spiritual lives and our spiritual lives with God so that we can then effectively pray for a balanced ecosystem. The second, central section of the Shema is a prayer for rain. When you say the shema—”All is one, listen, now go love”—the next thing the shema says is if you do this, it will rain, and if you don’t, it will not.

Wilderness Torah is also about helping mentor and initiate human beings from childhood into adolescence and from adolescence into adulthood. This is the key. The Western world is currently in a state of suspended adolescence. If you look at our political system, if you look at our economic system, even if you look at many of our communities, what do we put at the center? We put ourselves. We put, what do I want? That is adolescent behavior by definition.

Shockingly, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke beautifully about this recently. On the march to the climate change talks, he said that in order for humanity to survive the climate catastrophe that is coming, we need to graduate from our adolescence. To become an adult means to put something outside yourself at the center. Your children, your community, the Earth. Judaism is profound in its teachings around this, and yet we still live in a world that is very much an adolescent world.

What is one way the climate emergency has directly impacted your life?

We have experienced catastrophic wildfires on a repeated basis. Where I live in particular, it’s considered to be in a high fire danger, and we have been evacuated twice. We breathe a lot of smoke. Most pointedly, our partner, Camp Newman, completely burned to the ground in 2017.

Where have you found community, allies and connection in your work?

When I personally received this vision to get Judaism back to the earth, I was a lawyer and I was on a career track that, in practical terms, was successful. I had gotten my professional degree, I was making a living, I was successfully doing what I was doing. It was challenging to jump ship onto an unknown path from a whole career I had built. There was no money there, there was no financial support, there was no assurance of any kind of success or security or any of the things that my culture and my family had taught me to value.

Fourteen years later, I find community, allies and connections all over the place. It’s happening everywhere, people are waking up. A growing number of people in the Bay Area, and frankly all over the Jewish world, are yearning to reroot in nature. Wilderness Torah is a regional organization, but when we did our training institute online last year, which was a COVID pivot, people called in from all over the planet to learn and to share their stories. Hazon, of course, is a large umbrella for these Jewish environmental movements (for more on Hazon’s climate work see Moment’s interviews with Abby Bresler on disability justice and Hannah Fine on community resilience). Pearlstone, a retreat center in Baltimore, and Eden Village Camp in New York and Eden Village West in California, and the Kohenet Institute, are reawakening earth-based spirituality through awakening the priestess lineage. Really asking the question, how do we reroot Jewish culture, tradition and wisdom in the earth?

I’ve also found allyship with local synagogues and federations that want to partner and bring in this kind of nature-based education.

And of course, Camp Newman and Wilderness Torah have committed to developing a collaboration to build a Center for Earth-Based Judaism. The Center will create a real home where we develop programs to evolve Judaism and to strengthen Jewish community focused on climate resilience.That is the kind of collaborations and the kind of partners and the kind of communities that I think will uplift the Jewish community.

On a smaller scale, just this past Sunday, we completed a weekend with our B’naiture youth and their parents at the opening fall camping trip where the kids and the parents come together to launch the program for the year. California had unprecedented rainstorms this past weekend, and a lot of parents were really nervous about floods and questioning whether we should even do the program. In the end, on Sunday, in the middle of the downpour, all of us, the mentors, the youth and the parents, were all outside standing around this big raging fire we had built, singing, dancing and giving gratitude.

This was a moment where the anxiety of people who live with historic trauma and are afraid for their safety even in simple circumstances like a rainstorm, got a chance to drop in and say, “You know what? I can do this. I’m okay. I’m safe, and not only am I safe and am I okay, but this is beautiful.” Just standing in the rain and remembering that rain is not a threat but that rain is life, that rain is essential. Without rain, we’d all die. We need to actually pause and honor rain. Not all the parents, but some of the parents, went through a whole 180 shift from being afraid and anxious to get home to embracing being soaked and wet and dancing in the rain.

Rabbi Golden with a lulav. Photo credit: Darren Miller for Wilderness Torah.
Rabbi Golden with a lulav. Photo credit: Darren Miller for Wilderness Torah.

What tools or practices for processing the enormity of the climate crisis have you found within the Jewish tradition? 

In the Western capitalist framework, humans live to do. We live to make, we live to create, we live to develop resources to invest, to gain security and to be okay in a capitalist world where that is the promise and the prize and the requirement to survive. Embedded in Judaism is a work ethic, for sure, but also the requirement to take one day out of seven and just completely rest. When you completely rest, your nervous system can relax, and you can have authentic relationships as humans and with the natural world. And as Michael Pollan once wrote, it would also reduce the carbon impact tremendously if everyone stopped driving their cars and working their machines one day out of seven. That would be a sea change just in carbon impacts alone, never mind the cultural impact it would have.

If you imagine that on the seven-year scale and the biblical requirement of Shmita—to release the land for one year every seven years and to release debts and servitude—that’s an entire paradigm shift. In some ways, that would undermine our capitalist paradigm just enough that we could see that being “human doings,” alone, rather than “human being,” is simply not enough to be sacred people on earth. That kind of space, and that kind of orientation to being wild one seventh of the time, would invite us into a deeper relationship with the source of our own life. That is a paradigm shift, if we fully embrace it, that could feed a whole generation of climate change wisdom keepers.

What other traditions and lineages do you draw upon?

I live in North America, and I’m someone who’s very oriented towards the earth. I think one of the most important things all of us can do is build relationships with the First Nations and indigenous peoples in the places where we are now. For my part, it helps me see and awaken parts of our own traditions that are right there, just under the surface because of our exile. For example, I have participated in prayer fasts that have been facilitated by indigenous peoples. Some call them vision quests. This has been very deep in helping me remember parts of my own Jewish soul. During a Lakota prayer fast, for example, the sacred fire keeps the ceremony connected to spirit. After participating in indigenous ceremonies where I saw sacred fire being practiced in real time by relatively intact ceremonial lineages, I was then able to see and, in a sense, remember that we too have a sacred fire tradition that is now dormant because of our exile. I was able to go back and read and relearn about the sacred fire that ancient Israel tended for centuries in the Temple in Jerusalem. I then had the insight that perhaps that tradition is powerful and does not need to be dormant anymore, so we began exploring how to awaken it.

In the lead-up to COP26, what have you been doing and feeling?

I’m thinking that this is a massive opportunity not to be missed. I’m feeling excited and nervous. Excited, because I think there is real movement towards adopting agreements that could actually turn the dial towards zero carbon in a time that might actually support this turning point of humanity.

What am I doing? I’m learning and I’m speaking a lot to people. I’m pushing people towards as much action as they can take, and in particular, I’m encouraging the Jewish community to participate in Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action. I think Dayenu is the leading voice for proactive political action for climate change in the Jewish community right now (for more on Dayenu, read Moment’s interview with Rachel Binstock).

Star of David. Photo credit: Darren Miller for Wilderness Torah
Star of David. Photo credit: Darren Miller for Wilderness Torah

What aspects of the climate emergency do you think deserve more urgent attention?

For individuals, I think that the baseline needs to be reorienting our consumer behavior: how we consume products, energy, meat, you know? What are the sources of our own emissions? Learn to eat and source everything as locally as possible. Source your clothing as locally as possible. Really create local economies. If you can go solar and have a net-zero home, go solar and have a net-zero home! If you can drive an electric car, I encourage you to exercise that privilege and reduce your emissions anywhere possible.

In my local community, we are working on managing our forests. A huge source of emissions for California right now is our hundreds of thousands of acres burning every summer and fall. How do we come into right relationship with our forests once again? Prescribed burns, so we burn appropriately and not catastrophically. When these big catastrophic fires happen, we have both massive emissions and destruction of a carbon sink. How do we keep our carbon sinks intact? This is a climate change issue of huge proportions: really urging and working toward controlled burns in our local forests, keeping our forests intact.

How do you find meaning and hope as you navigate the climate crisis?

I look to ancient traditions, I look to the resilience of our ancestors and I look to the children and the teens who are coming up, who know that they’re going to have it even worse than I do if we don’t turn the ship around.

Click here to see more installments of Moment‘s Groundswell series.


Top photo: Worshippers at a Sukkot rain ceremony. Darren Miller (darrenmillerphoto.comfor Wilderness Torah

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