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In the Wilderness, Searching for Spirituality

September 18, 2008 By:
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Several months ago, The New York Times Style Magazine, which in this case was devoted solely to travel, ran a lively article about the town of Boulder, Colo. The title was "Twenty-Five Square Miles Surrounded by Reality," which, for those conversant with "Boulder-ese," sums things up nicely; even more to the point was the second headline: "If you're a bike-riding, cliff-rappelling, latte-loving, eco-certified boho tycoon, there is heaven on earth -- and it's called Boulder."

The lead was wonderful, too. "My brother-in-law Peter lives in Boulder, Colo. Whenever I use the bathroom in his house, I heave a bucket of used bath water down the toilet to flush it."

As part of this hip, funky travelogue, the author, Florence Williams, also offered a brief profile of Jamie Korngold, who's become known as the Adventure Rabbi. Williams was particularly intrigued by how Korngold fit into the Boulder mosaic.

"In addition to her Talmudic qualifications, [Korngold's] an expert telemark skier, a triathlete, a former ultradistance runner and an emergency medical technician. Instead of presiding over services in some airless room, she takes her congregation into the mountains. Evidently, it's a hit. Her Saturday hikes routinely approach the 50-person limit for the city's open-space permit."

The writer met with the Reform rabbi one morning and described her as 42 and blond, "with calf muscles that look like cudgels." They hiked up the McClintok trail together "under ponderosas and through lush green hillsides," and the rabbi spoke about how she grew up in Westchester, N.Y., and that her "twin passions" had always been Judaism and nature. And that, these days, she wants particularly to reach out to young Jews because she feels she relates to their discontents.

Then she stated the core of her philosophy: "I can't tolerate being bored. The truth is, on a Saturday, I'd rather be skiing, I'd rather be hiking. If people have to choose, Judaism is going to lose." As for whether she is breaking God's commandments by exerting herself on the Sabbath, Korngold told Williams, "For me, going on a hike in the wilderness with my family, even though I'm violating the commands of not supposed to carry, not supposed to sweat, the intention of drawing closer to God is reached."

At just about the time Williams was sketching in Korngold's various talents, the rabbi was publishing her first book, a treatise of sorts, called God in the Wilderness, which, according to its second headline, is a work that describes how you can rediscover the spirituality of the great outdoors along with the Adventure Rabbi.

Is it just chic?

Now, from the viewpoint of traditional Jewish practice, Korngold's particular schtick is easy to pick apart as being simply a chic, New Age version of some distant variety of Judaism that's been subsequently trimmed and molded to fit a particular lifestyle. But criticism is easy. The fact that American Judaism is facing a serious crisis will hardly come as news. So what, then, are we who take religion seriously to do about engaging our young people and keeping them in the fold?

The young, being young, will do anything to divest themselves of their pasts, seek out any means to deracinate themselves. And with the extreme versions of faith that now fill the world -- to say nothing of the evening news -- the Jewish young, being young, may be thoroughly disillusioned. So what can be done? Korngold has lots of suggestions, and they're neatly laid out in her well-reasoned book.

As you read God in the Wilderness, you will doubtless have to get beyond the sense, apparent in its earliest pages, that Korngold has mistaken nature for God. She hasn't, and she directly confronts the issue as she progresses, but, early on, skeptical readers may have to give her the benefit of the doubt. And if you're willing to go along with her, Korngold is quite convincing (and a spirited guide). Here is a typical passage:

"Those of us who love wilderness excursions know that when we are open to a spiritual experience, hiking also exposes the layers of the soul. Perhaps this is why God chose to give the Torah in the wilderness, to ensure that we were spiritually prepared to hear the teachings. With each mile of distance from civilization, as packs seem to grow heavier and the footing more tenuous, we embark on an internal journey into the core of ourselves."

Korngold offers several reasons why this should be so, and then offers her definitive take on nature's link to holiness.

"Perhaps the spiritual richness is precipitated by the stark beauty of the wilderness, an awesomeness that is beyond description, leaving us standing on a promontory speechless, or gazing at a John Fielder photograph at a loss for words. Perhaps the spiritual door is opened by that feeling of smallness within the largeness. Out there we can no longer fool ourselves; ultimately it is not we who control the world. We wonder at the mystery of Creation, we marvel at the Creator. Or perhaps it is all of these elements building upon one another, generating a veritable cascade of spiritual opportunity."

But if you're not convinced by what she has to say about her feelings, you won't be able to dismiss the accuracy of her portraits of the disaffected young. For example, Korngold asked a group of men and women about what it's like to be Jewish at college and, she said, the stories just "tumbled out."

Forays into yoga

One girl, Jen, said she's a "Bu-Jew" -- a Jewish Buddhist -- and though she was raised as a Jew and had a Bat Mitzvah, she "can't buy the concept of a God who tallies up our rights and wrongs and then dishes out rewards and punishments." She told Korngold of her deep spiritual longing, of her "forays into yoga, Buddhism and even Sufism."

Then there's Ben, who stated that the Grand Canyon is his religion. He, too, was raised Jewish, "but I just don't like the way Judaism teaches us to have dominion over the earth. Besides, I never felt half as spiritual in temple as I do here. I think I might be a pagan." He then spoke of the uplifting moments he's had on mountains, "and about the community that forms as members of a group help one another to reach the summit." He said he has always wished that Judaism "could be like that."

Korngold continues: "Other students swapped stories about their boredom with Hebrew school, why kosher laws made no sense to them, how boring High Holidays were. One student raged about how a rabbi hadn't adequately been there for her mother when her grandmother had died. Her mother became a Unitarian, and then just stopped being involved in religion altogether. 'We had never belonged to a congregation anyway,' she said. 'But that rabbi sort of sealed the deal.' Another spoke with pain about a flippant comment a Sunday school teacher had made 10 years ago. She swore never to go back to synagogue and hadn't stepped foot in one since."

These young people, notes the rabbi, had gone to religious school till they were 13, but hadn't really attempted to learn much about Judaism as adults. If they had a Jewish identity, it was tied to foods served on specific holidays, like latkes on Chanukah. For them, spirituality really had nothing to do with Judaism. In fact, it could be found almost anywhere else except in the Jewish religion and its practices.

But these young men and women are seekers, she insists, searching for a religion that's "relevant, accessible and spiritually nourishing." And if they don't find it in Judaism, she states, they'll find it in an assorted number of other outlets available to them in modern life.

Korngold, though, is deeply committed to preserving them for Judaism and that's why she's written this book. It's a plea to them and to us that there are different ways of getting into Judaism, if only we would accept them by keeping our eyes and our minds open.

There will be readers who'll say that no matter how diligently Korngold tries to prove that love of nature grows out of love of Torah, she has still done little more than tailor Judaism to her liking. I won't be able in this space to disabuse them of such notions. But those who are open to the idea of an evolving religion -- no matter what their level of commitment to Judaism might be -- may discover that the Adventure Rabbi offers numerous pathways, both literal and figurative, to God that may just keep a number of our young people Jewish for the foreseeable future -- and beyond.


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