Earth Based Spirituality

Earth-based religions are usually considered to be those religions which are not Jewish or Christian or Muslim and which focus their holidays on the astronomical cycle of the year, often in some version of the eight-fold wheel. According to Wikipedia, the term Earth-based religion is a New Age term which specifically refers to any religion that worships the Earth, Nature, or fertility gods and goddesses, such as the various forms of goddess worship or matriarchal religion. In short, when you speak of an Earth-based spirituality, most people expect that what you are talking about is Neo Paganism. It can strike some people as incredibly strange to call Judaism an Earth-based religion, but it most definitely can be.

One of the things that many modern Neo Pagans discuss in regards to thealogy and practice is whether the holidays of the eightfold wheel should be celebrated according to their ancient dates, their astronomical moments, or according to the times when certain things happen in the land around the practitioner. For example, if we are talking about Imbolc, which traditionally happens around the 1st or 2nd of February, some people argue that one should look for the signs of melting snow, the birth of lambs or blooms of certain local flowers to celebrate this holiday. For Jews, Tu'b'Shvat, also known as the birthday of the trees, always happens on the Jewish date of the 15th of Shevat. The date of the holiday is tied to the climate and calendar of Israel, and it is significant indeed. I have personally had the experience of watching an avocado seedling suddenly burst forth with its first leaves on exactly the 15th of Shevat after many weeks of growing slowly, slowly, a little bit of root here an inch or so of stem there.

The holidays of Sukkot and Shavuot are significant in the same way, for their linkages to harvest periods in Israel. These holidays aren't designed to fit the fruit harvests of Florida or the Corn harvest in Iowa. They are specifically tied the the Land of Israel. After the Jewish New Year celebrations, we begin to pray every day for rain, but after Passover we ask only for dew. This isn't about the weather in London. It's about the needs of farmers in our ancestral lands.

Over the many generations of diaspora, these real connections to the flow of life in Israel were lost. It's not that they were forgotten entirely. They were still discussed in an academic manner. But the visceral connection between the Jewish calendar and the cycles of the Land where our culture was born was lost to all those who lived abroad. For that reason, many Jews throughout history have felt a need to return to the Land of Israel, even if it was not politically Jewish at the time, and even if the place was dangerous and hostile to Jews.

A mystical vision that came to rabbi Yosef Karo during an all-night study circle on Shavuot told the group that they needed to move to Land of Israel. In 1533 the group of friends and study-partners moved themselves and their families, settling in Tsfat (also known as Safed). By that time, they already knew how important the Land was to the core of Jewish practice, but they had not experienced the flow of theoretical religion with the practical realities of a spirituality truly grounded in the Earth where they stood until they arrived in Israel. The profundity of that connection led the men of this group to become even more deeply mystical than they were before their migration.

In 1597 the rabbi Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz wrote the song Lecha Dodi, which is sung in synagogues throughout the world on Friday night to welcome in the Sabbath Bride. It is said that the men of the city of Tsfat would sing this song as they walked into the forest surrounding the town on Friday evening at dusk. In doing so, they recognized that the holy place was not a building in which to worship, but the natural surroundings of the Land where they lived.

When people ask me why I am so tied to Israel, why I keep moving back even though so much about that country drives me crazy, people drive like maniacs, the government is a mess, and it seems like no one can act sane around any issue of coexistence with our non-Jewish neighbors, I can only try to explain it like this: There is something magical about Israel. I feel it in my heart and in the soles of my feet. It's the only place in the world where I feel roots that dig deep in search of water and nutrients in the ground beneath me. It is the only place where the cycle of my tradition matches the cycles of the Earth precisely. For me, it is the only Land that is a spiritual home. I believe it is the one place where a practicing Jew can fully experience an Earth-based spirituality.