Zelig Golden: Judaism Unbound Episode 176 - Wilderness Torah


Zelig Golden, the Founding Director of Wilderness Torah, joins Dan and Lex for a conversation about nature, roots, education, and the Jewish future.

(0:01 - 14:53): To begin the episode, Golden gives an overview of Wilderness Torah’s vision and programming. [1] He looks back at his own journey from life as an environmental lawyer to his role as co-founder (and eventually rabbi) of Wilderness Torah. He considers ways in which widespread psychological epidemics in American society may be linked to disconnection from nature, [2] and discusses the ancient forms of earth-based Jewish practice on which Wilderness Torah is rooted. [3] He argues that, even as he is reaching back multiple millennia to the earliest days of Jewish tradition, he maintains a deep love for the rabbinic tradition, which is more recent in the grand scheme of Jewish history. Expanding on that, he argues that rabbinic Judaism in many ways is a “post-traumatic religious response to exile.” He distinguishes between moments in which Judaism feels real and those in which it doesn’t.

(14:54 - 28:38): Hammering home the idea that “earthlings” are “earth,” [4] Golden asserts not only that human beings are part of nature, but — above and beyond that — we are nature. He looks at the ways in which transcendent experiences, [5] at retreats or otherwise in nature, can translate back into day-to-day experience. [6] He also reflects on some of the jobs that Judaism can effectively do, emphasizing its cycles of time and its guidance around questions of being human on planet earth. Next, Golden balances a call for urban living, which is any many ways more sustainable than living in a rural setting, with advocacy for regular visits to the wilderness.

(28:39 - 50:47): Golden describes the educational experiences that Wilderness Torah offers for children. He highlights the ways in which they cement Judaism, and nature, as twin contexts for exploration and learning. [7] In doing so, he argues that centering the child is a core element of any successful educational experience. Turning to the topic of “paradigm shift” — a framework applied by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi to Judaism — Golden names a variety of ways in which Judaism is transforming in foundational ways. [8] He also looks at why he felt called to become a rabbi after founding Wilderness Torah. To close the episode, he says that halakhah has often moved too slowly, and strives for a Jewish future in which halachah addresses pressing issues from white privilege, to gender, to climate change.

[1] Learn more about Wilderness Torah at WildernessTorah.org. Learn more about Zelig Golden by checking out his bio, accessible at this link, along with a variety of teachings that he has delivered in the past.

[2] For more about this linkage between psychological epidemics and disconnection from nature, see the work of Richard Louv, who coined the term Nature-Deficit Disorder. He wrote an important book on the subject entitled Last Child in the Woods, available for purchase here.

[3] Check out Golden’s ELI Talk, entitled “Rekindling The Flame of Earth-based Judaism,” by clicking the video on the right.

[4] For more on the relationship between “earthling” and “earth,” see Episode 166: The Freedom Seder - Arthur Waskow.

[5] To learn about Passover in the Desert, one of Wilderness Torah’s most popular events, click here. Learn about their other pilgrimage festivals here.

[6] For more on how transcendent experiences in nature can have lasting spiritual effects, see our Judaism Unbound episodes that look at Burning Man. Episode 78: Burning Man - Jon Mitchell, Allie Wollner, Episode 79: Burning Mensch - Joel Stanley, Episode 80: Feeling the Burn - Dan and Lex

[7] Learn more about B’hootz and B’naiture, Wilderness Torah’s youth education programs, here.

[8] For some of Schachter-Shalomi’s ideas on paradigm shift, see Paradigm Shift: From the Jewish Renewal Teachings of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (edited by Ellen Singer) and/or Integral Halachah: Transcending and Including (co-written by Schachter-Shalomi with Daniel Siegel).