Ecstasy on the farm: Wilderness Torah’s earth-based Sukkot

In ancient Israel, Sukkot was one of the three yearly pilgrimage festivals, when Israelites traveled from all over to go up to the Temple in Jerusalem. People built their sukkahs out in the fields, dwelling directly on the land.

Part of this early harvest festival was an ecstatic water ceremony, Simchat Beit Hashoeivah (Rejoicing of the Water-Drawing House), with water drawn from a spring-fed pool and carried through the streets to the Temple with great fanfare. The Talmud tells us: “He who has not seen Simchat Beit Hashoeivah has never seen rejoicing in his life.”

Sukkot on the Farm, the program that launched Wilderness Torah, seeks to reclaim these parts of Sukkot for modern Jews: the pilgrimage, dwelling in the field, the ecstasy of the water ceremony. It’s a simple and powerful idea — one that is now in its 10th year.

When I moved to the Bay Area last summer, the earth-based Jewish spirituality being spearheaded by Wilderness Torah was hardly on my radar. But it’s a big deal out here. Is this its only niche? Or is there something bigger going on that could have an impact on mainstream Judaism elsewhere? I figured it was time to go and see for myself.

Sukkot on the Farm took place Oct. 20-23 at Eatwell Farm outside Dixon, about an hour northeast of San Francisco. The 20-year-old organic farm was the site of Wilderness Torah’s first Sukkot on the Farm in 2007, so this past weekend was a circling back to the beginning.

I arrived on Friday, just in time for the Shabbat evening service, and prepared for a very different Sukkot experience than the usual shaking of the lulav and etrog in synagogue services. I joined some 250 other celebrants in the main sukkah, a large, airy space with patterned tapestries on the walls. Moroccan lanterns hung from the roof, dangling among the leaves. The floor was composed of carpets and other fabrics. We sat on the ground in concentric circles with a group of leaders in the center.

Wilderness Torah is part of a larger movement known as earth-based Judaism. The movement has its own tenor, standard melodies drawn from Jewish Renewal and elsewhere, and a free-flowing, breezily haphazard attitude all its own.

Tunes that night included a version of Barchu with some English lyrics: “Am I awake? Am I prepared? Are you listening to my prayer? Can you hear my voice? Can you understand?” I always seem to hear these lyrics, by Jewish songwriter Noah Aronson, in settings full of seekers, people who are looking for something new — or, in the case of Wilderness Torah, looking for something old.

The spiritual influence of Kohenet, the Jewish priestess movement that has several key practitioners in the Bay Area, was present throughout the weekend, with regular references to the divine feminine and a focus on lost ancient practices (real and imagined). Berkeley resident Taya Shere, co-founder of Kohenet and an ordained Hebrew priestess, was in the center of the circle. For Ma’ariv Aravim, the evening creation prayer, she led us in chanting “Hama’arivah Aravim,” a feminine form of the prayer’s name for God: Bringer of Evening. “Open up the gates of time,” we sang — an appropriate way for me to slide into this take on the festival of Sukkot, a liminal opening in the normal flow of time.

If folk guitar or Shlomo Carlebach tunes are the musical signatures of some corners of the Jewish world, here it is hand drums and mantra-like tribal chanting. There was quite a lot of chanting over the course of the weekend, most of it entirely new to me, a breath of fresh air. At other times, the music was familiar; for instance, they used the rendition of Oseh Shalom one hears in most Reform synagogues.

As the service wound down and we moved into dinner, we were instructed to “truly allow yourselves to receive the food as you eat it” and were told it was prepared by a “holy circle of cook and creators” around “the hearth,” which is what organizers call the central kitchen. Happily, we were treated to a selection of global Jewish comfort foods: a Moroccan fish stew, kasha varnishkes, shakshouka — and, yes, bagels. Of course, there are certain benefits in being on an organic farm that grows many different crops — flavor-popping strawberries that were picked hours before, for example.

Over dinner I began getting to know my fellow pilgrims. The first thing I noticed is how earnest the people are — overwhelmingly earnest. There is a straightforward commitment to this earth-based, nature-centric form of Judaism, as if there’s nothing else they could be doing, as if there’s nothing unusual going on here at all.

Hebrew priestess Taya Shere of Berkeley leads part of the Shabbat morning service in the main sukkah at Sukkot on the Farm. photos/david a.m. wilensky

One theme came up again and again: Wilderness Torah draws in people who are on a journey. Rose Rothfeder, a 29-year-old kindergarten teacher I met over dinner, told me she comes to Wilderness Torah events as “a reconnection, a remembering of the ancient roots of humanity that may feel out of context to some people, and to other people it feels enlivening and enriching to come back to those old ways.”

But is it really a remembering? Are these old ways, or new ways that simply feel old? And if it works for these seekers, how much does any of that matter?

“I went up on a mountain in 2007 to pray and fast for three days and three nights, to do a vision quest,” founding director Zelig Golden said when I asked about the origins of Wilderness Torah. A former environmental litigator in San Francisco, he was ordained a maggid (storyteller) by the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and is currently studying for rabbinic ordination under Renewal auspices. “I came down with a vision to focus my life energy on getting my people back in touch with the earth.”

When I asked managing director Nancy Shaw the same question, she gave me a more down-to-earth answer. “Wilderness Torah was not a nonprofit then. It was a few friends who looked at the text and saw on Sukkot we’re supposed to be in the fields,” she said. “Why don’t we go out and do Jewish ritual in the olden ways?” So about 30 friends set out for a weekend at Eatwell Farm.

“It was sweet, disorganized, kind of funny — and beautiful,” Golden recalls of that first Sukkot on the Farm. “Then we did Passover in the Desert in 2008, then Sukkot on the Farm again.” Things snowballed, and by 2009, Wilderness Torah was a full-fledged nonprofit. It now has a staff of nine and does all three festival holidays — Sukkot on the Farm, Passover in the Desert in Southern California, and an East Bay bonfire at Shavuot.

A woman kneels before the mizbeach (altar) in the sukkah on Shabbat.

There are other organizations in Jewish creative circles doing similar earth-based work, Golden said. “Wilderness Torah is sitting on the intersection of a wave that’s happening in Judaism. On the one hand, we’re part of this Jewish outdoor, food, farming, environmental education field.” Here he’s referring to groups like Hazon, the national environmentalist group, and Urban Adamah, the urban farm and education center in Berkeley.

But those other groups work primarily in farming and land-based education; Wilderness Torah is building new rituals within the same earth-based tradition. While these other groups include spiritual elements in their work, Wilderness Torah takes it the furthest, doing more to advance the spiritual wing of this evolving Jewish consciousness than any other group.

Sukkot on the Farm is also an adventure in camping. My friend and I pitched our tents in the middle of an otherwise unoccupied row of the farm’s vineyard, an undeniably striking and gorgeous spot. When I awoke early on Shabbat morning, the beauty of the setting struck me. I resolved to explore the farm more fully later on.

I made the long walk back to the town square: the main sukkah, a fire pit, a large outdoor cooking space and a collection of other sukkot — including a beit midrash, a kids’ sukkah and a “Tent of Creativity.” Somewhat removed from the village was a “healing hut,” a combined nap/massage/first aid space. Off-limits to me as a man was a structure called the Red Tent, a Wilderness Torah take on the space the ancient Israelites set apart from the main camp as a space for menstruating and breastfeeding women. Some women used it during the weekend, as they do at other Wilderness Torah gatherings.

“At Sukkot on the Farm,” explains the program guide, “we maintain this space as a sanctuary for those during any stage of their moon/womb cycle.” This kind of matter-of-fact reimagining of arcane practices — pre-Jewish really, best characterized as Israelite — is what is most intriguing about Wilderness Torah. Its offerings are girded by a core taken from ancient Jewish sources, but with all manner of trappings from other global spiritual traditions tacked on.

An early morning sacred chant gathering in the beit midrash

Meanwhile, a guitarist and fiddler led sacred chanting in the beit midrash, or house of study. Their group had grown to about 20 by mid-breakfast, all standing in a circle, arms around each other, singing and smiling. The entire weekend, spontaneous singing and dancing broke out during a lot of the downtime.

The Shabbat morning service resembled the one I attended the previous night but was a little more sparsely attended. We sat in circles, with prayer leaders, drums, guitars and an oud in the center. A few times a shofar sounded in the distance.

Between prayers, Golden asked us to tell the others what we’re thankful for. I see this practice more and more often, no doubt inspired by the mindfulness craze prominent in the Bay Area. It did give everybody the chance to express themselves during the service, which I suppose is good. Nonetheless, this exercise always grates on me; I just want to get on with the prayers.

During the Amidah, the central standing prayer of the service, most people dispersed. It has become common in some communities to wander off to say the Amidah in solitude; this group didn’t need to be told. Many moved out toward a nearby field to daven, stretch, etc. One woman knelt quietly before the mizbeach (altar) in a corner of the sukkah, a place where people had deposited flowers, vegetables and fruits but mostly seeds. There is plenty of talk at Sukkot on the Farm of reclaiming Judaism’s “pagan” roots, which, in the abstract, I’m in favor of. But in this case, it feels more like an imagined part of our past than a true reclamation. Nevertheless, it was beautiful and added something unique to the space.

Before the service began, Golden made note of the makeup of the Torah scroll: The parchment is from animal skin, while the ink comes from “these growths we find on trees, gallnuts, which are instigated by insects.” For me, the earth-based nature of Wilderness Torah is best borne out in moments like this one, subtle reminders of our tradition’s connection to the natural world.

Golden told us we would forgo the traditional Torah reading for Sukkot and would instead read the section containing the Shema and Ve’ahavta. This struck me as a clever idea. Sukkot is the time of year Jews begin praying for rain, and nowhere in the Torah is there a better commentary on the need for those waters from the heavens.

A sign at Sukkot on the Farm

As Golden noted, Reform and other progressive liturgies usually delete the paragraph of Ve’ahavta that begins “Vehayah im shamoa” for being too draconian; it tells of a paternalistic God who rewards and punishes entire communities for good or bad behavior. But he (and I) prefer a different reading, one with a great deal of urgency for our world today. In this passage, God tells us that good behavior will lead to bounties, such as rain at the right times of year. But bad behavior will result in environmental punishment. The relevance to climate change, a major topic of concern at Sukkot on the Farm, is inescapable.

Wilderness Torah folks, all seekers or former seekers, appear to have found what they were looking for. People here are gentle, passionately drawn to the promise of connection with a tangible, immanent divine. They seek a sense of the sacred that has a palpable, physical quality. There is a lot of flowy linen clothing, baggy earth-tone sweaters and bare feet. Many of the people I met are teachers or educators of some kind. They spanned all ages, including families with children and older adults.

Like any tight-knit community, Sukkot on the Farm initially looked quite cliquey. Jody Seltzer, 58, a Jewish educator from Berkeley, thought the same thing. She said she was having a little trouble finding her place.

“I have some friends here, enough to feel somewhat comfortable, but it’s hard when you come into a whole new group,” Seltzer told me on Saturday morning. I ran into her again later in the day, and she told me she was feeling much better and had made some new friends.

Indeed, I have to commend Wilderness Torah for creating such a warm, communal environment. Stand within a few feet of anyone and you’re bound to get a smiling greeting and an introduction. There is abundant gratitude for everything and a radically supportive atmosphere. On the final morning of Sukkot on the Farm, the entire community danced in circles singing to each other, “Thank you for what you give. You help us grow. You help us live. And we all have a job to do.” That was one step too far for me, but people seemed to like it.

That warmth is a big part of what brings many people back. Rothfeder, the kindergarten teacher, had been twice before. “I keep coming back because I continue to cultivate relationships with the people in the community,” she told me.

Emily Harris, 35, was at the inaugural Sukkot on the Farm and has attended most years since. She comes back to “celebrate Sukkot in a community that is fluid and changing, but in some ways has been steady over the years.”

Harris and Rothfeder both said Wilderness Torah had helped draw them into greater engagement with Jewish life. For Rothfeder, it plays a role in “a process of reconnecting with my roots,” she said. For Harris, being connected with the Wilderness Torah community “is core practice for me and a foundation that grounds me.”

Saturday night’s Simchat Beit Hashoeivah was just about the best thing I’ve ever seen. Attendees were encouraged to bring water from anywhere that had meaning for them to contribute to the three-tiered garden fountain in the village square. There was even, we were told, some water brought from Shiloach, the original spring-fed pool in Jerusalem — a little shticky, but  undeniably cool.

A group of “Levites” circled the fountain holding aloft enormous lulavs made from local plants, nothing like the tidy, sleek lulav at your synagogue gift shop.

We sang Avinu Malkeinu, first uttered as a prayer for rain, pepped up by a quick Middle Eastern beat. The waving lulavs made a strong rain sound. A few people circled the fountain, ceremonially scooping up water.

And then the dancing started in a big, ecstatic, messy circle as the lulavs were waved in the direction of the fountain. The assembly chanted “Hoshanah,” an exclamation of praise and joy. Folks were either excited about rain, enjoying the party — or both.

Two floodlights blazed bright white light on one side of the gathering, while the rest was pitch black. The effect was dramatic. To get the full picture, I stood a short way away on top of a hay bale. I’ve never seen anything like it. If run-of-the-mill synagogues were this raw and energetic, we could put to rest all of our tiresome debates about continuity and next-gen engagement.

While the water ceremony was the highlight of the weekend in terms of energy, joy and community, a personal highlight came on Saturday afternoon, when I decided to follow up on my earlier impulse to explore the farm.

It was a relatively long walk back to where I was camping amid the grapevines. Clearly, I was on a farm, but I could still see a paved road in one direction, and reminders of our temporary village were all around. The walk took me past many other campsites, the healing hut and a cluster of port-a-potties.

When I got back to my tent, I looked down the row of the vineyard but couldn’t see its end. So I decided to walk toward it and emerged on farmland. Raised, neatly packed roads of rich brown dirt formed a grid-work in massive fields. I could see nothing but farm in every direction, onward to the mountains. I felt like I was treading on an entirely new kind of earth.

It felt foreign, exhilarating. Here, I suddenly understood, is the point of making the pilgrimage to a farm on Sukkot. Standing like an interloper among the fields, the power of the location hit me in the gut for a moment. It works because it is tangible, a physical fact, not mere symbolism.

The sukkah on your back deck or in your shul parking lot is fine — but it has absolutely nothing on this.

The simplicity and power of taking this agricultural holiday into an agricultural setting, of making a pilgrimage away from our daily lives, of creating a new form of the lively Simchat Beit Hashoeivah – this is magnificent. It is my sincere hope that practices like this will infiltrate mainstream Judaism and improve it.

It would be easy to dismiss all of this as a fringe curiosity. Reform, Renewal — these, too, were once fringe curiosities, but who can imagine Jewish life today without their influence? In its entirety, this mode will never be mainstream, but the experiments of Bay Area spiritualists often go on to bigger things. Who knows what the future holds for earth-based Torah?

Jew in the Pew is a regular feature. Send religious, ritual and spiritual goings on to david@jweekly.com.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.