A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways into Judaism


Explore the connections between God, wilderness and Judaism. This comprehensive how-to guide to the theory and practice of Jewish wilderness spirituality unravels the mystery of Judaism's connection to the natural world and offers ways for you to enliven and deepen your spiritual life through wilderness experience. Over forty practical exercises provide detailed instruction on spiritual practice in the natural world, including: Mindfulness exercises for the trail • Meditative walking • Four-Winds wisdom from ...

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Explore the connections between God, wilderness and Judaism. This comprehensive how-to guide to the theory and practice of Jewish wilderness spirituality unravels the mystery of Judaism's connection to the natural world and offers ways for you to enliven and deepen your spiritual life through wilderness experience. Over forty practical exercises provide detailed instruction on spiritual practice in the natural world, including: Mindfulness exercises for the trail • Meditative walking • Four-Winds wisdom from Jewish tradition • Wilderness blessings • Soul-O Site solitude practice in wilderness • Wilderness retreat For wilderness lovers and nature novices alike, this inspiring and insightful book will lead you through experiences of awe and wonder in the natural world. It will show you the depth and relevance of Judaism to your spiritual awareness in wilderness and teach you new ways to energize your relationship with God and prayer.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In this lyrical but practical primer to fusing Torah and nature, Comins writes: "Far from humans, in God's handiwork, my heart sheds its burdens and my prayers flow." An ordained rabbi, he felt suffocated by books and buildings until he returned to the source of his first spiritual feelings: the wilderness. Ironically, he writes, "I felt compelled to rebel against the very tradition that planted the thirst for God within me." To overcome the stereotype that "Jews just don't do that outdoor stuff," Comins offers insights from Jewish philosophers and spiritual practices that include meditations, mindfulness, journal-writing, reciting and writing psalms and blessings, and much more. As the subtitle indicates, Comins asserts that the relationship between Torah and nature is a two-way trail: wilderness is the best place to work out a personal, unscripted, fresh relationship with divinity, and Judaism offers a vocabulary and practice to translate the experience of wilderness into a life of purpose and meaning. For those who love nature and know little about Judaism, and those who love Judaism but know little about wilderness, Comins's message is clear: one need not choose between the two to find potential, promise and fulfillment. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Connecting Jewish spirituality to the natural world.

—Graham Christian
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781580233163
  • Publisher: Jewish Lights Publishing
  • Publication date: 2/1/2007
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 221
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Rabbi Mike Comins, the founder of TorahTrek Spiritual Wilderness Adventures (www.TorahTrek.com) and the Institute for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality (www.ijws-online.org), is the author of A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways into Judaism (Jewish Lights) and Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer Is Difficult and What to Do about It. He studied classical Jewish texts at the Pardes Institute, earned his MA in Jewish education from Hebrew University and was ordained in the Israeli rabbinical program of Hebrew Union College. He was a founding member and the first director of education at Kehilat Kol Haneshama in Jerusalem. He lives, teaches and writes in Los Angeles, and serves as a scholar-in-residence for schools and synagogues around the world.

Rabbi Mike Comins is available to speak on the following topics:

  • Finding God in Nature: Buber, Heschel and the Kabbalah on the Experience of Divinity in the Natural World
  • How the Jews Lost Nature and Why We Need to Get Her Back
  • Making Prayer Real: Why Prayer Is Difficult and What to Do about It
  • Prayer, Teshuvah and Coping with Loss
  • The Spiritual Dynamics of Traditional Prayer

Nigel Savage, originally from Manchester, England, founded Hazon in 2000. Since then Hazon has grown to be a nationally significant organization, both renewing Jewish life in profound ways and working to create a healthier and more sustainable world for all. Before founding Hazon, Savage was a professional fund manager in London. He has a master's degree in history from Georgetown University and has learned at Pardes, Yakar, and Hebrew University. Savage is infamous in the United Kingdom for his cameo appearance in the cult Anglo-Jewish comic movie Leon the Pig Farmer. He is also believed to be the first English Jew to have cycled across South Dakota on a recumbent bike.

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Read an Excerpt


Jewish Ways into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways into Judaism
By Mike Comins


Copyright © 2007 Michael Comins
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58023-316-3

Chapter One



In all of ancient Near Eastern literature, the Bible is one
of the few texts that knows wilderness as a place of
majesty, a place where God lets himself be known....
Far from rejecting nature, the Hebrews embrace her as
a whole, thorns and all.

Evan Eisenberg

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, September 1996: I am camped snugly against the cliffs of a canyon in the desert mountains above the Israeli city of Eilat. The vertical walls rise a hundred feet toward the stars. The soft limestone, streaked with yellows and oranges that mirror the sunrise, envelops me. In this private cathedral I am protected, though the stark, dry riverbed leaves me a bit unsettled. I wrap myself in my tallit, my prayer shawl, against the early morning cold in that brief moment when shade is the enemy, and listen to the birds for inspiration. I begin to sing the ancient words of praise to the Creator of this sacred place. Memories enter my awareness: backpacking in Sequoia with my family, watching the sunrise from Mount Sinai with friends in college. I recite a psalm and speak words of yearning to God.

It is time to welcome the New Year as Jews have done over the millennia. It is, in the tradition, the Day of Judgment, where all stand before the Holy One, accountable for their deeds in the previous year. Like the acacia trees and salt plants beside me, I am fully exposed. Far from humans, in God's handiwork, my heart sheds its burdens and my prayers flow.

It was a superb Rosh Hashanah. The words I spoke to God were sincere and true, emotionally charged with yearning, infused with awe and love. By every measure, this was what the architects of Jewish ritual had in mind-except for one thing. I wasn't in synagogue. I didn't pray in the required minyan of ten. And at that time, this was a particularly sensitive point. I had been ordained just two months earlier. My first Rosh Hashanah as a rabbi was my first Rosh Hashanah away from the Jewish community in two decades. What would my teachers think of me now?

As the sun rose and the shade receded, I thought about the long and circuitous road to this desert canyon. I had spent the previous three years working feverishly on a rabbinic thesis devoted to theology. I was constantly thinking about God, but as the months went by I felt further and further away from the kind of spiritual experience that led me to writing the thesis in the first place. I davened, or prayed, in one of the best places on earth to daven, Kehilat Kol HaNeshamah in Jerusalem. But after ten years, my devotion was waning and my prayer life had become stale. When I finished my thesis, I felt compelled to do something for my heart that I had neglected for years. I went hiking.

Walking a trail is second nature to me. My parents never missed a summer visit to Yosemite. I grew up backpacking in the "Range of Light," the incredible Sierra Nevada mountains of California. But as I lived an observant, traditional life in Jerusalem, I spent the one Israeli day off, Shabbat, in synagogue. Now, feeling suffocated from books and buildings, I returned to the source of my first spiritual feelings, to wilderness. It was like jumping into an alpine lake, a wake-up call that soothes the spirit by shocking the system.

I walked the deserts, the only true wilderness in Israel. I went to stop thinking about theology. So what happened caught me by surprise.

God kicked in.

Before then I had been a wannabe when it came to God. I wanted to experience God in my life. And I tried. I went to Orthodox yeshiva and liberal rabbinical school. I lived the pious Jerusalem life. Now I know what I failed to admit to myself then: a personal relationship with God was missing. I rarely allowed myself to think about it. After all, Jewish religious life is so communal that one need not worry if an individual experience of God is lacking. There is no requirement for a Jew to compose his or her own words of prayer or listen for God in silence. Jewish communal religiosity can be so powerful, soulful, and moving, one can make do quite nicely without feeling a lack of spiritual passion. But now the communal experience no longer satisfied. I needed more.

I turned to the desert. Between hikes, I read what I felt like reading for the first time in years. I was exposed to nonacademic works on Jewish mysticism (thank you, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner), to Eastern mystics and the Desert Fathers (early Christian monks who settled the same desert locale). Suddenly I had a theory, an understanding that helped open me to God in wilderness. Suddenly I had a language to articulate what I had always felt in wilderness but could not connect to Judaism or the Jewish community. I began to feel something that I believe must be similar to what the psalmist felt before writing the psalm. I was feeling God in my bones. I began to trust my intuition. I stopped talking and began to listen. Instead of thinking, I walked. Instead of looking from my brain, I followed my body.

I had plans to continue on for a PhD, but there was no going back. My life had changed. Instead of Hebrew University, I went to Sde Boker in Israel's great desert, the Negev, and qualified as an Israeli desert guide. I began leading spiritual desert trips in the Judean desert and the Sinai, filled mostly with rabbis, rabbinic students, and students for the ministry. I found myself on the journey that led to the writing of this book.

So I left the synagogue that Rosh Hashanah. It was an act filled with irony. I would not have felt the need to spend Rosh Hashanah in a place where God was so present to me if Jewish culture had not taught me that God exists and is available to human beings. Yet, to gain that experience, I felt compelled to rebel against the very tradition that planted the thirst for God within me!


Putting away my tallit, I paused to look at the prayer book in my hands, and then the orange limestone under the bright blue sky. I thought about the great debate that has occupied Jewish thinkers over the millennia. It has resurfaced with great intensity due to the environmental crisis and the fact that large numbers of Jews are hiking, skiing, kayaking, and climbing in wilderness. Where do we find God? From where does revelation come? Wilderness or the Book? Nature or Torah?

Obviously, the answer can be both. After all, the Torah was given in wilderness! But now that we have Torah and its always evolving commentary, do we find God in printed words, through reading learned texts and praying the inherited words of the prayer book? Or do we find God at the original site of revelation, in the natural world, without words at all?

Of course, the preferred answer would be both. But, in fact, it rarely happens that way. Entering wilderness to experience God's presence is not a concept taken seriously by the major institutions of Jewish life in America and elsewhere. Jewish spiritual training centers on intellectual acumen and study, study, study! I spent twelve hours a day at the yeshiva. Rabbinical school put me in a library, not on a trail. The deserts of David, Amos, and Jeremiah were just down the road, but we went there to get a break from our studies, not to further the spiritual quest.

One need not look to Jewish cultural history to know this Torah/nature conflict. I stand on a ridge overlooking the Sinai wilderness with the siddur, the Jewish prayer book, in hand. Do I recite a psalm praising the Creator for the grandeur of nature, or do I just look up? And if, in fact, I feel closer to God when I look away from the book, why do I need the siddur at all? But what would happen to the People of the Book if books, the vehicles of Jewish tradition, were secondary to what we experience firsthand?

My personal dilemma is, in fact, played out daily in the life of the Jewish people. As one who frequents backcountry trails as well as mainstream Jewish communal institutions, I have learned: most Jews who love wilderness know little of Judaism, and most committed Jews know little of wilderness.


Every author has a reader in mind when writing. A Wild Faith could have been written for those on one side of the Torah/nature divide, but it is intended for both.

The first reader, let's call him Wilderness Jew, feels intensely alive in the natural world. He doesn't consider himself a religious person. Hebrew school was an ordeal to be overcome and left behind after bar mitzvah. The idea of a punishing and rewarding God in heaven makes little sense. What's left of his Jewish identity may have more to do with bagels than the Bible.

But he recognizes the importance of some kind of spirituality in his life. And in the beauty, the strong emotions, and the exhilarating excitement of the natural world, he unquestionably knows that there is something profound and moving in wilderness. He senses the natural world as meaningful for its own sake, ethically commanding, and sacred-in short, holy.

On the other end of the spectrum we find Religious Jew. In this person's self-understanding, Jewish identity is prominent. She celebrates Jewish holidays, gives tzedakah (charity), socializes in the Jewish community. She may even pray three times a day. God-language is not a problem. But like all regular worshipers, she knows that the connection to God is elusive and fickle, here today, gone tomorrow. It is all too easy for the prayers to become rote, devoid of the electricity generated by a living relationship with divinity.

And yet, right around the corner, there is a wilderness place in which most people say they feel something that can only be described as transcendent and sacred. In Religious Jew's education, little if any connection has been made between this experience and her self-understanding as a Jew. Yet she knows what she feels. There is something special in the splendor of the natural world.

Religious Jew is moved because wilderness is a place where the "problem of God" is neither contrived nor irrelevant. In the struggle to keep one's ongoing religious practice fresh, wilderness is helpful because the felt presence of God is readily and reliably available. Religious Jew needs the natural world. Wilderness matters because it is an optimal place to work out a personal, unscripted, fresh relationship with divinity.

Wilderness Jew's situation is not to be envied, either. He struggles to find an acceptable vocabulary to express his most profound and noble emotions. He intuitively knows the moral implications of his feelings, but can't really explain why. He is missing a framework to integrate his feelings of awe and wonder into the larger ethical fabric of his life. And he lacks the means to take it home. Since his spirituality is alive in wilderness and absent in the city, when he leaves wilderness, he leaves his spiritual life behind. To my mind, Wilderness Jew has much to gain from Jewish observance. Judaism matters because it offers a vocabulary and a practice to translate the sublime experience of wilderness into a life of purpose and meaning, a life lived in community, a life of beauty, integrity, and moral action.

Thankfully, the Torah/nature divide is not set in stone. One need not choose between wilderness and Judaism.

In the course of this book, we shall see how wilderness leads to Judaism-to a deeper, more vibrant Jewish practice. The increased awareness required to travel safely in wilderness not only protects us, it also prepares us for the encounter with God. Many Jewish practices can be far more effective when practiced in wild nature. And many Jewish thinkers-medieval Jewish mystics, Hasidic rabbis, and modern thinkers like Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel-sought to renew Jewish life by explicating their experience of God in the natural world.

Conversely, Judaism leads us to wilderness-to absorb wilderness in deeper, more vibrant ways. Jewish practices help us to slow down and truly experience all that the natural world offers to our senses. Through blessings and prayer, we give expression to the intense emotions we feel in the incomparable beauty of nature. And as we give voice to our appreciation and gratitude for this incredible planet, our connection to the natural world grows in richness and strength. Finally, Judaism translates the experience of awe into moral meaning and ethical responsibility.

Wilderness Jew and Religious Jew are caricatures, of course. We are likely to find a bit of each in our hearts, and this is fitting. Wilderness and Judaism are joined at the hip.

In the Hebrew Bible, wilderness is where the Torah is given, where David and the psalmists find inspiration, where Elijah hears the "still, small voice" (1 Kings 19:12). Wilderness is the enduring home of revelation. Human culture has changed a great deal over the last four millennia. Thankfully, wilderness has not. What's left of it, anyway. It remains a special, unique setting to meet God. For today's spiritual seekers, it is a place of potential and promise.


In offering a primer on Jewish spiritual practice in wilderness, it is my hope that readers will come to understand that the organic partnership between wilderness and Judaism begun in Sinai over thirty-five hundred years ago is just as relevant now as it was then. In the age of global warming, when the quality of our grandchildren's world hangs in the balance, I believe that the renewal of our spiritual relationship with the natural world is the calling of our generation. For many Jews, that relationship will begin with the rediscovery of wilderness.

We need to unearth our wild roots.


Excerpted from A Wild FAITH by Mike Comins Copyright © 2007 by Michael Comins. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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