I've been meaning to write something on this topic for a long time, and the universe, being wise, conspired to get it written today. I davened today in a clearing in the woods behind Avery Park in Newtonville, on my way to my Pilates class. Apple trees are blossoming all over, and Newton is full of them. And the dance between my Jewish and pagan identities and practices is in full swing. It must be spring! (Happy May Day!)
The Jewish practice of going out into nature to pray doesn't really need an apology from me — Reb. Nachman said it much better — but this is a topic that's dear to me, and it seemed like a good case for one of those perky essay-songs in which I explain my worldview in rhyming stanzas. Indeed, if that chord sequence hiding under the talking blues line sounds familiar, it's because you may have heard it before. Right, or you might not have, because I didn't put up an MP3 of that song until quite recently, so there you go.
And here you go:
I'm a nice, Jewish boy, but in a natural way —
I like to go outside among the trees to pray.
From time to time, a Jewish friend asks1 me to say
If that's a pagan kind of thing to do.
Well, yeah, I'm a Jewish pagan — I don't think that's wrong,
For reasons I'll put forward in this very song —
Which is allusive, full of footnotes, and might go on too long,
I suppose that's 'cause it's by a Jew!
When the Israelites first occupied the promised land,
They cut down the pagans' sacred trees at G!d's command2;
That seems a little harsh, but I can understand
How, otherwise, we might not be here now.3
But, since then we've been around a few thousand years,
Changed the shape of our religion, found new hopes, new fears,
And so many new opinions, it's no longer clear
What theologies we'll allow.
Our philosophers and mystics have both said the Divine
Is so far beyond the limits of the human mind
That we might as well think of it as undefined —
Impossible for us to describe.4
But, lest you think "impossible" means "we woudldn't bother",
Our tradition also speaks of G?d as "king" and "father",5
And "better than the rest" right next to "there is no other"6 —
Something here doesn't quite jibe.
Though the mystics claimed that G!d's true nature can't be said,
In their poems and devotions they went right ahead,
And used images and metaphors from A to Zed7 —
Our heritage includes those, too.
For example, could G?d's Presence be a feminine force?8
(She couldn't be a separate goddess, 'cause G1d's One, of course.)9
That idea's Jewish now, but can we guess at its source?10
The names they called Her weren't entirely new:
A queen, a bride11, a lover with Her sweet perfume12,
A mother bird13, a flowing spring14, a cosmic womb15,
And something about a grove of apple trees in bloom16 —
Hey, weren't we talking about trees before?
See, the Torah asks if human beings and trees compare19,
But our sages reinterpreted that verse20 — with flair —
So, a grove's a congregation, and a flower's a prayer21...
I have to say, that's pretty cool.
See e.g. the introduction to http://www.shemayisrael.com/publicat/
15 See e.g. On the Wings of Shekhinah: Rediscovering Judaism's Divine Feminine, by By Léah Novick, pp.80-81. It wasn't easy to find a good citation for this exact phrase, I might replace it with one that's mentioned more often in "mainstream" kabbalistic sources.
16 See e.g. A Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons, by Jill Hammer, p.179 (Google Books is calling this page 19, apparently because it's numbering the pages separately for each section.) Actually, pretty much the whole rest of my thesis is on this page.
18 See note #16 again.
21 Okay, I admit, I made this one up, so I'm not going to look for an exact citation. In the context of this metaphor and the imagery associated with it in kabbalah, however, I think it's quite plausible that, of things fruit trees do, blossoming is the one that is most like prayer, for three reasons: 1. it produces beauty, 2. it produces a pleasant fragrance, and 3. of all the things trees do, it is the most like sex.
"B'tzibbur", the rabbinic term from which this song takes its title, means "with a community". It refers to the condition of praying with a minyan (quorum) of ten Jewish (traditionally, male) adults. The exact phrase is most often cited in orthodox sources, see e.g. http://www.yutorah.org/_shiurim/The%
Dvar acher (another word): If a group of several blossoming fruit trees can be compared to a community at prayer, could birkat ha'ilanot be compared to a birkat hagomel on the occasion of their making it through the winter?