Sometimes we spend too much time thinking about something and not enough time experiencing it. In BMitzvah, we’ve been working on a new Rosh Pinah project about God: creating art pieces that express our personal theologies. We’ve been learning about how Jewish texts show different ideas of God: God as the authority, God as everything, God as all-good and all-powerful, God as all-good but not all-powerful. We’ve also looked at pieces of art that express the artists’ personal theologies like these songs from Mirah and Leonard Cohen and these visual art pieces from Louise Nevelson and Marc Chagall.
But we felt that what was missing was some real world experience. We found our inspiration in Sarah Hurwitz’s book Here All Along with her description of experiencing the practice of hitbodedut, a centuries-old meditation practice popularized by Rebbe Nachman. “The rules of hitbodedut,” she writes, “are as follows:
- Go somewhere secluded outdoors where no one else can hear you.
- Speak out loud to God–not in your head, but in an audible voice–for an allotted period of time… If you don’t believe in God, that’s fine, just do it anyway, along the lines of ‘Hi, God, I don’t believe in you, so I’m basically talking to empty air…’
- Speak without pauses. If you run out of things to say, you can say ‘I’ve run out of things to say’ over and over again. But whatever you do, keep talking.”
So, after our field trip to the National Museum of American Jewish History (read more about that here), we made our way over to the Pennsylvania Hospital gardens to experience hitbodedut. We spread out in the garden: Remi pacing around a tree, Leo and Drew sitting by the plants, Ronia, Zoey, and Zahdi on benches. For 15 minutes, the gentle sounds of cars, indistinguishable talking, and birds filled the garden.
When we came back together, I noticed everyone breathing deeper. Hands shot up when I asked them to describe their experiences. Many of us talked about things that we don’t talk to anyone else about and felt that we were really in dialogue. Some finally aired arguments and complaints they’ve had with God for years. A few of us ended up feeling emotional, even crying, expressing these secret thoughts out loud. Though we all have wide-ranging ideas about God, we all appreciated being in a beautiful, natural setting, and how that connected us to ourselves and the larger world. Zoey practiced changing her position on the bench and noticing how that changed her thoughts and emotions. Leo played with a fallen branch, adding a touch element to the practice.
Walking back to Makom, Ronia pulled me aside and told her that the experience reminded her of the one time she felt she’d experienced God. She’d been walking in nature and stopped by a clearing just as a great blue heron lept into flight. She felt that that moment had been created just for her and that it was a moment shared between her and the heron. I was so moved, both by her description and her willingness to share this personal experience with me.
In my own hitbodedut practice (a little unconventional, as I was keeping my awareness of everyone else in the group and tracking them), I spoke about my own gratitude for the willingness of the group to engage in strange rituals, learn about challenging topics, and allow their views to be shifted. I expect my own views on God will be shifted by the projects they create.