Straight Up Torah-The Pagan in Judaism

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, December 9th, 2016 – 9 Kislev, 5777


Coffee and Torah: Over the past year, the Ritual Committee performed a values clarification process around our community’s prayer life. Out of that collaborative discussion, we will be running a trial for a period of time. Beginning on January 7th, we’ll be serving coffee and offering a short Torah study from 8:45-9:15 am. We hope that a few more people may show up early and be available for making a minyan if needed for kaddish. We anticipate meeting in the vestry behind the main sanctuary, but please look for signage.

1/7/17 Rabbi Kosak teaches

1/14/17 Rabbi Posen teaches

1/21/17 Mark Sherman teaches

Interfaith Families: A very small work group from the Ritual Committee would like to meet with “interfaith families” (we don’t like that language but no other short, simple, descriptive term has yet come our way. Feel free to make suggestions) and discuss your experiences at CNS so that we can better understand your particular needs. These meetings will remain confidential, although general concerns will be brought back to the larger group.

While some people have responded to me in the past, we are now ready to go. If you’d like to participate, please send your name to Karen Wilkins ( who will compile a list and arrange scheduling.

Kashrut Policy: We have a new and approved kashrut policy. While there will be few changes on the surface of how our community approaches the sanctity of food, it seemed important to standardize our practices and ensure we meet our communal standards. As part of that, I’ll be offering a class on kashrut. The class will be open for any who wish to attend; one goal of the class is to certify kosher supervisors for our CNS community.

Kashrut Course: I’ll be offering an eight week intensive kashrut class. It will be offered starting on Sunday, January 15, 2017, from 12:30-2:00 pm. The kosher laws are vast, intricate and quite fascinating. Even if you or your family don’t keep kosher, understanding something about kashrut is a foundational part of Jewish literacy.

Those who attend will receive a schedule on the first day of class, as well as extensive materials. Please register with Karen Wilkins ( to ensure materials are prepared for you. Those who wish to be certified for our community will go through an additional accreditation process after the class ends.

Straight Up Torah: The Pagan in Judaism

Last night, we were able to attend Cirque Du Soleil’s Toruk. A friend had extra tickets from work that were going unused because of the inclement weather. This particular show was visually stunning, and is based on James Cameron’s blockbuster movie, Avatar, an equally stunning visual extravaganza. Among the many themes that found expression in both the film and the live production is a positive description of pagan and indigenous culture.

Any student of the Hebrew scriptures will understand that the Torah is quite adamantly opposed to pagan practice. While there are profound reasons for that, which go well beyond the scope of this article, we shouldn’t lose sight of what ancient pagan practices got right, and which Avatar expressed with genuine feeling. Moreover the pagan personality and the person of God both nurture a sensitivity of and connection to the natural world and the subtle spiritual forces that flow through it.

I am thinking of parshat Vayetze, after Jacob leaves Be’er Sheva. On the road, he gathers rocks and builds up around his head a small protection and embrace of stone. I imagine a slight arched or curved wall, a single course of stone high, in which he nestled his head as he went to sleep. Are these stones a shield or a satellite dish type of antenna ?

If you’ve ever been camping far off the trails of civilization, you may recognize the elemental awareness that we share the world with other beings. Distant howls, the rustle of nearby leaves. Away from the soft comforts of civilization that can muzzle our senses, you pay more attention to the fact than anyone or anything might suddenly appear. Your perceptions are primed.

(I remember once hiking to the only rainbow gathering I ever attended, in southern Colorado. We arrived in the woods late at night, and weren’t going to make the main camp that night. With no equipment, we built a fast little lean to, and huddled together for warmth. Then we listened in awe and trepidation to a coyote concert happening in the neighborhood. )

Protected and primed in this manner, Ya’akov Avinu (the Biblical Jacob) has one of the world’s most famous dreams in which he sees divine messengers (malakh in Hebrew=angelos in Greek=messenger in English) going up and down a ladder that stretches to the heavens. He is also assured by God that, “I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

In the modern age, it sometimes seems that we Jews don’t talk about these sorts of experiences, although in many conversations I have had with people, these experiences may not be as rare as our public silence sometimes makes them seem.

What happens next captured my attention this year. After he awakens, Ya’akov doesn’t take his dream for granted. He accepts that he has had one of those rare and genuine encounters with God, and has a need to acknowledge the gift he has received.  The many stones around his head have somehow fused into a single larger stone over the course of the night (here the Torah goes from plural “stones” to singular “stone”). Jacob sets it upright as a monument to his divine encounter, pours oil over the rock and names the spot Beit El, the House of God.

This is clearly an act of deep personal significance to him. No one is there to observe him, no ritualistically religious action is required of him to commemorate his experience. He simply must give expression to his awareness.

Pagan religions in antiquity nurtured a similar sensitivity. They may have ascribed their awareness of how the natural world vibrates with spiritual and divine energy to multiple local gods. Yet their awareness was alive. In our time, the human world drowns out these subtle experiences with noise, artificial light and distraction. We might all do well to reflect on ancient practices such as this week’s Torah portion highlights.


Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Have you ever had an experience similar to Jacob’s? When was it? How did you mark the occasion.
  2. How often you carve out time in your life where you can escape from the noise of the human?

We are planning another evening of soup, sandwiches and “gorilla compassion” on Saturday night, December 17th. Please let me know if you are interested in participating.