I know the cultural history of the Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan and the places surrounding it, but Ashkenazi Jews are from places rich with some of the world’s best mountain ranges. Are there any rituals/history/lore surrounding mountaineering in Judaism?
I love this question so much, largely because it reminds me how vast the world is and how varied people’s interests and expertise may be. I knew nothing about the Jews of Azerbaijan until you asked me this question (now I know what Wikipedia has taught me), and I’ve never thought about Jews and mountaineering before. And yet, somehow, I am in the privileged position to help both you (and me) to learn more.
Even though I had some seriously spiritual experiences at the Grand Canyon, as a mostly non-adventure-seeking city-dweller, your question took me literally out of my element. So, I turned to someone who I thought could help. Rabbi Jamie Korngold identifies herself as the “Adventure Rabbi,” and though I’ve never met her, the internet is, truly, an amazing tool, and I sent your question to her.
Before I share Korngold’s brilliant and inspiring answer, I also want to mention another way in which the world is amazing. In addition to her outdoor spirituality work in Colorado, she is also the author of the children’s “Sadie and Ori,” books. My kids love these and, through another twist of fate, I’ve actually reviewed two of her books for the Horn Book Guide. I may not seek spirituality on top of a mountain, but I do find it, daily, in the ways that we are all connected.
Korngold wrote, via email:
Some of Judaism most charged moments occurred on mountain tops. We are a people born from the mystical experience of a mountain climber. Consider that history altering moment at Mount Sinai, one of the most spiritually poignant moments of all time.
Why did Moses have to climb a mountain to face God and receive the Ten Commandments? Why couldn’t he just chat with God at the corner oasis? Could it be that climbing a mountain gives us time to cultivate perspective and a clear mind? Could it be the mountain climbing forces us to breathe deeply, to slow down, to notice and be aware of our surrounding? Or could it be that, as the ancients believed, the mountains bring us closer to God since God dwells in the heavens?
You see, our ancestors understood the heavens to be the actual dwelling place of God. Our belief that God is everywhere would have been an anathema to them. This specific geographic location for God is why the Bible is filled with many references of our ancestors climbing to the high places to make sacrifices to God. They truly believed mountain climbing gave them access to the Divine.
In my congregation, we hold a retreat in the Rocky Mountains to celebrate the Rosh Hashanah with outdoor with hikes and innovative activities. We think that we are doing something new, but really the mountains are where Judaism began!
Rabbi Jamie Korngold
So, dear readers, there you have it. What an incredible world we live in. Whether you seek spirituality on a mountain top, in your backyard, in a synagogue, with friends or alone, Judaism has an answer for everything.
And while I can’t offer you an actual mountaintop, I do allow myself about one shameless plug a year, and I can offer you a chance to celebrate Shavuot — that time when Moses climbed the mountain — with the Center City community on Saturday, June 8. Please join us. Click here for all the details. Happy exploring, wherever life and your interests may take you.