Journey to the Center of Judaism
In the fourth century BCE, Ezra the scribe led thousands of Israelites back to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon to reconstitute and revitalize the Jewish people. The result of this epochal pilgrimage is Judaism as we know it today. As our own generation works in various ways to revitalize the Jewish community, we would do well to follow Ezra’s example, and make our own reckoning with our common roots—to return to and revitalize the role of pilgrimage in our tradition, to reclaim it as a central and formative experience in our individual and our communal identities, and to use pilgrimage as a means for solving some of our contemporary problems.
Jewish thought has tended to dwell on exiles and diasporas, and in the 21st century, many young Jews have developed a fascination with the exotic pilgrimage cultures of other traditions, tendencies that often obscure our own itinerant origins. Although “Ivri” (the Hebrew word for “Hebrew”) means “from the other side,” “halakha” (Jewish law) means “the way to go,” and “derech” (the Jewish “path”) means “the way,” as in, the road itself, too often today when we think of Jews on the road, we think of expulsion and flight, not deliberation and destination.
David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson, authors of Pilgrimage and the Jews, term the Jewish people a “pilgrim people, with a rich and varied pilgrimage culture from biblical times right up to the present.” These pilgrimages include the journeys to Jerusalem beginning with Abraham and continuing through the Shalosh Regalim (the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot) during both Temple periods; to Canaan from Egypt; to the tombs of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs; and to the tombs of various teachers and prophets in Israel and the Diaspora. Lately, our list of pilgrimage sites has grown: we go on March of the Living to visit the sites of the Holocaust and with Taglit-Birthright Israel to the modern State, and we even have a sort of global class of pilgrims—the Chabad rabbis who may be found in cities and towns across the globe.
Yet despite this rich and continuing history of Jewish pilgrimage—what we might think of as the “nomadics of Judaism”—we lack an integrated, holistic understanding of how contemporary pilgrims fit into the tradition and of how pilgrimage is poised to meet some of the pressing needs of contemporary Judaism. With Israel a fact, the steady growth of heritage missions to Eastern Europe, the ever-more traditional American post-high school year in Israel and Israeli postarmy year abroad, and the rise of several organizations (check out TorahTrek, Hazon, the Jewish Outdoors Club, and the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center) that seek to reconcile Judaism with tangible and sensory engagement with the physical world, the time is ripe for us to return pilgrimage to the center of contemporary Judaism. In doing so, we will rearticulate for our own times the progression of original Jewish history from Adam and Eve (expulsion) to Abraham (destination) and thereby, as on our holidays, not just commemorate those times but also re-experience them and make them anew—and by rearticulating our origins, our identity, and our strength, spark a renaissance.
Contemporary Judaism is plagued by numerous “crises”—the intermarriage crisis, the assimilation crisis, the shidduch (matchmaking) crisis, the ethical kashrut crisis and the healthy kashrut crisis, the ongoing crisis of physical-martial strength, and above all the unity crisis. We too often see ourselves as a house divided—left and right, secular and religious, Labor and Kadima and Likud, doves and hawks, Tel Aviv and the territories, Democrats and Republicans, Haredim and religious Zionists, and so on. Revitalizing the tradition of Jewish pilgrimage can help us address these crises—all of which are, ultimately, crises of alienation, of natural and human community. In the Temple era, pilgrimages brought together Jews from around the ancient world to renew old connections, arrange marriages, exchange customs, and reaffirm national unity and communal identity and ultimately, to strengthen the nation through pluralism. A renewed and deliberate culture of pilgrimage can reproduce these benefits for contemporary Judaism.
Imagine a new kind of Birthright— one more substantive, rewarding, and productive—young people sojourning in Jewish communities around the world, learning and serving and connecting, a year punctuated by travel to Israel for each of the three pilgrimage festivals, for festivals and conferences that would serve as opportunities to reinforce old bonds and make new ones, and as incubators for new ideas and programs of all kinds. Pilgrimage concepts could also be infused into the popular post-high school year in Israel; service, a major component of emerging Jewish programming (as Seth Garz pointed out last year in these pages) could be intertwined with pilgrimage; pilgrimage could be brought into the bar and bat mitzvah preparation period, thereby exposing young people to Judaism beyond the confines of their local synagogue; similarly, pilgrimage would be a natural element of the ba’al teshuvah (return to observance) movement.
There are challenges to building this culture of pilgrimage—one of the most daunting perhaps being the very notion of a culture, as opposed to the disconnected pilgrimages that exist today. When Ezra led the exiles home, he did so to serve a larger cultural objective; the many forms of contemporary pilgrimage are not insufficient, but they are insufficiently envisioned as part of an overarching cultural project. They are fertile soil within which to plant this larger project, but they are not the project itself.
As we address this challenge, we will surely find others, for these thoughts are just forays and first steps; but as we begin to weave together our ideas and resources and opportunities, constructing a coherent project of pilgrimage in 21st-century Judaism, we will begin to accomplish a growing unity, cohesion, and communitas in and between our communities. If we make our way together, we will come together, by the way.
Jason Arenstein lives, learns, teaches, and writes in New York City. He welcomes hearing from anyone interested in connecting Judaism and pilgrimage, organics, martial arts ... .