More Jews wandering in the desert

East Frisco Bay Jew and first-time Black Rock City resident (aka playa virgin) Alix Wall has written a great overview of the Jewish playa as manifested at this year’s Burning Man. (Pictured at right is Rabbi Menachem Cohen of Chicago, leading the annual B’nai HaMidbar Kabbalat Shabbat service.)

For Jeffrey Axelrod of San Francisco, this was his seventh “burn.” He appreciates that Burning Man falls right before the High Holy Days because the burning ritual to him symbolizes a renewal, where one burns whatever residue is left from the previous year in preparation for the year ahead…It is “just like Yom Kippur,” said Axelrod, 47. “I feel purged of all the heaviness of the previous year.”
Indeed, as we were making our way to the burn on Saturday night, we met up with Jonathan Gutstadt, a 20-something Oaklander who created a CD called “Hip-Hop Shabbat.” This was his third burn, and as he led us though Black Rock City toward the man, in a floor-length white robe, I couldn’t help but think of Moses leading the Israelites through the desert.
“Our whole religion is based on camping,” he said. “Our people spent 40 years in the desert,” so attending Burning Man makes perfect sense to him.

Full story here. Photo by Tomas Loewy, lots more shots here.
[Update by Ed.] On the Jewish Burners Yahoo group, Alix Wall writes:

i thought all of you idolators would want to read the one response we got to my burning man article.
[…] I was appalled to read the article by Alexandra J. Wall about what she did and saw at the Burning Man festival (“Next year in Black Rock City,” Sept. 9), an event held in the Nevada desert which centers around and culminates in the burning of a gigantic human effigy. The entire article represents the antithesis of traditional Jewish values and is an account of unrestrained bacchanalian revelry with clear overtones of idolatry.
Wall tells us that on her way to Shabbat services, where she was handed a siddur by a woman in a sheer negligee and participants were singing “Lecha Dodi,” she passed a couple “lying down and making out — and possibly more…in the middle of the street.”
It seems that Wall and the woman who handed her the siddur took too literally the lyric in “Lecha Dodi” that says “Be not ashamed.”
Wall is not ashamed to report that earlier she herself “participated in the annual Critical Tits ride, in which several thousand women decorate their bare breasts and ride bikes topless en masse to a party.” She calls her topless bike ride before Shabbat a Shehechiyanu moment.
Wall writes that one Bay Area attendee “appreciates that Burning Man falls right before the High Holy Days because the burning ritual to him symbolizes a renewal, where one burns whatever residue is left from the previous year in preparation for the year ahead.” Actually, the conceptual parallel in Judaism would be the ritual burning of chametz each year just before Passover.
Wall reports that “Before the burn, fire dancers spin their magic to the beating of drums and the man topples down in a cascade of fire and people linger and dance around it for hours.” The ancient Israelites in the desert also danced orgiastically — around the golden calf. That’s why Moses shattered the tablets which God Himself had made and on which He had written the Ten Commandments.
As it says: when Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger grew intense, and he flung the tablets out of his hands and broke them (Ex. 32:19). Rashi comments that Moses felt he could not deliver them to his apostate brethren.
—Yisroel Pensack

If I’m not davening to the kever, but I’m davening by the kever, is it avodah zarah? If I’m not davening to the Kotel, but I’m davening by the Kotel, is it avodah zarah? If I’m not davening to The Man, but I’m davening by The Man, is it avodah zarah? And are anti-nomanism and heresy not also traditional Jewish values? Is it not necessary to go to darkened places to better see the light? Isn’t this just a modern expresion of Sabbatianism?

7 thoughts on “More Jews wandering in the desert

  1. we also danced orgiastically in the temple court yards, another semi-idolotrous monument. The language the bible uses for the tablets moses is to bring is “psol” that is, engraven thyself a graven image. The presence of a structure and or image is not enough to qualify as “official” idolotry, that’s dependant, not on an inherent shape or design, but something else apparently

  2. When you burn a wooden statue, that’s idolatry. When you burn a building or a city full of living people who talk a different language and pray with different words to the God of earth and heaven, that’s religion. If the city you burn (Faluja, for example) is also the birthplace of the Babylonian Talmud (Pumbeditha), you get extra points for religious fervor.
    Actually, the climax of Burning Man is a lot like the ancient Temple celebration of the first day of Sukkot. The priests and Levites built a wooden framework on the side of the Temple, seven stories tall; filled it with the used linen underpants of the priests from the previous year; soaked the whole thing and all the underpants (I don’t know whether filmy negligees were allowed) with olive oil; and set it afire.
    The flames could be seen not only throughout Jerusalem but through much of the countryside. Then the Levites took flutes and played ecstatic music, dancing through the city and juggling burning torches (probably lit from the Burning Underpants).
    Since the separation of men and women in the Temple area is reported to have begun after an incident on Sukkot, it’s likely that the flutes and the dancing and the burning did stir people to make out (at least) right there.
    Idolatry is chopping out from the Infinite Flow of Life some part to worship, rather than the Whole, the One. It is often connected with what is really holy. Indeed, the ancient rabbis taught that when they went hunting for the Evil Impulse toward idolatry, they found it hiding in the Holy of Holies.
    When a Jew during the Roman occupation asked a rabbi whether he needed to destroy a statue of Venus at the foot of his bathing pool , the rabbi answered: If the statue was built to prettify the pool, it is merely decoration. If the pool was built to celebrate the statue, it is an idol: destroy it.
    In other words, intention, kavvanah, counts.
    Paganism is somewhat different from idolatry. It is about celebrating many gods, especially local earthy ones (“pagan” is related to “paisan,” peasant), rather than seeing the Unity in which YHWH, the Breath of Life (try pronouncing “YHWH” with no vowels in between) intertwines all life. (What we breathe in is what the trees breathe out; what the trees breathe in is what we breathe out.)
    Burning Man may come a little closer to paganism than to idolatry, or it may be neither. As a friend mine said, talking about the fire-making and water-pouring and lulav-waving and willow-branch-beating ceremonies of Sukkot, “If WE do it,it ain’t pagan.” A lot depends on intention. Kavannah counts.
    (If you’ll forgive a little self-advertisement, my handbook/history on the Jewish holy days, SEASONS OF OUR JOY, addresses all these questions.)
    Shalom, Arthur
    Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director
    The Shalom Center http://www.shalomctr.org voices a new prophetic agenda in Jewish, multireligious, and American life. To receive the weekly on-line Shalom Report, click on —

  3. look, it is avodah zarah, plain and simple. The only reaosn people go to burning man is so they can shtoop strangers. it is totally idol worship and anyone who says differently is kidding themselves.

  4. is that why you go places, sam? in the hope of being one of those strangers sometimes? It’s interesting how clear it is to you that the only reason someone might go somewhere different is in the hopes of that. And if you think what you’re projecting on the world is true beyond your own underlarified relationship to your own desire, you’re the one who’s kidding himself. understand this deeply.

  5. Poor bitter Sam. No one remotely happy would say such a thing. I got to Burning Man with my husband, and we love it. And we only schtoop each other. You should go and check it out for yourself, then com back and tell us about it.

  6. I was taught that we need to burn off the klipot around ourselves in order to get to the true fire within. I see the burning of the man as an outward representation of this inward process, and meditate thus at the burn. Like burning chametz or taslich.
    Oh, and six years at Black Rock City and no shtupping.
    shalom v’ahava,
    Rabbi Menachem

  7. I don’t think that comparing Burning Man to Sabbateanism does anyone any good. Sabbateanism crashed and burned (no pun intended). It got up most of the Jewish world’s hope that the Mashiahh was right around the corner, and then let everyone down. Drove the world into a hundred-year depression.

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