When Tu B’shvat comes around, I roll up my sleeves and prepare myself for the ritual tree planting, garden weeding, and litter collecting that has marked my Tu B’shvats of the past. My less observant, modern Jewish community taught me the holiday’s message of social justice in concrete terms: We plant trees, trees grow, trees make the world a better place.But teaching the holiday as solely a ubiquitous lesson in tikkun olam (repairing the world) ignores the mysticism inherent in Tu B’shvat in more observant Jewish communities. While reading the Tu B’Shvat haggadah put out by Hazon, a Jewish sustainability organization, I encountered mystical and kabbalistic interpretations of the holiday for the first time. The haggadah spoke of the multiple worlds described in kabbalistic teachings in relation to the symbolism behind different fruits eaten in the Tu B’Shvat seder.
Far from what I learned in Hebrew school, I found solace in these spiritual explanations, inspiring me to want to push my less observant Jewish community to embrace more mystical interpretations of Jewish ritual to retain our connection to other spiritual communities in an empowering, uniquely Jewish way.
For me, there was a disconnect between the spiritual understanding of Tu B’shvat and my concrete understanding of the holiday, built on the rationalist and humanist values of my modern Jewish community. In contrast, the Hazon Haggadah begins with a coy nod to the wonder built into all Jewish ritual. It quotes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (z”l) saying, “There is neither worship or ritual without a sense of mystery.” This acknowledgment of uncertainty and wonder stands in contradiction to the more material descriptions of Tu B’shvat to which I was accustomed.
While willing to focus on ideas of community and social justice, my community is nervous to discuss the less tangible and more spiritual elements of Judaism like G-d and mysticism. For this materially-rooted community, it’s more comfortable to teach children concrete actions like planting a tree than it is to encourage them to explore more uncertain aspects of Tu B’shvat. However, this trepidation to address the unknown left me – and likely other Jewish millennials – with a spiritual craving that feels undernourished by my Jewish community’s rational approach.
I understand that this philosophy didn’t emerge in a vacuum. My community’s lean towards the rational, as opposed to the spiritual, is a product of the Haskalah (enlightenment) in 19th century Europe. The Haskalah movement wanted to deemphasize the authority of kabbalah and later Hasidism by infusing Judaism with a rational, humanistic perspective. Ultimately, my Jewish community’s desire to center Tu B’shvat around universal values like environmentalism is a product of the Haskalah’s reforms.While humanism and universal culture can be spiritual values in their own rite, the reason for the Haskalah’s rational perspective wasn’t the attainment of deeper spiritual fulfillment. The maskilim’s (Haskalah thinkers) wanted to create a Judaism that would allow Jews to better integrate into surrounding European cultures. Two centuries later, my Tu B’Shvat experience has me doubting whether a desire to fit in can produce deeply meaningful spiritual practices. Instead, I find myself drawn to spiritual practices created with the intent to connect deeply to mysticism and mystery.
My community needs to realize embracing Jewish mysticism doesn’t mean sacrificing universalism. We do not need to shun our own spiritual tradition in order to fit into our broader society or feel entwined in a global community. Religious mysticism exists in many faiths, and we should recognize how our mystical practices connect us to a diversity of spiritual communities.
Plus, rationalism has its dangers. Often Western societal elites heralded the push towards rational modernism in order to better control the population of the countries they headed. For example, prior to the 1910 revolution in Mexico, the elites of the country pushed for the population to adopt modern ideas that would show an allegiance to the United States’s system of thought.¹ Meanwhile, missionaries during the colonization of Africa often stamped out the local population’s spiritual and religious practices in order to organize the people under a Western thought process that the colonizers could control.² These missionaries feared that a strong, local spiritual tradition could empower the people to rise against their oppressors. Thus the process of adopting rational, modern belief systems has historically been tied tied to Western imperialism and colonization. By holding on to spiritual practice, we can push against the dominant ideas of Western society and join a community of people who are attempting to retain their communal power through spirituality.
The Hazon Haggadah continues its explanation of the holiday’s mysticism with a brief history of the spiritual origins of Tu B’shvat. As the story goes, Jewish exiles from Spain found their way to Tzvat and began imbuing Tu B’shvat with its mystical qualities.
As I look to my own Jewish community and feel frustrated with its disconnect from the spiritual elements of our tradition, this story stands as a reminder that, in all times in Jewish history, groups of people have needed to invigorate Jewish practice with renewed spirituality. The fact that Hazon, a non-Orthodox organization, put out such a spiritually imbued Tu B’Shvat haggadah is a good sign that the less observant Jewish community is beginning to embrace mysticism once again. As we look out on the trees we planted last week and and remember the delicious taste of the seven species, I hope that we can all plant seeds of wonder, mystery, and mysticism in our growing understanding of our rich spiritual tradition.
- Brunk, Samuel. Emiliano Zapata – Revolution and Betrayal In Mexico. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico, 1995. Print. Page 12
- Worger, William H., Edward A. Alpers, and Nancy L. Clark. Africa and the West. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print. Page 26
Hannah Weintraub is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in History and Fiction Writing with a minor in Jewish Studies.