Sunday, January 9, 2011
Nature Deficit Disorder and Jews
I just finished reading a book called Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. “Nature deficit disorder” is not a medical diagnosis; it’s a term he made up to describe what he sees as a very serious deficit in childhood experience nowadays. The book examines some serious psychological research and concludes that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults.
Louv makes the point that, as parents have become more and more worried about child abductions, accidents on playgrounds, lawsuits, etc., the lives of children have become overly controlled and, more and more, their playtime is all happening indoors. With many housing developments and condos having covenants forbidding tree houses, playhouses, even gardens in some areas, kids who do have a backyard have only dull, boring places to play. Everything is being so tightly organized by adults, there is little or no free time for children to develop their creativity. Add to this the fact that kids are spending hours and hours in front of TVs and computers, developing obesity problems and having heart attacks in high school (unheard of when I was growing up), and there is a serious problem affecting modern society.
And we Jews are not immune. In fact, I think we have a worse case than the general population. I am often appalled at the lack of basic knowledge about nature in the Jewish community. In Chaim Potok's children's book, The Tree of Here, he describes a robin living in a hole on the tree -- but robins do not live in holes! Even Artscroll's beautiful coffeetable version of Perek Shirah: The Song of the Universe misidentifed a photo of a Grackle as a Starling, and one of the rooster pix is really a hen. Nor are these the only nature-oriented bloopers I've found in recent Jewish books. Although the Psalms and siddur (Jewish prayerbook) contain many verses about God's beautiful creation and how everything in nature is praising God, these have become mere words to be recited at breakneck speed with little thought as to their meaning in the real world.
So, although many of our patriarchs and matriarchs were shepherds and farmers who spent a lot of time outdoors, and we have their beautiful references to nature in our classical texts, these teachings don’t stand out to most Jews nowadays. Why? Because there is no real contact with the outdoors to ground the texts in everyday life.
For example, there is so much pollution in the atmosphere in urban areas that even if someone were to try to gauge the time for saying the evening Shema by seeking three stars, they would err -- if they could see any stars at all. So they rely on their wristwatches and astronomical calculations, which are not bad things in themselves, but if you have never looked up at a starry sky or listened to a chorus of birds singing at dawn, how can you make any real connection with the texts that describe such things? How can you picture God as a mother eagle sheltering Her nest if you’ve never seen a bird nesting, and know eggs only as something in Styrofoam boxes that you buy at the supermarket?
In many of our yeshivas, even the teachers often lack these firsthand experiences with nature. So they focus on stuff that is familiar to them, namely, the rules of kashrut and using animals as food. This, in turn, causes Jewish kids to see nature as something totally utilitarian. My good friend Richard Schwartz (author of Judaism and Vegetarianism) tells how, when he was at an outdoor Sukkot gathering, the kids saw some ducks and said "Let's schecht (slaughter) them." This is a far cry from when I was a kid and we used to go feed the ducks in the park. When was the last time you and your kids did that?
I was very lucky, in that I grew up in an area where I could go play in the woods --and my parents let me do it. This was not wasted time -- it was learning in a very different way. It enriched my understanding of Torah in ways that my nature-deprived urban brethren often cannot grasp. And it ultimately led to me becoming a Breslov Hasid, because of Rebbe Nachman's teaching about hisboddisus -- the practice of spending an hour alone with God each day. He recommended doing it in a forest or field because, he said, the plants and animals would join in our prayers. And he meant that literally.
Breslovers still try to do that today, although in a city it is hard to find the solitude. But at least they have the teachings about spending time in nature, which many other groups do not. In fact, mainstream Jews have sometimes considered the Breslovers crazy to go wandering in the woods. Rabbi Odesser, (may he rest in peace), a Breslov teacher who died in 1994, once told how, when he started following that path in his youth, the local rabbi warned his parents that roaming in the woods could cause their son to literally lose his mind. Now, I don’t think being with nature makes you go insane. Quite the opposite is true: It restores your sanity and opens you up to connect with God in a very real and personal way.