Last week I attended a rabbinic retreat on interfaith dialogue through Oraita, a program for continuing education connected to Hebrew College.  (Oraita has lost its funding and is, as of this week, defunct.)

At beautiful Camp Javneh in the New Hampshire woods, rabbis from several different movements, ages, and career paths examined possible conflicts in interfaith processes in the light of rabbinic texts from various religious perspectives.  It was a groundbreaking endeavour in many ways: respectful inter-movement Jewish discussion towards dynamic interfaith dialogue through a plurality of rabbinic readings.  Content informed processes enriching participants on all levels.  Interspersed throughout, we shared eclectic prayer services as well as lovely meals together.

For one hour daily there was also swimming and kayaking.

Of the handful of speakers–Christian, Jewish, and Muslim–engaged in person or on Skype, my favorite was an ecologist of unknown religious background who came to lead us on a nature walk.  Initially, I assumed the event was planned as a thoughtful bit of down-time in an otherwise packed and sometimes intense retreat.  Halfway through the walk, I came to understand the nature walk as core curriculum for an inter-movement retreat on interfaith dialogue.

The ecologist explained that trees of various species within 15 feet of each other share energy and resources through their roots.  A distressed spruce, thus, might be assisted by nearby pines.  Up to 30-40 feet apart, such trees are still connected by microbial entities which can also conduct an energy exchange.

Holding two leaves, one large, one small, from the same tree, he further explained that the small one was part of the uppermost canopy, designed to both let sunlight through to the interior leaves, while simultaneously shielding them from dirt.  If the uppermost branches with the small leaves for some reason break off, the next year the newly uppermost branches that once produced large, interior leaves, would now grow small, top-of-the-tree leaves.

These life-sustaining activities–the energy exchange and the leafy adaptation–both occur, he explained, because the trees and all living beings are cognizant, aware of what is happening to them, around them, and also to others.  All living things are cognizant because they not only respond, but respond in such a way as to restore life-sustaining balances inside themselves and for the ecological community around them.

In response to a question about a stone fence of the kind we find all over New England, he said, “Well, it all begins with Napoleon….”  Apparently Napoleon needed a particular kind of wool for his gigantic armies’ uniforms (or ‘costumes’ as Ronald Reagan called them).  Capitalizing on the wartime supply need, farmers cleared hundreds of square miles to make room for the ecologically destructive sheep that produced the wool for Napoleon’s uniforms.  In the process, New England farmers ran out of wood for fences and had to use rocks.

Everything is connected to everything, locally and globally.

I learned that we prove that we are cognizant when we respond by restoring life-sustaining balances within ourselves and in the local and global communities around us.

(I also learned that continuing education is necessary for continued cognizance, at least for us humans, and especially, I think, for rabbis.)