Winter Solstice Take 2

This year the winter solstice fell at 1:08 EST on Dec. 22.

This year (2007), I celebrated the winter solstice twice. This is a description of both events, which I hope will allow others to see the spiritual possibilities of the season. It is encouraging to me that around the Jewish world more people are talking about the spiritual significance of the season of returning light (for example, my friend Holly Taya Shere's congregation in Maryland, Congregation Romemu in New York, the Velveteen Rabbi blog, etc.).

Solstice 1: Chanukah at the JCC in Manhattan

Tel Shemesh celebrated the fifth night of Chanukah in partnership with the JCC in Manhattan, JewishPrayerDance, and Congregation Romemu. It was the dark moon, the longest moonless night of the year. In many ways, Chanukah is the Jewish solstice celebration, and we emphasized that part of the holiday. With carpets on the floor and 40 people assembled, we began with music from Avi Fox-Rosen about light and darkness.

Then we heard a story from the Talmud (told by me) about the first winter solstice. Adam and Eve, after being sent from the garden of Eden, are afraid of the dark. the Holy One deals with this fear by creating seasons. The solstice begins to arrive and the days grow shorter. Adam and Eve notice the world getting darker and for eight days they fast and pray, afraid the world is coming to an end. Then they celebrate for eight days when they see the light of the sun has returned. After this story, we celebrated havdalah, the end of Shabbat, and blessed the lights of fire.

We then heard a story from Donna Minkowitz, a modern retelling of the Greek tale of Demeter and Persephone. In this version of the story, Demeter and Persephone are lovers. Demeter loves gardens and creates life, while Persephone is wild and chaotic and plays in a punk rock band. One day, the two women have a fight, and Persephone runs away. She meets a dark man on a motorcycle and rides away with him. The man turns out to be Hades, lord of the dead, who brings Persephone to his apartment. While there, she becomes hungry and searches out some pomegranate seeds to eat. This traps her in the land of the dead. Demeter searches for Persephone, grieving, and the world grows cold. After many trails, Demeter succeeds in finding Persephone, but discovers that she can only remain with her for six months out of the year; for the other six months, Persephone must be hidden under the earth. This moving story of loss taught us about nature's gifts and sorrows and prepared us to embrace darkness as well as light. The story also allowed us to think about Greek wisdom and Jewish wisdom at a time when the Chanukah story of war between Jews and Greeks makes those two cultures seem like opposites. After this story, we lit a winter solstice candle, said a special blessing in gratitude for the turning of seasons, and sang "Holy, Holy," Holly Shere's song about balance in the universe.

I then told a final winter story about a poor Jewish carpenter who is walking through the woods on a snowy Chanukah night after Shabbat (it's also the solstice), and meets a strange woman driving a wagon full of many children. The axle on her wagon breaks and she asks him for help. He is cold and eager to get home, but he carves an axle for her out of a log. She pays him by giving him the woodchips and broken axle. The carpenter is furious about this and storms home, but when he reaches his family, he discovers the woodchips have turned to gold and the axle has turned into a menorah. While the family celebrates, the carpenter realizes the woman must have been the Shekhinah, taking the extra souls of the Jews back with her to the garden of Eden.

After this story, we lit the Chanukah menorah, sang Chanukah songs, ate doughnuts, and danced with Rabbi Nachum Kaunfer. It was an enchanted evening! The room really seemed filled with warmth and light and I once again experienced the joy of gathering with others to celebrate the moment of deepest darkness by sharing light with one another.

Solstice 2: Hebrew Kirtan at Integral Yoga Institute

Rabbi Andrew Hahn has been singing Hebrew kirtan for a while now. Kirtan is a form of call-and-response Hindu chant in which the caller and the responder sing the names of God. Hahn (along with others such as Yofiyah) has adapted this form for Jewish contexts, chanting verses of prayer, psalms, and traditional Jewish songs in a kirtan style.

On the winter solstice evening, Dec. 21, Reb Drew was accompanied by Shoshana Jedwab on drums, Angela Babin on bass, and Josh Wotman on vocals The Integral Yoga Institute was a peaceful setting, and 50 people were there. The chanting was powerful and joyful, and the rhythm was ecstatic! Reb Drew's kirtan always inspires, and the long dark night of the solstice only added to the transformative atmosphere.

At one point during the evening, the musicians took a break and I talked a bit about the Joseph story. I explained this biblical tale as a solstice story, in which Joseph is exalted in light and then cast into darkness again and again. First he's thrown into a pit and sold into slavery, then he is raised to a position of power in his owner's house, then he is thrown into prison, then he becomes a ruler of Egypt. Finally he dies and is buried, but his bones are lifted up at the time of the Exodus and brought into the promised land. Joseph shows us how to go from light into darkness and from darkness into light. This story became the introduction to a ritual of re-creating the world out of formless darkness.

We gathered in a circle. Four people became the spirits of wind upon the dark water. They poured water from hand to hand to hand as the rest of us blew and made wind sounds. Then six people with bells became the voice of the Divine, calling forth creation. Four people with candles became the four seasons. Each person passed around the circle with a candle, and the light of that season entered the world. Finally, a person with a large candle walked around the circle, becoming the light of the newborn sun at the solstice. We all spent a moment to speak our gratitude and hope for the new season. Then we re-gathered to sing a kirtan prayer about the creation of light and darkness.

Later, a number of folks came up to me to tell me how unusual it was for them to be inspired by a Jewish ritual, and how good they felt about this one. It often happens when I do earth-based work (or see others do it) that I discover how effective it is to connect Judaism to nature and to the deep and universal rhythms of life. It seems to draw in people who have been put off by "particularism" or bad experiences with Jewish communities. Although I'm someone who appreciates traditional Jewish practice, at events like these I get to see the ways that re-interpreting or re-creating that practice can transform the experience for others.

The winter solstice is a universal human experience. We connect to it in our bodies. When our rituals fully acknowledge the physical rhythms of light in the world, we can use those rhythms to inspire our spiritual lives. This year, 2007/5768, I feel that more than ever.

If you have a solstice practice inflected by Judaism, write and let us know about it!

Also see Jay Michaelson's recent article on the earth-based origins of winter holidays:

Rabbi Jill Hammer is the director of Tel Shemesh, the director of spiritual education at the Academy for Jewish Religion, and the author of The Jewish Book of Days, a companion for all seasons.

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