Part of the blog series for the 2017 theme, Radical Ritual.
By Alessandra Wollner and H. Connor Moss
When Burning Man’s 2017 theme became public, a collective YAAAAAAAAAY! rang through the Facebook Group for the Theme Camp, Milk + Honey. We Honeys (as we who belong to this community call ourselves) were amped. Radical Ritual happens to be our raison d’etre.
For the past 10 Burns, every Friday at sundown, Milk + Honey has hosted a playa-wide Kabbalat Shabbat service, the Jewish liturgy honoring the end of the work week and the sacred transition to the Day of Rest. Since 2014, we’ve followed our Shabbat service by offering 400+ guests a sumptuous, sit-down meal. To our rough, proud count, about 700 desert dwellers attended Milk + Honey’s ninth Shabbat service last year.
Over in the 6 o’clock corridor of the Gayborhood, we’ve been busy mashing up ancient Jewish custom with the radical pulsations of the 10 Principles for the past 10 years, infusing a ritual as old as, er, dust with electric life and fresh meaning.
We’re beyond happy to offer the playa this gift. Mounting a Shabbat service, a production that spans the course of a year, is the magic sparkle glue that’s kept our crew growing together. It is this communal act of service that infuses Milk + Honey with common purpose, and precipitates a tidal swell of collective pride.
In the spirit of Gifting and Participation, we Honeys want to share how we’ve come to understand Radical Ritual after a decade of dancing and wrestling with its genesis. So check it — here’s how it looks to enact, embody, and steward Radical Ritual, Honey-style.
Divine Foreplay and Sacred Release
We Honeys start our time on playa just like everyone else: as very busy bees. During Early Arrival, we rush around camp in an intense utilitarian mindset to construct, organize, and beautify our space. During the event too, we keep working even as we play — we cook, clean MOOP, rehang crumpled costumes, and generally devote a lot of time to keeping our desert home in good order. Then, Friday arrives.
One of the major tenets of Shabbat, which we carry through in our radical ritual at Milk + Honey, is the idea that, on this day, we’re supposed to rest so we may transform our consciousness from an active, frenetic stance to a passive posture of peace. On Friday as the sun sets over empurpling mountains, we shift from frenzied preparation to a measured and formalized ritual celebration. In so doing, we pivot, morphing from human doings to human beings.
As Shabbat arrives, for maybe the first time in the whole week, we center ourselves not on getting shit done or chasing down the next peak experience somewhere out there in deep playa. Instead we devote ourselves to building community and spreading love right there in our “front yard.”
As we witness a sacred ritual moment unfurl — one that we as a community have worked hard to build to over months — we experience intimacy, increased joy, and, for some, a spiritual energy emanating from somewhere beyond the material, practical plane. There’s a distinct shift in our collective consciousnesses, and an unmistakable change in the mood of the camp. Together, the Honeys let out a shared, satisfied sigh.
All too often in our default lives, and yes, on playa too, we get caught in a monkey-minded consciousness, swinging and scampering towards the next thing. The Shabbat ritual calls us to to leave our copy of Rock Star Librarian back at camp and bid bye-bye to our FOMO as we breathe deep into the beautiful, dust-filled present.
That’s where the magic happens. Shifting from active to passive presses pause on the mounting craziness of the Burn. It offers the precious opportunity to take stock of where — and who — we are.
Accessibility of Spirit
Our Shabbat ritual is aimed at the goal of Love, an alchemical dance intended to uplift the hearts and minds of all those who sleep in the dust, regardless of religious identity or previous experience with Judaism.
As a team of Honeys works to design the service, they adhere to the spirit of the law rather than its letter, honoring the religious rites of Jewish ancestors and innovating to transcend them. So, how does that look? Like singing one of the traditional prayers to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Or like swapping a traditional prayer for an original, secular song written by one of our own Honeys. It looks like simplifying the traditional words of prayer as much as possible, or choosing to sing niggunim, wordless prayers with learnable melodies, so that every guest can add their voice in the absence of prayer books or longtime familiarity. But really, because Shabbat leadership changes each year, the service always looks a little different. Keep coming!
Many non-Jews, both in camp and beyond, have shared that our take on the Shabbat ritual transcended their expectations (and even stereotypes) of Judaism, touching them in a deep way. We smile when we hear that because it means we’ve achieved our goal: to offer everyone who shows up on Friday night a ritual that’s playful, beautiful, and powerfully connective.
Beauty for Beauty’s Sake
We don’t offer Shabbat to the playa because we — as Jews commanded by God in the Torah to observe this moment — are “supposed to.” We don’t do it because we believe that, if we say these prayers in this particular order, it will bring us good things. We bring Shabbat to the playa because it creates beauty. And beauty has inherent value.
We do what we can to amplify the innate beauty of Shabbat, dressing all in white and gold (milk and honey… get it?), and creating beautiful prayer and dining spaces for our guests, building pleasure for all five senses into the service and the meal that follows. But the effort we put into the aesthetics and sensory elements aren’t just honey on the challah; they’re essential to the ritual, and they go a long way towards transporting participants from the bustle of Black Rock City living to sacred stillness.
Radical Also Means Return
As Larry Harvey wrote in his introductory essay on the 2017 theme, the word “radical” doesn’t only refer to dramatic departure from the default. Radical, as it turns out, first and foremost signifies a return to what’s elemental.
For Jews, return (after extended desert wandering) is a powerful trope. Incidentally, a reference to return is right there in our camp’s name, with all its rich mythology and fraught past.
Attempting a return — to the land-based, desert-formed roots of Judaism (etymological aside: “radical” comes from Latin radicalis, “of, or pertaining to, the root”) is a radical act in both senses. It is certainly drawing close to the source of this faith/tradition/culture/nation/race/religion. And because we’ve traveled so far from that source, it is indeed a drastic, extreme, and perhaps even a political thing to do. A radical act. Judaism as it was in the times of Moses and Aaron and Miriam? Encounters with the Divine as visceral as pillars of fire and (dust) cloud? We’d be crazy to try to wend our way back to that! And yet, we make that radical pilgrimage of spirit every year. And you know what’s even crazier? We get there.
Immanent and Transcendent
In that same post about the Radical Ritual theme, Larry references divinity’s two modes: immanent and transcendent. Immanent divinity dwells inside us all, while transcendent divinity takes us beyond ourselves, to states of Oneness and sanctity we previously couldn’t imagine.
After creating a decade-long string of holy containers on playa to welcome Shabbat, we Honeys know it is the collective, synchronous activation of our immanent divinities that allows us to conjure a powerful cyclone of transcendent Spirit together, no matter who we are.
Here’s something that might surprise you to know: 250 alumni campers later, half of Milk + Honey’s community is not Jewish. And yet, even the Honeys who didn’t grow up with the generational inheritance of sanctified time and ritualized structure are as excited and proud as any of the Jewish Honeys to offer Black Rock City our radical Shabbat. On the attendee side, Honeys have grown accustomed to being approached by self-identified secular Israelis wearing stunned looks. These Sabra Burners seek us out to share how unexpectedly moved their were by Milk + Honey’s Shabbat, to which they had come expecting to pay only casual lip service in return for a free meal.
Sitting together in prayerful presence as the sun sets, something special happens. Seven hundred of us set out on a journey. Somewhere along the way, we arrive at collective transcendence, regardless of race, religion, or creed.
Now that’s radical.
Top photo by Josh Rothhaas