Journeying into Jewish Wisdom & Ecological Thinking with Rabbi Natan Margalit

Headshot by Thea Breite

In July, Kol ALEPH sat down with Rabbi Natan Margalit, Chair of the Rabbinic Texts Department and Director of the Earth-Based Judaism at the ALEPH Ordination Program (AOP), to discuss his recent book, The Pearl and the Flame: A Journey into Jewish Wisdom and Ecological Thinking. In addition to his work with the AOP, Natan is founder of the non-profit Organic Torah, a program of ALEPH. His Tikshoret workshop on Systems, Patterns and Relationships: Judaism for Ecological and Social Healing will begin next Wednesday, August 17, 7:30pm EDT. Register here.

Woven through with stories of the author’s journey from a secular upbringing in Honolulu to Orthodox Judaism in Jerusalem, and back to his own spiritual path, The Pearl and the Flame brings a new integration of ecological thinking and core Jewish concepts. This new integration puts Judaism at the forefront of our struggles against current crises such as climate change, the culture of addiction, and social fragmentation. Here is what Natan had to say about his experience as a writer and a teacher:

What was the context in which you decided to start writing this book?

As I describe in the preface, as a young 20-year-old I felt something like, “all of this modern world is great but there’s a sense of unreality and a question of where do I fit in?” I was experiencing that common modern sense of being lost and alienated and not having a sense of my part in the vitality of life.

Finding that religious world in my encounter [with the ba’al t’shuvah yeshivah (a school aimed at bringing young secular Jews “back to Torah True Judaism”) ed.] Aish HaTorah that I describe in the beginning of the book, created a sense that, on the one hand, here’s the answer. It seemed to offer an integrated, powerful, deep sense of belonging and meaning for me. And yet, my connection to the modern world, science, liberal values, and so forth was too far away from that. I couldn’t integrate the two. And so, on some level that experience started me on a drive to try to integrate my life. So that’s one strand of why I came to write the book.

Another strand would be, as I described in the book, I knew I was smart but not in the way other people around me expected. I didn’t take things apart, I didn’t ask the question that would break down someone else’s theory. Instead I was always attracted to this creative, connected, what I came to call organic, way of thinking. I was driven to explore [organic thinking] and find how it was connected to other traditions and natural systems…

I think we’re in a really exciting point in history in the sense that we have an opportunity: with the shift in the modern world toward systems thinking and ecological thinking we can really integrate the modern way of thinking with this traditional way of thinking in a way that it hasn’t been integrated for hundreds of years. That’s why I felt that this book was an important thing to do: looking at this shift in modern, scientific language towards systems approaches, towards integrating the whole and not just the part, and looking at patterns. [Thinking about things this way] can shift the way we relate to ancient traditions and how they can be really relevant to our modern situation. Because these ancient traditions also think by putting things together, seeing relationships and patterns. 

You write about patterns as “an indication of a complex interaction, feedback, life, and health.” Is there a particular pattern that captured your imagination during the writing of this book?

That’s an interesting question. The banyan trees that I grew up with [in Hawai’i] were an important element [of ecological pattern] for me because I really identified with them. I still do…I really do feel like they are kind of alter-egos because they’re very sensual and they really do embody that idea of patterns. They create a lot of shadows and shapes and they are very human in their expressions. That had a real imprint on me.

I don’t talk about it very much in the book but growing up in Hawai’i played a very big part in my understanding and thinking [about patterns and relationships]. They are small islands. You always know where you are. There’s the beach over here, and the mountains behind you. Mauka and Makai. It’s very clear where you are in relation to each place, even in the way people give directions…All of those [ecological elements] really seemed to relate to one another and contribute to a sense of wholeness…It’s so beautiful and easy to be outdoors, to step out of your house. There’s a real sense of being a part of the natural world and having a sense of being welcomed there…

I feel there’s a sense of holiness [in nature]. Nothing is wasted here. In a forest or a seaside it’s not neat and clean. Yet, everything is actually in place. There’s an intuitive feel of beauty and rightness when you’re in a natural place.

You have a way of expressing deep concepts simply and clearly. Storytelling is a huge part of this. What storytellers in your life influenced you?

Well, one of my influences comes in the form of Jewish stories, Hasidic stories. On some level, those are the stories I spent the most time with. Jewish folk storytelling tradition is a big thing in my life. I love the opportunity to sit around with people and talk…In Hawai’i there’s a thing called talk-story. It’s a way of sitting around and schmoozing. Related, the whole idea of a shabbat meal and having the leisure to sit around and talk and share our stories.

I was quite influenced by some of the non-fiction writers that I mention in the book: Robin Wall Kimmerer is one of the biggest influences. Her book Braiding Sweetgrass is in some ways structurally similar to mine. She works to integrate her scientific world with her traditional spiritual tradition and does so with a combination of her personal stories and discussions of her subject (plants).  Also, David Abram, Michael Pollan, Malcolm Gladwell, all use stories very effectively in their non-fiction writing. 

You excerpt Rabbi Klonymus Kalman Shapiro’s writings about learning—you comment on his ideas here by saying that the feeling of real learning is when the knowledge becomes “your own,” yet you’re in touch with something beyond yourself. How does this notion of learning influence you as a teacher/writer?

What he’s talking about there is a kind of learning that touches wholeness. The key of what he’s talking about there is if you just get little pieces [of knowledge], you’re just trying to cobble together one piece, then another piece and it never truly comes together. It never emerges… Learning is not just gathering information. Learning is a sense of emergence. When you know that the parts have come together in a new pattern…Like he says, [learning is when] I’m picking up something from the teacher’s wholeness and that touches my wholeness and that creates something new because I then bring my own perspective and my experience to this knowledge. Even though I picked it up from the teacher, I am going to have a new way of expressing it…and This plays into my writing.

As I try to write, it’s often a frustrating process…but a pattern emerges as you work on the words and see how things fit together. For me, it’s frustrating, but it’s ultimately a very alive process of getting to what is the pattern that’s going to work for this particular story or essay.

The same thing happens with teaching. What I describe [with my writing] is what I try to practice in teaching. I don’t like to sit there and lecture at people… I like to create a place for sharing where [patterns/themes] can emerge. I like to think of it as a three way conversation between the subject/the text, the students, and the teacher. I feel like it’s working when new things come up that I haven’t thought of…Even though I come into a class with certain things I want to impart and certain ideas I want to touch on, I hope that it’s not just me downloading those ideas, but instead that those ideas are touch stones for new things that emerge that I didn’t think of.

There’s a sense of wholeness that emerges from some classes or some chapters…

What the Rebbe is talking about here is when you’re really devoted to a teacher, you really get the transmission of that teacher’s Torah. That deeper level [connection] is when you stay with someone [to learn from them] for years…It’s not just what they say but how they say it…You get that teacher’s wholeness. 

And there’s no way that I’m going to ever repeat my teacher’s Torah [in the same way]. I’m going to have it in my context so it will change but I will have a sense of having something whole.

Natan Margalit is a rabbi and scholar with 30 years of experience in teaching, writing, organizing and congregational leadership. He holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from U.C. Berkeley with focus areas in Talmud, Literary Theory, and Anthropology. He has taught at Bard College, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Hebrew College Rabbinical School, and now is chair of the Rabbinic Texts Department at the ALEPH Ordination Program. He is also Director of the Earth-Based Judaism track of the A.O.P., and is founder of the non-profit Organic Torah. He lives in Newton, Massachusetts with his wife and two sons.

For more information, including details on how to book Natan for a Scholar in Residence engagements and Shabbatons, visit and follow Organic Torah on Facebook and Instagram.

Register here for Rabbi Natan’s Tikshoret workshop on Systems, Patterns and Relationships: Judaism for Ecological and Social Healing starting next Wednesday, August 17, 7:30pm EDT.