Is Burning Man Kosher?

I had a peculiar conversation with a business acquaintance of mine last year about Burning Man.   He asked if I was interested in going.    I knew 3 things about it at that time. 

  1. They burn an effigy of a man at the end of the festival 
  2. It was endorsed by a magician I know from my Magic Castle days.  Jeff McBride is a well known magician i.e, master card manipulator and performer.  I think he would identify as a neopagan.  He is a master, really, at incorporating various earth centered spiritual themes into his work.  I attended a weekend class at his house in Las Vegas along other physicians who were interested in using magic with cards, coins, etc to connect with patients on a deeper level and use it for healing.  I didn’t know of neopagan activities before.  He is a remarkable magician and educator and is very self-aware.  As an aside, he “gifted” me, alone, with little cartoon books not unlike the ones given to me by my born-again Christian friends in college, but in these, one of which I remember vividly, the serpent was the hero in the story of Genesis.  I think he gave these to Christian missionaries who came to his house.  It was a memorable weekend and gave me great insight into a world-view that is more outspoken and influential in our day but has been around since the very beginning.   Ascribing a firm set of beliefs to this movement of “neopagans” is very hard but let’s just say it is largely not monotheistic. 
  3. I had read some articles about tech titans going there dressed up in bizarre costumes and engaging in some um, lets say hedonistic activities.

Burning Man has a set of 10 principles that we can look at one by one.   

Burning Man Principle #1 Radical Inclusion – anyone can be part of burning man.   We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community,

I can’t say there is much to argue about that.   It means that one could come and establish ones own group of ideological minded people at the event if one wanted. 

Burning Man Principle #2 Gifting – Burning man is devoted to acts of gift giving.  The value of a gift is unconditional.  Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.

Yet again, unconditional gift giving sounds great.   

Burning Man Principle #3.  Decommodification – In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising.  We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation.  We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

That also seems like a worthy goal – to disentangle people from consumerism.   

Burning Man Principle #4.  Radical Self-Reliance – Burning man encourages the individual to discover, exercise, and rely on his or her inner resources. 

Self-reliance seems to be a worthy goal but radical self-reliance is different.   Abrahamic traditions are wary of radical self-reliance.  As it says “Lest you say in your heart,”My strength and the might of my hand have accumulated this wealth for me” (Deuteronomy 8:17)  This leads people attributing everything to their own strength and pushes God out of the picture.  Success is a gift of the Divine so even if God pushes us to work for it, it is still a gift.    Abrahamic traditions rather advocate self-respect along with the conscious acknowledgement of gifts of God.

Burning Man Principle#5   Radical Self-Expression – Radical Self-Expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual.  No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content.   It is offered as a gift to others.  In the spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

Something similar can be said about radical self-expression that was said about self-reliance.  Firstly, radical self-expression does not necessarily arise from the unique gifts of the individual, it is overwhelmingly variations of instinctual urges given some form of visual or auditory expression.  Exploring these urges or even higher level archetypes of course has certainly proven to be a worthy academic endeavor but does it serve the individual engaged in it and is it a gift?  Sometimes perhaps, especially as the artist taps into and breathes his own creativity into it.  It happens rarely and that is why good art is rare and cherished.

Abrahamic traditions are wary of such radical self-expression because self-expression in these traditions is simply put, soul expression.  We can indulge our animal instincts in all sorts of expression but these don’t reflect our soul’s connection with the Divine.  The highest form of expression in Abrahamic traditions is when one becomes a vehicle for the Divine will and while this may appear to be the absence of self-expression or will, its not unlike how different symphonies can play the same piece yet it can sound quite different. (idea from lecture by Rabbi Yacov Barbar)  God calls us to be authentic and this is where our self-expression is holy. Obedience to the Divine and self expression are not at odds with each other.   When the Hebrew prophets prophesied, it was reflected in their own consciousness and hence through their own self-expression.

Burning Man Principle 5 discusses that radical self-expression is a gift to others.    Authentic self-expression does not concern itself with the recipient but is more concerned with self-respect and truth.   

Burning Man Principle #6  Communal Effort – Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration.   We strive to produce, promote, and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

That’s nice 🙂

Burning Man Principle #7.  Civic Responsibility –  We value civil society.  Community member who organize events should assume responsibility for the public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants.  They must also assume responsibility for the conducting events in accordance with local, state, and federal laws. 

Also very nice 🙂

Burning Man Principle #8. Leaving no Trace – Our community respects the environment.  We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather.  We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.

Certainly can’t argue with that!

Burning Man Principle #9. Participation – Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic.  We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation.  We achieve being through doing.  Everyone is invited to work.  Everyone is invited to play.  We make the word real through actions that open the heart. 

Seems reasonable.  Being is a gift of the Divine.  Sometimes, we do achieve heightened awareness of being through action especially when that action is reflective of the will of the Divine.  

Burning Man Principle #10.  Immediacy.  Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture.  We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with the natural world exceeding human powers.  No idea can substitute for this experience.

Oy vey!  Where do I begin on this one?  Our society has adopted a materialist worldview that says that only that which is observable is real despite real demonstrable evidence otherwise (See Sheldrake, R : Science Set Free)    Immediate experience, instant gratification, and the complete absence of cultivating the value of a delay in gratification (despite its association with long term happiness) is indeed unfortunately the touchstone or measuring stick of value in our culture.  Yet, experience is not a reliable path to dissolve barriers. (I am sure some psychedelic drug users will argue otherwise)  Barriers in the Abrahamic traditions are broken by quietly listening for the “still, small voice” through contemplation and prayer and walking in the well worn path of the sages of the past.  Sure, seeing the power of the natural world and acknowledging or seeing a reflection of the infinite power of the Divine can help one to also break down the barriers that separate him from the Divine within him or her which is our true inner self. 

“The reality of those around us”   I agree that there is an urgent need for people to see the “the reality of those around us.”  Gerald Epstein, MD, one of my teachers often says that most people live in an egocentric world where one practically lives as “me real, you illusion.”   Actively engaging with people with the will to break down barriers does seem to be a valuable pursuit. 

When it comes to the deepest longings of the soul, constantly seeking experiences and immediacy can lead you in the wrong direction.   Some of the saddest and most unfulfilled people I know are “experience junkies.”  They seek enlightenment or fulfillment from the immediacy and the experience but it often ends as a distraction with the need for an even better experience.   They become greedy and want more, better, and different experiences. 

It is the “still, small voice” that breaks barriers and allows us to see our true self.  Engaging with the world, rightfully helps us overcome the barriers to those around us, but it is seeing the Divine in our fellow man that truly breaks the barriers between us, and that is accomplished by contemplation and finding our inner essence.  I am not suggesting we become hermits.  The Jewish mystics describe the process as “running and returning.”  We both engage in contemplation but also return to our world and engage with it.   It is a two fold process not simply one of experience.   

The Burning of the the Effigy

It’s an ancient druid ritual.  If you believe in one God or a believing member of one of the Abrahamic religions, it’s healthier not to participate in rituals associated with ancient non-monotheistic religions.   It’s simply not your place.   While you might want to be inclusive and part of the crowd, you belong to a different worldview and you disrespect yourself and damage your connection to your inner essence by participating.   Rituals done over and over again gain power in a very palpable sense, pay attention the origins of these rituals. They are given a modern gloss of advertising that betrays their origins or ideologies, sometimes even forgotten by the people performing them, but that doesn’t mean they are disconnected from their source.

All the above being said – can I really judge whether someone who believes in the principles of the Abrahamic traditions should attend when I have never been there myself?  No, you have to judge yourself.   In this article, we reviewed the principles and quite frankly it doesn’t appear all that different from ideas we encounter in our modern society just amplified greatly.  As a result, seeing the spectacle of it all isn’t all the different from modern society just in a very cool setting and magnified many times by people coming together to lower their guard down and revel and celebrate together.   On the surface of that, it looks like a mix of ideas some with value and some that are clearly not healthy from the tradition I speak from.  While some of the concepts are clearly not in line with Abrahamic faith and the ritual at the end with the burning man is clearly to be avoided, judge for yourself.   As always leave your comments below.

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