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Burning Man, Like Shabbat and Purim

A dispatch from the annual party in the Nevada desert, where revelers buy into and manifest some familiar Jewish values

Lawrence Krule
September 08, 2015

This past Shabbat, after finishing a lovely chat about five beautiful wood sculptures with total strangers, a couple in their late twenties from Madrid, I discovered I was rather parched. Seemingly out of no-where, a beautiful young woman rode by holding a cold can of PBR, and then, most remarkably, she pulls up to me and asks, “Would you like a cold can of PBR?” I nodded incredulously. She gave me the can and rode off. If I said it was like manna, I would not be exaggerating, but for the fact that manna didn’t fall on Shabbat.

This is what life is like at Burning Man, the eight-day, pop-up, self-sufficient camping community and outdoor arts festival in the barren northern Black Rock Nevada desert that concluded over the weekend. An estimated 70,000 people attended this year’s party and many of them make the annual pilgrimage year after year. I am one of them and this year it occurred to me that Burning Man epitomizes the values celebrated in two of the most beloved Jewish holidays: Shabbat and Purim.

The Purim connection should come as no surprise as one of the first impressions of Burning Man is the party atmosphere. Nearly everyone at Burning Man is dressed in elaborate and often gender-bending costumes. Revelers party all night and into the next day. Thanks to free and free-flowing drinks and the occasional mind-altering ingestible, people roam from camp to camp, making new friends with few inhibitions or reservations. But this is rarely done to excess. Instead, these activities are meant to have the effect of re-evaluating conventional value systems and transcending the normal, outside “default” world. (Think of, ad delo yada, the Purim edict to obliterate the cognitive difference between Mordechai and Haman.) These intense visits by strangers reminded me of the first Purim in my Orthodox suburban community in New Jersey when a group of ten men I’d never met burst in to my home and started drinking and dancing and singing and making a merry mess. I was on a business call at the time and was initially rather pissed at these strangers’ intrusion. Fortunately I quickly got a grip, re-evaluated, recalibrated, and joined in the merrymaking.

But the parallels between Burning man and Purim do not end at just dressing up and drinking; there is also the theme of unconditional generosity. At Burning Man, food and drink is radically given with no expectation of reciprocity, as I experienced while standing parched in the dessert. This falls in line with the intent behind mishloach manot, which translates to the “sending of portions” during Purim. In fact, two of the Ten Principals (sound familiar?) that are reflected in the societal ethos of Burning Man are “gifting” and “immediacy.”

“The value of a gift is unconditional,” the Burning Man website states. “Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.”

While our contemporary practice of mishloach manot may be slightly corrupted, this was never the custom’s original intent. It was supposed to be giving two items of ready-to-eat food to friends with no strings attached. We now give to every member of our shul or school, whether or not we know him or her, and reciprocity is automated.

Burning Man also embodies the best parts of the Shabbat tradition. Just as Shabbat is a wonderful reward for a hard-worked week, Burning Man can be like a creamy dessert for a hard-lived Jewish year, which comes to a close just days after the festival settles down.

Just as one can’t live a week’s worth of Shabbat, one also can’t live a year of Burning Man; neither is permanently self-sustaining. But they both contextualize the life we live the “rest” of the time. They both invigorate and renew and revive and inspire. They both represent and inspire a touch of utopia, or if you prefer mayain olam haba, a taste of the world to come.

In preparation for Burning Man, much like Shabbat, attendees (also known as “burners”) must gather their needs for the event in advance, along with special outfits that aren’t worn the rest of the week or year, in a tenet called “radical self-reliance.” In both observances, no commerce is allowed. (Amazingly, there is no business, advertising, branding or production (“de-commodification”) at Burning Man). Furthermore, all constructive work or creation is done prior to arrival as nothing is created during the event itself.

Likewise, one is also expected to be self sufficient in one’s own encampment, an experience buttressed by a strong and encouraging environment of visiting and the pervasive welcoming of guests (“communal effort”), again with no reciprocity. There are additional common ideals of community, sacred space, non-judgementalism, and “radical inclusion,” though it’s fair to acknowledge that the celebration of “radical self-expression” at Burning man does manifest in ways far from traditional Jewish standards of modesty.

And yet, at the end of Burning Man, as the flames ripped into the night sky during the celebratory big burn—on the seventh night a beautiful 5-story wood sculpture, is burned to the ground, with intoxicants and wine as key compliments—I couldn’t help but feel that the authenticity, generosity, hospitality, and spirituality of the festival would invigorate many of our Jewish practices, behaviors, and rituals.

Lawrence Krule, a turnaround manager and investor, is the former president of the Jewish Book Council and the founder and current president of The Davar Institute.

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