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Being at Home in Nature

Becoming Religious at Harvard

By Spencer W. Glassman, Crimson Opinion Writer
Spencer W. Glassman ’23-’24, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. His column, “Becoming Religious at Harvard,” runs on alternating Wednesdays.

I had a wonderful morning routine last fall. None of my classes started until half past 10, so I would emerge, well-rested, at half past eight to conquer the day. I’d find myself outside the doors of Leverett F Tower by around 9:30 a.m., with enough time to do some reading before class. At around this time, I started putting on Tefillin, a Jewish ritual object intended to remind us of faith by binding God’s words upon our hands. This simple action gave me the first kind of daily structure to counter my leisureful tendencies. It took me about 10 minutes to put on the Tefillin, say the Shema prayer, and then put the Tefillin away. On particularly lazy mornings, this meant I had to get out of bed right when my alarm went off if I was going to have any time to read before class.

It wasn’t until the spring semester that the binding of my day really started to occur. Over Winter Break, I spoke with my Rabbi at home about how to broaden my prayers and learn more rules about prayer. Generously, he donated to me a weekday Siddur, a Jewish prayer book, with commentaries on what each prayer means and advice for having proper intentions. From then on, I expanded the prayers I would say each morning from just the Shema to also include the Shmonei Esrei (or Amidah), which is the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy, and other smaller prayers. This meant that each morning I spent about half an hour praying.

More significant than the expanded time of the prayers were the new restrictions I began to observe about when I could say them. The Shema is said twice a day, but it must be within specified time ranges to fulfill our obligations. This range is not constant throughout the year, but rather changes with the sun. As the sun rises earlier, we must say it earlier, and as the sun rises later, we can’t say it until later.

Prayer is far from the only part of Jewish practice that is tied to natural cycles. The phases of the moon dictate when there will be a new month or holiday; the blossoming of fruit trees in the spring gives us the opportunity to say a new blessing. We also say a blessing when it thunders or there is a rainbow, and countless other occasions.

In modern times, we have grown very distant from what is around us. While walking through Washington D.C., I noticed a coldness to its rational city planning. It was as if the abstraction of the metric system had been translated onto streets and buildings. Everything was where it was supposed to be, but nothing was naturally adapted to human experience. The National Mall, for example, looked perfect, but it was too big and sparse to be comfortable for a person.

The upcoming end of daylight savings shows how dependent we are on the abstract as opposed to the apparent. Seven a.m. only means what time things are scheduled on Google Calendar. We don’t wake up because it is light outside or go to sleep because it is dark; we have replaced nature with artifice.

Obviously, there is value in a globalized modern society of standardizing many things, and I don’t suggest getting rid of it. It would be impractical for every state to start having their own weights, measures, and currency.

Nevertheless, there are flaws in both extremes. For example, during the French Revolution, the republicans adjusted the calendar so that each month would have exactly 30 days, each week would have 10 days, each day would have 10 hours, and each hour 100 minutes. These times make more sense from a purely rational perspective. However, abstract reasoning is not the only thing that matters. We live within a natural world, and sometimes we forget that.

Through tying myself to the phases of the moon and the length of sunlight in a day, and deriving awareness of all the things which I can see and hear with my own eyes and ears as being significant, I feel much more at home. When we make everything divisible by 10, and all streets perfectly gridded regardless of the landscape or organic development of neighborhoods, we impose ourselves on the world rather than act as participants within it. Maybe bending one’s life around random occurrences or natural phenomena is inane, but it makes everything that happens have real meaning in our lives.

Spencer W. Glassman ’23-’24, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. His column, “Becoming Religious at Harvard,” runs on alternating Wednesdays.

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