Sleeping in the Dust at Burning Man

Challah Blessing

A man prays beside a loaf of challah at Burning Man. “The challah we fresh-baked on the playa for 300 souls who joined us for Sabbath eve tasted slightly of dust but was, even more than usual, ‘a taste of the world-that-is-coming,’” the author writes. Credit: Ron Feldman.

The Talmud says, “Three things are a foretaste of the world-that-is-coming: Sabbath, sunshine, and sexual intercourse” (Talmud Berakhot 57b). In various ways, all three of these tastes of the messianic era are to be had at Burning Man, the weeklong festival that takes place in late August near Reno, Nevada.

First is the sunshine. There is lots of it on “the playa,” an ancient Black Rock Desert lakebed that is a flat and lifeless alkali expanse prone to severe dust storms. This is the site to which over 50,000 people bring all they need to temporarily construct Black Rock City, which annually appears and disappears like a desert mirage. It is simultaneously an arts festival, a performance festival, and a music and dance party where participation and immediacy of experience are valued, and various combinations of costuming and nudity are common.

According to the Burning Man Organization, the festival is an experimental community that “challenges its members to express themselves and rely on themselves to a degree that is not normally encountered in one’s day-to-day life.” There is an almost complete prohibition of commerce (you can only buy ice and coffee), including a prohibition of corporate sponsorships of projects (i.e., no branded gifts, no commercial logos). Participation, self-reliance, decommodification, and the gift economy are key. This is not a Club Med all-inclusive, or a music festival that is all about the headline acts, with the ticket holders mere interchangeable and passive consumers. Rather, the organizers create only the infrastructure for the participants who give each other their art, performances, and presence, thereby making the event.

Like Fenton Johnson, whose essay “Burning Man, Desire, and the Culture of Empire” in Tikkun’s Summer 2012 issue prompted these reflections, I first attended Burning Man in 2010. Unlike Johnson, who ultimately rejects Burning Man for being insufficiently critical of “transnational corporate rule or wars of aggression” and being another expression of “the absolute need of white men to impose our will on every landscape,” I have found myself drawn back each year since. I think Johnson’s rejection is too simplistic, overlooking ways in which Burning Man encourages a sustained critique of what “burners” call “the default world.” Nevertheless, his thoughts about the festival’s emphasis on immediate experience and how this expresses a yearning “for union, for communion with what many would label God” got me thinking about my strange attraction to the festival, especially since my experience has little to do with the stereotype of it being “a party with sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll in the desert” (Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2010).

The view I’ve come to is that Burning Man provides a version of the messianic “world-that-is-coming,” expressing deep resonances with themes of Jewish tradition and Western culture as a whole. To be clear, I am not saying that Burning Man has explicitly religious elements. Rather, I’m suggesting that we see a shared human impetus for ritualized gatherings relating to the desire for freedom and transformation, and that certain  practices have evolved at Burning Man that are surprisingly similar to ancient Jewish observances concerning Sabbath and festivals that articulate and arouse a yearning for a better world.

A Dusty Garden of Eden

The volunteers who briefly orient new arrivals to Burning Man greet them with the phrase “Welcome Home.” By the time we’ve gotten there we’re pretty exhausted after spending many hours driving and waiting in line, and these volunteers might seem annoyingly like Wal-Mart greeters—but then we realize that their costumes are not blue Wal-Mart vests, and the simultaneous sarcasm, irony, and hopefulness of “Welcome Home” tells us “we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Exhaustion transforms into exhilaration as we arrive at a dusty playa dressed up as a postmodern American version of the Garden of Eden. Illuminated with bright sun by day and bright lights and fire by night, this is a through-the looking-glass inversion of Las Vegas, that other Nevada version of paradise.

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