WHEN IT COMES to the contemporary and creative interpretation of Judaism, Rabbi Arthur Waskow has been a fount of teaching since the late 1960s. Much of what progressive, observant Jews today embrace as basic to their Jewish practice — non-gendered language for God-talk and prayer; the plumbing of Judaism for its ecological wisdom; “eco-kashrut” (a kosher system that includes ethical considerations in evaluating food); homemade hagodes of every stripe to make the Passover story relevant — all of this and more has been invented, unveiled, or reimagined and popularized by Waskow through his many books, his many activist campaigns, his widespread teaching, and his prolific blogging.
Waskow was born in Baltimore on October 12th, 1933. In 1963 he became one of the founding Fellows of the Institute for Policy Studies, where he worked as a senior analyst until 1977. He was arrested several times during that span while protesting segregation, South African apartheid, the Vietnam War, and the Soviet Union’s oppression of Jews. In 1965 he spoke at the first anti-war Teach-In (at the University of Michigan); in 1967 he co-authored “A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority,” urging support for draft resisters and anti-war activism; in 1968 he was elected an anti-war delegate from the District of Columbia to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In 1980 he won, with other activists, a harassment lawsuit against the FBI, which had made them a target of its infamous Counterintelligence Program, COINTELPRO.
But it was in 1968, following the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that Waskow experienced a profound religious awakening while walking through District of Columbia during five days of rioting and military occupation. What he observed and felt led to his writing The Freedom Seder, published in 1969, which wove together Jewish, Black, and other liberation struggles and launched him into an increasingly rich exploration of Judaism.
“When I wrote The Freedom Seder,” Waskow recalls, “I was an am-haarets [ignoramus] when it came to Judaism! I sent the manuscript to a progressive rabbi in Washington, to see if what I had done had any value. He called it ‘an activist midrash’ on the hagode and said a bunch of very enthusiastic things about it — and I then said: ‘What’s a midrash?’ But I was delighted to know that someone like me could take this three-thousand-year-old text, give it a twirl, and it would come out somehow new — because there was already a tradition of interpretation, and a sensibility about liberation, built in. That was amazing to me!”
Ever since, Waskow’s explorations of Judaism as a wellspring of political conscience and interconnected human consciousness have inspired and instructed thousands of Jews through such books as Godwrestling (1978), Seasons of Our Joy (1982), Becoming Brothers (with his brother, Howard Waskow, 1993), Down to Earth Judaism (1995), and Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness Across Millennia (with his wife, Rabbi Phyllis Berman, 2011), among others.
In 1983, Waskow founded The Shalom Center to spark American Jewish opposition to nuclear armaments and nuclear power. Its mission has since evolved to embrace environmental activism, the protection of human rights, the cultivation of a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, peace-building among Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and the nurture of a creative, feminist Judaism.
In 1996, Waskow was named a “Wisdom Keeper” by the United Nations at a conference of forty religious and intellectual leaders in Istanbul. In 2001, he was presented with the Abraham Joshua Heschel Award by the Jewish Peace Fellowship. In 2005, he was named as one of the “Forward Fifty” leaders of the Jewish community. In 2007, Newsweek counted him as one of the fifty most influential American rabbis.
Currently, The Shalom Center is aligning itself with Bill McKibben’s 350.org movement to encourage divestment from fossil-fuel companies. Using somewhat different language and emphases, The Shalom Center’s campaign is called, “Move Our Money, Protect Our Planet.” Waskow says this “emphasizes ‘Yes!’ — reinvestment in sustainable technologies — as much as ‘No!’” He thinks of the need for “Yes!” as “a teaching that grows from both deep spiritual and creative political wisdom,” and notes that one member of The Shalom Center’s Board, Zelda Gamson, observed that the campaign’s acronym is “MOM & POP.” “Make a good investment, and you get an unexpected dividend!” Waskow says with a laugh.
The Shalom Center is also an anchor organization within Green Chevra, a Jewish environmental coalition. Readers can also sign up for his very thoughtful blog posts.
Now 80 years old, Rabbi Waskow remains a creative and soulful activist who has been arrested nearly as often as he has been published, and whose skills as a storyteller, strategist, and thinker have rightfully earned him a prophetic aura. JC editor Lawrence Bush sat down with him in March at Waskow’s home (“a nuclear-free zone”) in Philadelphia.
Jewish Currents: A little over a year ago, as you were struggling with throat cancer, you gave a tremendously optimistic talk at the graduation ceremony of Baltimore City College, your high school alma mater.
Arthur Waskow: The best speech of my life. Just six minutes long.
JC: First you observed that back in 1950, the auditorium was filled exclusively with young white men. Now the seats were filled with women and men of many races and ethnicities . . .
AW: And gender identities and sexual orientations. Nobody was announcing that they were gay in high school, not in 1950.
JC: Then you told about an editorial you wrote for the weekly high school newspaper protesting the fact that the “Future Teachers of America” association in Baltimore was racially segregated. The piece was censored, yanked from the paper, and an administrator of the school explained to you . . .
AW: “Arthur,” he said, “don’t be silly. In my life-time and in yours, there will not be racial integration in the Baltimore city schools.” And four years later — by the time I was 21 years old — the schools were integrated!
JC: So you told the kids in that auditorium that if anyone in authority tells them, “Not in your lifetime” — about jobs, climate change, corporate power, a whole range of issues — they should reply (and here you got them chanting), “We can change America!” Arthur, you’ve been at it as an activist for sixty or more years. How do you maintain that kind of optimism?
AW: For me — though this may be odd to your secular readers — a lot of it is connected to shabes. On shabes, there’s a sense that the human race has made it. Shabes is a foretaste of the days of moshiakh [messiah] — the days of deep community, of loving attention, when the human race will have made it through the mess. For me, shabes helps me get the work done to make our world at least decent — and then, on shabes, it becomes better than decent, it’s absolutely wonderful.
There were many years when I thought the traditional “dayeynu” in the Passover seder was ridiculous. What do you mean dayeynu, it would have been enough, if we’d gotten to the edge of the Red Sea but it hadn’t split for us, or if we’d gotten to Mount Sinai but there hadn’t been a revelation? But I began to realize — maybe from getting older — that dayeynu was like shabes. Dayeynu meant taking a deep breath, acknowledging the small victories. That has become a teaching for me about optimism in the face of even serious defeats. You’re planting seeds all the time. Some of them take root.
JC: The Shalom Center has done quite a bit of work linking the celebration of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday to the birthday, also in January, of Abraham Joshua Heschel. King’s teaching that the arc of history bends towards justice . . .
AW: Very slowly.
JC: That seems to be a sustaining idea for you. Do you see it simply as an expression of optimism, or as an article of “faith,” or as an actual reality principle?
AW: For me, at their best, religious principles are reality principles that describe how the world works. For example: In the passage in Leviticus about the fifty-year Jubilee and the cycle of seven-year sabbatical years, when we are told to allow the land to lie fallow, the Torah suddenly opens up to a voice that’s like a Harvard MBA, saying, Well, then, how are we going to eat? And then the Torah says: Calm down. If you take the seventh year off, there will be even more blessing, even more abundance — but if you don’t take the year off, there will be curses. Now, when I teach that passage and ask about this promise of greater abundance, people will first identify it as a religious hope, a matter of faith. But then I ask if there are any farmers in the room, and people start recalling what they know about agricultural principles, about rotating crops and letting the land lie fallow to increase its productivity . . .
Faith, for me, means the willingness to listen to a voice that speaks across the generations, across the millennia, claiming to represent long-term wisdom. Faith is the willingness to pay attention to that voice — not always to agree, there are certainly huge hunks of Torah I don’t agree with at all! — but there are pieces that do seem to me to contain long-term wisdom.
Another example: The Torah’s most fundamental story, about the Exodus and the wilderness — for which there is no historical evidence at all! But it speaks to a reality that I have experienced many times in my life, both personally and as a witness or maybe even as a catalyst: the reality of people awakening to the possibilities of liberation.
So yes, I think Dr. King was describing reality when he said that the arc of the universe can be very long, but it does bend towards justice.
JC: It seems more and more clear that a lot of the world’s issues boil down to a conflict between the emphasis on oneness, of interconnection — a reality that is sustained by science, and sustained by human experience — and an emphasis on the other reality of individualism and competition, which also seems to be sustained by science and human experience. Do you see either of these realities as more real or more illusory than the other?
AW: I don’t see them as competing; I see them as complementary. I draw on Martin Buber, who distinguishes between the “I-It” relationship and the “I-Thou.” Buber understands that you can’t do without the I-It. You can’t eat things unless you’re willing to treat them as instruments to serve your life process. The big question, he says, is whether you let the I-It be the only reality, or let the I-Thou reign over your emotional and spiritual realm.
Today the I-It has gotten completely out of control. It is expressed in the accumulated power of several really gigantic corporations — the pharaohs of the I-It. The question is how to recover and cultivate a sense of the connection, the I-Thou.
How do we cultivate that sense? Ecology is a major tool. Ecology is the messianic science. It’s the realm where science and the religious recognition of interconnection come together.
I see the whole process of evolution as a dance between those two poles you described, that kind of individual “grabbiness” on the one hand and community building on the other. One way to describe an eco-system is that everyone eats everyone else; another is that everyone feeds everyone else. Each of the species is “grabby” up to a point, but if any of the species decided to be only grabby, and accumulates that power, it destroys the eco-system and itself.
Human beings seem to have an especially hard time extending the recognition of the I-Thou to one another beyond family or tribe. One of my favorite passages from the Koran has God declaring that “We created you” — very interesting, that “We,” given how very absolutely monotheistic the Muslim faith is — “We created you male and female, in your different tribes and nations, not so that you can despise each other but so that you can get to know and understand each other.” Similarly, the Talmud has a passage in which one of the rabbis explains the idea of b’tselem Elohim, that human beings are made in the “image of God,” by noting that Caesar stamps his image on coins to make them all the same, but God stamps the Divine image on human beings and each is different. Brilliant! — because it affirms the differences in the context of the Great Unity, while also critiquing the uniformity that Rome wants to stamp on everybody.
JC: You open many of your talks by saying, “Shalom. Salaam. Peace,” and you’ve been doing interfaith work for a long time. What have you discovered in the way of key differences or similarities among the Abrahamic religions? And what do you make of the fact that the fiercest fundamentalism of our time comes from within Islam?
AW: I would say that if there were nearly as many Jews as there are Muslims, and we were approximately in the same proportion of fanatics and everybody else as we are today, you might not think of Islam as giving forth the fiercest fundamentalism.
There are Jews who are inward, and very willing to use violence to maintain that inwardness, to dominate, to approach the world asking only, “Is it good for the Jews?” There are also large pieces of the Torah that are genocidal. But there are also basic, broad parts of Judaism that are oriented towards a universal freedom, and it’s that part, the Judaism that is an instrument for the transformation of the world toward “the beloved community,” that interests me.
What I have mostly found among the Abrahamic religions are profound similarities, expressed through different texts, symbols, and practices. Take the notion of death and resurrection in Christianity. Most modern Jews say, “Ridiculous!” — yet every religion that has emerged in a temperate zone in which seeds go into the ground — and, lo and behold, they sprout! — has some death-and-rebirth symbolism, based on what people see in nature. Judaism has it, too: From Tisha B’Av, marking the destruction of the Temple, to Rosh Hashanah, there are seven sabbaths, which are seen as steps on the path to redemption, to rejuvenation, to the renewal of the world on the new year. We move from a moment of total disaster to the rebirth of the world.
JC: What about differences among the three faiths?
AW: One interesting difference that marks Judaism is that it began as an indigenous peoplehood and has never totally given up on that. Even when Jews became a diaspora people and an international people, Judaism didn’t give up on the festivals, which were very oriented towards a cycle of life on the land. Not just Sukkot and Peysakh, but all of the festivals were rooted in that Sun-Moon-Earth dance.
Unfortunately, within Israel, the section of the Zionist movement that really did have devotion to the Earth has been pushed to the side by a combination of hyper-industrialism and hyper-nationalism. Still, the Earth-attachments remain with us, and are an important source of wisdom for today. The Jewish people at its best and wisest can preserve the insights of an indigenous people while at the same time being a “world people” — an extremely unusual convergence.
In particular, the Torah encodes a profound understanding of right relationship between adam and adamah — human earthlings and the earth — which I’ve tried to explore.
JC: You’ve been doing that since way back when, with Seasons of Our Joy . . .
AW: Which was republished last year, thirty years after the original. You know, the first review of that book in a Jewish magazine, thirty years ago said, “This is disgusting! All this seasonal cycle stuff! It’s pagan!” Well, the arc bends slowly: Today, no Jewish magazine would say that. They’re all proud that the festivals have something to do with the Earth.
JC: You worked for many years as a writer and activist before you decided to become a rabbi. What shaped that decision?
AW: It was my understanding of the ancient rabbis as being revolutionaries in their day, and of our tradition containing a deep commitment to human freedom and equality. It’s not a revolutionary sensibility of anger and change, or like the march of history of Marxism. Instead, there is what I think of as a spiral at the heart of Jewish time and Jewish thought.
With a spiral, you always go backward in order to go forward. You never throw away the old stuff, but you don’t get stuck in the old stuff. The tradition of creating midrash reflects that pattern: You turn an ancient text in unexpected directions, to cast light from the past on the present and the future. And Jewish time is also constructed in a spiral: Each shabes, and each seven-year cycle, brings you back — not to where you were, but ideally at a different level each cycle.
This is very different from the modern time-line of “progress,” which has us always marching forward, ahead, with yesterday immediately outdated. Yet the spiral pattern I’m talking about in the Jewish tradition is also connected, in a fundamental way, to social justice. The spiral of shabes, every seven days: everyone gets to rest, even the indentured servants and the beasts. The spiral of the sabbatical year, every seven years, and the fifty-year Jubilee: Not only are debts periodically annulled, but once in every generation the rich give up whatever extra land they have acquired, and the poor who have lost their holdings return to it.
This is revolutionary, but it’s not fueled by guilt or fear or rage. The Jubilee doesn’t tell the rich to give up their land in fear, or the poor to rise up in rage to take it. Instead, the Jubilee proclaims a “release,” a shabes, for everyone. The Jubilee vision has the hierarchy dissolving, periodically, so that people can be freed up, the imagination is freed up, the I-Thou is freed up.
JC: I find, as a secularist — which means basically that I always have to put quotation marks around the word “God” before I can proceed with the discussion — that your imagery and metaphors help me relate to Jewish teachings, and even Jewish theology, which I might otherwise ignore. For example, your teaching about the pronunciation of the biblical name of God — YHWH — that if we sound it out slowly, it sounds like a breath. God becomes defined as the breath of life, which even an atheist can recognize as important, and universal.
AW: Which is one reason I call global climate change, or global scorching, a crisis in the very Name of God. The balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is the result of the interbreathing of animals and plants. What we breathe in is what the trees breathe out; what the trees breathe in is what we breathe out. If you understand “YHWH” to mean the interbreathing of all life — ruakh ha’kodesh, the Holy Breathing Spirit — then you’re seeing the climate crisis in sacred terms.
My theology always seeks to fuse religious wisdom with scientific knowledge. To me, the two are partners.
I wrote this past May Day about there being two May Days, the one rooted in ancient pagan celebration of the spring, including Maypole dances, the other being rooted in the struggle of American workers beginning in the 1880s for the eight-hour day. These two versions of May Day have remained unconnected — and it’s time to end that. The healing of the Earth and the quest for social justice cannot be segregated from each other.
If we understand YHWH not as a Lord, a King, but as the reality of interbreathing that connects all life — which is literally, scientifically true — then we don’t really need your quotation marks. The truth of life is that none of us “owns” where we live or what we eat. We are part of the weave of life. Even inside our own guts are all these micro-organisms that keep us alive and vice versa.
These are scientific facts and spiritual truths. They speak to conscience; they have implications for us as human beings. We are called to behave toward each other with respect, concern, love — and a willingness to pay our taxes! — because truly, we cannot exist without each other. We are also called to recognize that “property,” namely, the planet, is really shared not only among human beings but also with the soil, the seed, the rain, the rivers, the myriad animals and plants and microbes — with YHWH, the Breath that connects us all. That is the basic environmental commitment — to recognize that and to respond to it by developing a sustainable society.
I want secular Jews, even Jews who plug up their ears when they hear the word “God,” to bring their rich political experience and deep passion to the environmental movement, and to all of the political struggles I’m involved with. But I will use God-talk, because it brings me and others closer to reality, not further from it. The reality is that for about three hundred years, larger and larger, deeper and deeper parts of the Earth have been allowed no shabes. Indeed, shabes itself has come to seem a waste of time. We have taken great pride in the achievements of industrial technology: cures for diseases, swift global communication, the production of so much food as to make possible the reproduction of seven billion humans. But — no shabes. No constant awareness of the Interbreathing of all life. That awareness is what is needed to discipline us to the imperatives of a sustainable economy and society. That, to me, is Judaism’s great gift to our modern day.