Rabbi Arthur Waskow

150921RabbiArthurWaskowArthur Ocean Waskow was born in Baltimore on October 12, 1933 — the real Columbus Day, a delight when he was young and much more problematic now. (He wasn’t named “Ocean” then; he and Phyllis Berman both took it as their middle name when they were married. And to his eighth-day Hebrew birth name, Avraham Yitzchak — Abraham Isaac — he added Yishmael, Ishmael, when he was 41.)

He grew up in a neighborhood that vibrated with an earthy Jewish culture, but religiously was bound by rote and boilerplate. His father’s father had been an active “Shoshalist,” campaigning for Debs for President; his mother’s mother’s Torah was the daily reading of the Yiddish Forvaerts. His father joined in founding the Baltimore Teachers Union — then an unheard-of radical act for “professionals” to do — and both his parents were liberal activists in Americans for Democratic Action. He had a younger brother, Howard – and for much of his life, that bare statement would have been the end of the story. Not any longer.

Waskow received a bachelor’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University (1954) and an M. A. (1956) and Ph.D. (1963) in US history from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, studying chiefly under three independent-radical professors: Profs. Howard K. Beale, Merle Curti, and Hans Gerth. At Wisconsin he met and married Irene Elkin, a graduate student in psychology.

His doctoral dissertation was on “The 1919 Race Riots.” It was incorporated into one of his early books, From Race Riot to Sit-in: 1919 and the 1960s: A Study in the Connections between Conflict and Violence, favorably reviewed by the American Historical Review. The book bridged his journey from academic historian to public scholar/ political activist.

In 1958, when he sought a fellowship to do research on the 1919 race riots in the National Archives in Washington, he failed to be awarded the grant – a wonderful failure, he said afterwards, for it led to a job offer to be legislative assistant to Congressman Robert Kastenmeier of Wisconsin. While there he did research supporting Kastenmeier’s critical stance toward plans of the Army Chemical Corps for chemical and biological warfare, helped write a bill to create a National Peace Agency that in watered-down form was passed as a bill to create the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and turned his knowledge of race relations to address the proposals for a civil rights act that were coming before Kastenmeier’s committee – Judiciary.

He also wrote, together with another legislative assistant, Marcus Raskin, a pioneering critical / analytical paper on various theories of nuclear deterrence espoused by various branches of the military. The paper was widely circulated on and beyond Capitol Hill, and then became a book called The Limits of Defense.

Out of this work, Waskow became a senior staff member at the Peace Research Institute from 1961 until 1963 when he helped merge it into the Institute For Policy Studies. He joined Richard Barnet and Marcus G. Raskin the founders of IPS — a “progressive think-tank.” Through IPS he became part of a swirling community of civil-rights and antiwar activists, many of tyem much younger than he was. From 1963 to 1977, he wrote a number of books and hundreds of monographs and articles on military strategy, race relations, conflict resolution, and political change.

From 1963 till 1975, Waskow was among the leaders of opposition to the US War in Vietnam. In 1965 he spoke against the war at the first Teach-in, at the University of Michigan. In 1967 he was co-author with Marcus Raskin of the anti-draft ” Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority.”

In 1968 he was elected an alternate anti-war, anti-racist delegate from the District of Columbia to the famous/ infamous Democratic National Convention in Chicago. His antiwar delegation was pledged to support Robert Kennedy, and when Kennedy was killed, Waskow proposed and the delegation agreed to nominate for President Rev. Channing Phillips, a young Black minister in the Martin Luther King model, who was also chair of the DC delegation. – Phillips thus became the first Black person ever so nominated at a major party convention.

Waskow also spoke at Grant Park to the antiwar demonstrators during the Convention, and became a witness for the defense during the Chicago Conspiracy Trial.

In 1969-70, Waskow became a member of the steering committee of the New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Indo-China. He was harassed by the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, and was one of nine Washingtonian activists who won a lawsuit against the FBI for violating the “right of the people peaceably to assemble.” The court awarded the plaintiffs small amounts of money as damages. From it Waskow offered his children what he called the “J. Edgar Hoover Memorial Fellowships” — support for them to do work to heal the world that otherwise they could not have taken the time to do. David took that time to do his first work in community organizing – for tenants rights. Shoshana used it to work at a gan, a kindergarten, for the children at a battered women’s shelter in Israel.

Waskow was active in calling together the National Conference for New Politics, though he resigned in August 1967 after it adopted an anti-Israel resolution. He was arrested a number of times from 1963 on for sit-ins or protests against racial segregation, investment in South African apartheid, the Vietnam war, and the Soviet Union’s oppression of Jews — and much later, in protests against the Iraq war.

In 1968, a moment of volcanic history erupted deep into Waskow’s soul, transforming his life into the Jewish path he has walked ever since. On April 1, 1968, Waskow was a secular political activist whose only Jewish practice was the Passover Seder. (It was, after all, about overthrowing Pharaoh and seeking freedom.) Then on April 4 came the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, on April 5 the Black uprising that swept through Washington, that evening the occupation of the city by the US Army — and but one week later, the coming of Passover. To make ready for the Seder that year, as he had always done, meant – that year — walking past the US Army, occupying his neighborhood. What rose up for him was the sense that this was Pharaoh’s army.

That volcanic eruption of feeling led him to begin a journey into serious Judaism, beginning with writing the original “Freedom Seder” — weaving together the liberation struggles of the Jewish people with those of Black America and other peoples. It seeded a generation of Passover Seder texts that incorporated various contemporary searches for liberation into the traditional text about the liberation of ancient Israelites from Egypt.

Waskow spent most of the summer of 1969 in his first visit to Israel and in visits to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. He came back home as one of the pioneers among Americans in urging mutual recognition and peace between Israel and an independent Palestine. He also came back to becoming the first person ever arrested at the Soviet Embassy in Washington for protesting against the Soviet Union’s treatment of Jews. From then on, he put more and more energy into creating a politically progressive, spiritually creative movement for the renewal of Judaism.

By 1977, this religious journey had so puzzled or troubled others at the Institute for Policy Studies (who continued to be secular activists as he had been until the volcano of the death of Dr. King) that he left IPS and helped create a new research center. There he worked with two hands — one hand plunging into Judaism in the very process of re-creating it; the other shaping plans for community-based renewable energy, under a grant from Jimmy Carter’s US Department of Energy. That possible life-direction came abruptly to a halt when the Reagan Administration scuttled all such plans.

Waskow’s Jewish work and thought was proving far more fruitful. As Fabrangen, a havurah that was communally led and explored new forms of Torah study and prayer, emerged in Washington, Waskow began to take part, at first as a cautious sitter-in-the-doorway and then far more deeply. Out of his experience there he wrote Godwrestling (1978) and Seasons of Our Joy (1982). He founded (1978) and edited the journal Menorah (later New Menorah). He helped create a series of retreats of members of East Coast havurot (groups much like Fabrangen) and helped found the National Havurah Committee.

During these years, his children (born in 1964 and 1967) were growing up. Trying to integrate his new-found Judaism and his continuing political activism into his family life, Waskow took the kids along on demonstrations and brought them into Shabbat services they often found not very interesting. Sometimes the children themselves chose to act politically – as when they organized a Children’s March Against the War. Sometimes their political involvement was not even intended. Once, on July 4, 1971, innocently enjoying a fireworks celebration on Independence Mall, the whole family found itself coughing and crying when the police tear-gassed a nearby group of hippies smoking dope and swimming in the grand Reflecting Pool.

Waskow helped create a parents-coop Sunday school, the Fabrangen Cheder, for families where the parents were learning Judaism themselves at the same time they taught it to their children. Often during those years, his children have said, his attempts to fuse the inside and the outside worlds broke down, and he seemed caught up in the renewal of Judaism and America in ways that left them bereft of his attention.

On the other hand, there were some sparkling moments when all the pieces did come together. One was at a one-house retreat center, the “floating havurah,” when Arthur, David, & Shoshana co-authored a midrashic tale of the seven days of Creation. As the kids pointed out, it could not begin, “Once upon a time” — because at the beginning there wasn’t any time. So ultimately it was published as Before There Was a Before.

During the mid ’70s, his first marriage broke up and he struggled to take an equal role in raising his two children– not always well, on his side, but by God’s grace and sometimes despite or through deep pain, stumbling toward the emergence of two extraordinary grown-ups, seriously bright and profoundly ethical, themselves married with children of their own.

In 1980 and then in 1982, Waskow had deep spiritual experiences that changed his understanding of God and of the world. In 1980, he found himself standing at the foot of Sinai — seeing the mountain as a rich holistic mirror of the world entire; hearing the first word of the Ten Words – “Anokhi, I” reverberating not only from the mountain but from within himself; unifying all the world as God’s own Self.

As he absorbed the meaning of this experience and began to shift his understanding of God, the world, and Judaism, he was in 1982 invited to teach at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and, for one year, in the religion department at Swarthmore College. He moved to Philadelphia.

At Swarthmore he shaped a course on Martin Buber – the philosopher of I-Thou who had died in 1965 -– as a conversation with him rather than about him, speaking with Buber as a “Thou” rather than studying him as an “It.” In the midst of one such conversation, Waskow found himself pronouncing the “YHWH” Name of God not as “Adonai” or “Yahweh” but with no vowels — “Yyyyyhhhhwwwwhhhh” – and felt it as a breath, the Interbreathing of all life, God as ruakh ha’olam, “Breath/ Wind/ Spirit of the world” rather than “melekh,” “King.

That perception, along with “Anokhi,” has ever since guided not only his prayer practice, but also his understanding of social action and his shaping of Eco-Judaism: – “We breathe in what the trees breathe out; the trees breathe in what we breathe out. I am YHWH.”

At RRC, he and RRC’s President, Ira Silverman (may the memory of the tzaddik be for a blessing) founded The Shalom Center to address issues of the nuclear arms race from the perspective of Torah and Jewish spiritual practice. As Waskow taught “practical rabbinics” at RRC, he also became more and more deeply connected with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and the communities of Jewish renewal called successively B’nai Or and P’nai Or. He became one of a Philadelphia Jewish men’s support group that met every other week for ten years, and whose members — Jeffrey Dekro, Mordechai Liebling, Jeff Roth, Brian Walt — are still among his most beloved friends and colleagues.

As the first intifada erupted and the Israeli government’s policy focused on repression rather than negotiation, he became more and more vocal about the long-range dangers to Israel and to Judaism foreshadowed by this policy. In 1989, he was abruptly fired from the RRC faculty, explicitly for taking positions supporting a two-state peace settlement and opposing the placement of Israeli settlements in Palestinian areas. (Ironically – or prophetically — the very member of the Board of Trustees who demanded he be fired now has the politics for which he fired Waskow; and the culture of the College now includes deep criticism of Israeli government policy.)

Meanwhile, in 1986 he married Phyllis Berman and became a step-parent to her two children, Joshua and Morissa. And sometimes more: an associate parent. He came to share with Phyllis the writing of several Jewish books, and followed her to the Elat Chayyim spiritual retreat center where she was director of the summer program. From years of slowly learning somehow to listen to Phyllis and to his brother Howard (with whom as a result he came to write a book about their struggles and connection, Becoming Brothers), he learned to cool some of his anger and focus it more precisely at the world’s injustices, and to love more deeply those who brought love to him.

In 1990, Waskow asked three rabbis of different strands of Jewish practice, together with a feminist theologian, to oversee his study toward ordination as a rabbi. In, 1995 this transdenominational rabbinic court – Reb Zalman, Rabbi Max Ticktin, Rabbi Laura Geller, and Dr. Judith Plaskow – ordained him.

In 1993 he joined with Reb Zalman to merge P’nai Or and The Shalom Center, cofounding ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. (In 2005, The Shalom Center became an independent entity once again.)

From 1983 till now, The Shalom Center has pioneered in exploring new Jewish approaches to a series of profound dangers and possibilities: the nuclear arms race and the danger of nuclear holocaust; global environmental dangers including the climate crisis of global scorching; the emergence of a theology and practice of Eco-Judaism; emergence of a Palestinian state at peace with Israel; new forms and language of prayer that sees God metaphorically as Breathing-Spirit (rather than King) of the universe; healing America from its addiction to oil and working to go beyond oil as a dominant source of energy; affirming same-sex marriage as a fully sacred option in the Jewish and general communities; opposing the Iraq war and the use of torture by the US government; and (with the crucial collaboration of Phyllis Berman) bringing together Jews, Christians, and Muslims in The Tent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah — to share their spiritual journeys, pray together, and call together public events to advance the cause of peace.

Waskow is author or editor of about twenty books — Phyllis says, about as many as the times he has been arrested. He has been an occasional contributor to the Jerusalem Report, Philadelphia inquirer, Tikkun magazine, and the Philadelphia Jewish Voice. He writes frequently – some say obsessively — for the on-line journal called The Shalom Report, published by The Shalom Center

In 1996, Waskow was named by the United Nations a “Wisdom Keeper” among forty religious and intellectual leaders who met in connection with the Habitat II conference in Istanbul. He was presented the Abraham Joshua Heschel Award by the Jewish Peace Fellowship and in 2005 was named by the Forward newspaper one of the “Forward Fifty” leaders of American Jewry. He has also been honored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement of Philadelphia.

Originally posted at https://theshalomcenter.org/node/1145