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Interview'You can learn to dance, even though the floor is shaking'

87-year-old activist rabbi: Shifting world is perfect place to practice balance

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow offers new words to old prayers to mirror a turbulent reality in ‘Dancing in God’s Earthquake,’ his 28th book

  • Mahdi Bray, Executive Director of Muslim American Society (MAS) Freedom, speaks about President Barack Obama's comments regarding the mosque near Ground Zero at the National Press Club in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
    Mahdi Bray, Executive Director of Muslim American Society (MAS) Freedom, speaks about President Barack Obama's comments regarding the mosque near Ground Zero at the National Press Club in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
  • From left are, Imam Omar Shahin; Ibrahim Ramey, Director of Civil and Human Rights with the Muslim American Society; Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, with the National Black Leadership Roundtable; Mahdi Bray, Director of the Muslim American Society; and Rabbi Arthur Waskow, of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia walk at Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport, Monday, Nov. 27, 2006. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)
    From left are, Imam Omar Shahin; Ibrahim Ramey, Director of Civil and Human Rights with the Muslim American Society; Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, with the National Black Leadership Roundtable; Mahdi Bray, Director of the Muslim American Society; and Rabbi Arthur Waskow, of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia walk at Washington's Ronald Reagan National Airport, Monday, Nov. 27, 2006. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)
  • Rabbi Arthur Waskow waits to be arrested by Capitol Police in the Rotunda of Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 28, 2011. A group of civic and religious leaders were arrested after protesting proposed budget cuts with debt ceiling negotiations. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
    Rabbi Arthur Waskow waits to be arrested by Capitol Police in the Rotunda of Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 28, 2011. A group of civic and religious leaders were arrested after protesting proposed budget cuts with debt ceiling negotiations. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
  • Rev. Channing E. Phillips, (left) Rabbi Arthur Waskow, and Topper Carew on April 4, 1969, the night of the first Freedom Seder. (Courtesy Arthur Waskow)
    Rev. Channing E. Phillips, (left) Rabbi Arthur Waskow, and Topper Carew on April 4, 1969, the night of the first Freedom Seder. (Courtesy Arthur Waskow)

SAN FRANCISCO — When Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow finished writing “Dancing in God’s Earthquake: the Coming Transformation of Religion,” in early 2020, the 87-year-old activist rabbi assumed the biggest “earthquake” in the coming year would be the national election in November.

Waskow had already seen a few earthquakes in his lifetime.  He was arrested 27 times for non-violent activism protesting things from the destruction of redwoods to the Mexican border to oil pipelines. And his deep involvement in the civil rights movement that led to his creating the Freedom Seder in 1969, which wove the story of the Exodus recounted during Passover with that of the Black struggle for equality in America.

“The funny thing, and the part that drives me nuts, was that this whole text was written before about five major earthquakes have shaken American and world society,” Waskow said by phone from his home in Philadelphia on the eve of the publication of his 28th book.

“It’s about God’s earthquake, and it doesn’t have the word ‘coronavirus’ in it!” Waskow ended up squeezing in a short preface to the book about the coronavirus, and then, a month later, another short essay about the reactions and protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd.

“Earthquakes are in what the rabbis call ‘the white fire Torah,’” Waskow explained. “They say that the Torah was not written in black ink on white parchment, but with black fire on white fire. You may think that white fire just seems to be blank space, but if you read it, if you read the white fire, you create ‘midrash’ [interpretations], and you have a whole new way of understanding what the text was about.”

Waskow’s 200-page book focuses on new ways of interpreting this white fire, or the environment surrounding the ancient words, and ways to reimagine this white space in a modern, activist world. He draws deep on his five decades of activism, with a special focus on women’s rights and environmental issues, and how to react when the ground seems to be shaking beneath our feet.

From left: Imam Omar Shahin; Ibrahim Ramey, Director of Civil and Human Rights with the Muslim American Society; Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, with the National Black Leadership Roundtable; Mahdi Bray, Director of the Muslim American Society; and Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia walk at Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport, November 27, 2006. (AP Photo/Lawrence Jackson)

Right now, perhaps more than ever, Waskow said, we’re in a “social earthquake, a multidimensional earthquake.” Everything that we knew — schools, institutions, governments, authorities, seems to be moving, shaking, cracking, crumbling before our eyes.

“In a physical earthquake, there are two kinds of behavior,” he said. “There is denial, like ‘What am I going to do? I’ll walk around as if it’s normal, and if a building falls onto me, so be it.’”

The other reaction is to find something stable and hang on to it with all of your strength. “It can be grabbing at something people think is immovable, like a 17th-century version of religion, which has a very strong pressure and agreement toward doing what you’re told, or being subjugated to do what you’re told,” Waskow said.

A metaphor that came to me is that you can learn to dance, even though the dance floor is shaking and quaking, or maybe because the floor is shaking and quaking

Survival, Waskow believes, cannot be found in either extreme — not in total denial nor in grasping at something immovable and hanging on for dear life, no matter the consequences. Rather, survival, and perhaps even joy, is learning to find the balance somewhere in the middle. Perhaps, Waskow said, it is about learning to dance in this middle space.

“A metaphor that came to me is that you can learn to dance, even though the dance floor is shaking and quaking, or maybe because the floor is shaking and quaking,” he said.

In times of such upheaval, ancient religious texts such as the Torah or the New Testament or the Quran can provide comfort and a measure of stability, but they must be reexamined in new ways, Waskow said. In his book, he offers radical and different ways to interpret the Torah to provide more support for women, foreigners or racial minorities, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or gender fluid, and planet Earth. Some of those liberal interpretations may push readers far outside their comfort zone.

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow speaks in Washington, August 17, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

“There’s not a drop of ignoring Torah. I actually draw on it deeply, but I draw on it in totally new ways,” he explained. “Rabbinic Judaism did the same thing, they had to abandon the Temple offerings of food, they abandoned body Judaism in favor of word Judaism.

“Modernity has destroyed old Judaism and the classical version of all religious traditions, and we’re all scrambling to figure out what to do. This is my attempt to envision what a sacred future could be, that drew on the Torah but drew on going beyond the letters, to go beyond the black fire to read more and more of the white fire,” he said.

“One of the reasons I use dance as a metaphor is that certain types of dance can unite word and body,” Waskow said. During his career in nonviolent civil disobedience, Waskow often cited Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who said marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma was “praying with his legs.” “[Dance can be] an equivalent of what we would have called prayer, dance can express deep emotion and ideas at the same time.”

Breath of life

Waskow has written a number of other books, including “Seasons of Our Joy,” a book that reimagines Jewish festivals in a social justice context. In “Dancing in God’s Earthquake,” as with his other books, Waskow focuses a lot on language, going beyond exchanging masculine language for more gender-neutral options.

He offers a dramatically different reading of the pronunciation of the name of God, a widely examined subject in Jewish liturgy. God’s name is traditionally written with the Hebrew letters “Yud Hey Vav Hey,” and usually pronounced as “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” by Christians and “Adonai” (meaning “my Lord”) by Jews, who usually avoid uttering the actual name itself. Waskow pronounces Yud Hey Vav Hey with a phonetic reading of the Hebrew letters as “Yahhhhh,” or, what he calls “The Breath of Life.”

The name isn’t in Egyptian or Chinese or Russian or Swahili if it’s really a universal God, or echad [one]. It’s the only thing that is in every human language, it’s just breathing, there’s breathing in all of them

“The first thing that came to me [after reading God’s name that way] was ‘Oh, that makes sense!’” said Waskow. “The name isn’t in Egyptian or Chinese or Russian or Swahili if it’s really a universal God, or echad [one]. It’s the only thing that is in every human language, it’s just breathing, there’s breathing in all of them.

“The second thing that came to me is that it’s not just a human thing, every tree, every blade of grass, every rabbit, every squirrel, every mosquito breathes and we breathe each other… I’m breathing what the trees breathe out,” he said.

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow’s 28th book, ‘Dancing in God’s Earthquake: The Coming Transformation of Religion’ was published by Orbis Books on October 1, 2020. (courtesy Orbis Books)

It feels strange and somehow prescient, Waskow said, to offer this interpretation of reading God’s name as the Breath of Life, just as breath becomes such a central issue, both between the respiratory issues of the novel coronavirus and George Floyd’s last words of “I can’t breathe.”

“I wrote this essay for Yom Kippur this year, about how I can’t breathe, we can’t breathe, the earth can’t breathe,” Waskow said.

“It took me a while to connect [the Breath of Life] with the climate crisis, but the climate crisis is a crisis in the interbreathing of the planet. We, the humans, have created ways of creating more CO2 than the trees and grasses can transmute. It’s going haywire, the planet is choking on too much CO2.”

Not a man’s world

That interpretation resonates deeply on a social justice level, because it simultaneously unites all people and beings as well as removes language that encourages subjugation and hierarchies, Waskow said. The terms “My Lord,” “My Ruler,” “My Dominion,” all commonly found in English translations of Hebrew prayers, are words that Waskow wants to excise from the liturgy.

“Religious communities that often have deep compassion and a deep sense of justice use the language of ‘King’ and ‘Lord,’ which is domination language,” he said. “[There are] people who say ‘that’s politics, and you’re not supposed to talk politics in a synagogue.’ These are the politics of justice and compassion, and you’ve got to talk about them in a synagogue. Not domination, not subjugation, but internal religious language and practices that are life-giving in a way that the King/Lord domination/subjugation imagery is no longer.”

“There are people who want to crush individuality, who want to subjugate and dominate,” said Waskow. “There’s a big danger to the planet right now, that the human race is acting like it can dominate and subjugate and destroy the ecosystem.”

There are people who say ‘that’s politics, and you’re not supposed to talk politics in a synagogue.’ These are the politics of justice and compassion, and you’ve got to talk about them in a synagogue

Removing the language of domination from prayer feels like a radical step towards encouraging equality in all aspects, from ecological to interpersonal, Waskow explained.

At age 65, Waskow was ordained by a transdenominational beit din, or rabbinical court, and today he identifies closely with the Jewish Renewal and Reconstructionist movements. He founded the Shalom Center in 1983, which originally dealt with nuclear disarmament but shifted to focus on climate issues from a Jewish perspective.

He is currently working on two books, with vague ideas for a third. One is called “Liberating Your Passover,” a collection of essays from people who have provided new interpretations of the Passover seder, like Waskow did in 1969 with the original Freedom Seder.

“The whole notion of the last 50 years is that the seder itself can become an element in the real Passover, in the transformation of society and the coming of more freedom and more justice,” said Waskow. The second book will be called “Tales of the Spirit Rising,” a collection of stories from him and others about spiritual moments that changed lives.

Rev. Channing E. Phillips, (left) Rabbi Arthur Waskow, and Topper Carew on April 4, 1969, the night of the first Freedom Seder. (Courtesy Arthur Waskow)

Waskow published “Dancing in God’s Earthquake” with Orbis Books, a Catholic publisher. He said the choice was deliberate not to use a Jewish publisher, in hopes that the book could appeal to readers of all faiths. Most of the book focuses on the Jewish tradition, with Hebrew words and phrases sprinkled within, but Waskow also delves into Christian and some Muslim issues.

“I wanted to deal with the nature of the names of God and the whole question of the nature of the image of God and what the Torah says about the human race,” said Waskow. “That’s not just a Jewish question. Rabbi Jesus takes on this question in a very subtle and interesting way and draws on rabbinic teaching about it. Jews didn’t want to read the Gospels as a Jewish document, and the Christians didn’t want to read the Gospels, and what I would call Rabbi Jesus’s life, as a Jewish story. It got totally sealed off [from each other] for our generation.”

Jews didn’t want to read the Gospels as a Jewish document, and the Christians didn’t want to read the Gospels, and what I would call Rabbi Jesus’s life, as a Jewish story

Waskow draws on this idea of breaking down barriers between groups of people in his years of social justice work.

“One of the things I do in the book is talk about theology and sociology of ecology,” he said. “We’re not only in a biological ecosystem, it’s a cultural ecology that recognizes the value of every being and every culture and every species in the system.”

Although the current earthquakes of racial protests, a global pandemic, and climate crisis, among others, seem to lay bare vast inequalities and gaps that sometimes festered below the surface of this cultural ecology, Waskow said there’s a simple step to start addressing some of the chasms between groups: listening with an open mind.

People gather calling for justice for George Floyd in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo square, June 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Waskow said he did this following a 2016 trip to Tennessee, when he really began listening to the people who he considered “the other,” those who wanted to vote for President Donald Trump.

“There are people who are feeling like they are forgotten Americans,” he said. “They feel like they’re not being treated as part of the family in order to benefit people who weren’t part of the family but now are.”

In the book, Waskow drew parallels to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which he interprets not as a denunciation of male homosexuality as sin, but more about the hatred of foreigners as a sin.

“We have to try to affirm people who were always part of the family, as well as people who are newly understood to be part of the family — Blacks, women, Native Americans, etc.,” Waskow said.

But while demanding space for those who have been deprived, Waskow said, we must also leave space for the needs of dominant groups who have already been an accepted part of society. It should not one at the expense of the other, but more as a dance between two opposing sides that can eventually be brought together if both sides agree to hear — and maybe even dance with — each other.

That’s why Waskow wants the divisions between communities, and possibly even countries, to resemble a fringe rather than a hard-and-fast border. Waskow has protested what he considers unjust immigration practices at the Mexican-American border over the years, and has harsh words for Israeli leaders about the treatment of Palestinians.

What is a fringe? It’s a mixture of cloth and air. It’s my cloth, but it’s not my air. It’s the world’s air, it’s God’s air

Fringes are sacred in Jewish practice, given the commandment to wear “fringes on the corners of garments.”

“What is a fringe? It’s a mixture of cloth and air,” said Waskow. “It’s my cloth, but it’s not my air. It’s the world’s air, it’s God’s air. What makes it a fringe is that it’s fuzzy, it’s not a sharp boundary.”

Several members of ElderWitness and Friends protest outside ICE’s office in Philadelphia. (Courtesy of Rabbi Arthur Waskow via JTA)

“Fences do not make friendship, fringes make friendship. So the disarmed border is an example, or cultural connections that don’t demand that one people adopt the culture of another, but open up both.”

Jews who have adopted Buddhist meditation practices as a way to deepen their spirituality are an example of fringe between religious practices, and jazz music was a fringe that loosely tied white and Black subcultures in American society, he said.

The masked protester

Waskow turned 87 on October 12, which has meant that during this summer’s social protests, he has mostly stayed at home, prompting a “very strong sadness that I couldn’t be on the streets.” Still, he masked up and protested a handful of times at small protests near his house, unable to stay at home while transformation seemed to be taking place on the streets.

“What’s happened during the last three months is in a large part multiracial, and I think that’s amazing and encouraging and gives my heart some sense of possibility,” he said.

So while he can’t “pray with his legs,” Waskow is hoping that his book helps people of all faiths envision a different future, perhaps by tweaking the language of the ancient words to reflect a new and changing reality.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow. (Phyllis Ocean Berman)

“There’s politics inside the Bible, and the Bible has some effect on the politics. Words matter, and the food we grow matters, and how we grow it matters, what we burn for energy matters,” Waskow said.

As the word “matter” echoes through the streets of America, Waskow wants his book to highlight the importance of language. “It’s not like words are useless,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of struggle with the absence of body in many aspects of Rabbinic Judaism. It was absolutely present in biblical Judaism, because the way you got in touch with God was through food grown on the land.”

But with the destruction of the Temple, nearly 2,000 years ago, Judaism shifted to a language-based religion, where words became an individual’s ladder to God. Now the shape and sound and resonance of those words in promoting equality and a sense of oneness is more important than ever, Waskow said.

“When I say ‘Yahhhhh,’ the Breath of Life, it reminds myself that’s what I see as profoundly sacred: the breath of life that we all share, not just human beings but all life forms,” he said. “I remind myself of that, every time I see Yud Hey Vav Hey, and it has some impact.”

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