Waskow shares thoughts on reinvigorating Judaism


Jessica White | Staff Writer

After decades of rabbinical leadership and honors, Arthur Waskow is still a down-to-earth Jew.

Waskow is one of the most prominent leaders of the Jewish Renewal movement, which seeks to reinvigorate lofty, institutional Judaism with practices grounded in spirituality. In 1983, he founded The Shalom Center, an interfaith organization that unifies political and social action with spiritual search, and has served as director since.

He will join the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, director of the Department of Religion, for a conversation about radicalism at 2 p.m. Friday in the Hall of Philosophy.

Throughout his career, Waskow has been labeled a radical for supporting woman and LGBTQ equality in Jewish life. He has also been active in liberal initiatives like supporting environmental health, mobilizing opposition to the Vietnam and Iraq wars, advocating a peace settlement between Israel and Palestine and fighting the top-down control of corporate America. Most recently, he has sided with American nuns in defending women’s health care rights and resisting Vatican-supported bills that limit access to contraception.

In June, Waskow wrote a letter criticizing the Catholic hierarchy for attacking religious freedom of American women, saying the church’s argument that its own religious freedom was being attacked was false. The letter was picked up by media throughout the U.S., added to the already heated debate and drew criticism from a portion of the Catholic community — even resorting to anti-Jewish threats.

“The world is living through a multidimensional planetary earthquake,” he wrote in a blog post about the letter. “Every ‘stable’ life-dimension has turned unstable: our relationship with the earth, the global economy, the family, sexuality, even violence and war.”

In an earthquake, Waskow said, there are three ways to behave: ignore, freeze or dance. The best thing to do is learn to dance and to be fluid with reality, even though the “dance floor” itself is shaking, he said. But many religious leaders — from the present Catholic hierarchy to ultra-Orthodox rabbis — are frozen, holding onto a memory of an old institution and trying to force others to do the same.

“I feel compassion for those people. But compassion for their quandary must not lead to acquiescence in their coercion,” he said. “And commitment to oppose their coercion does not mean hating them.”

Several responses to Waskow’s letter accused him of hating Catholics, which he said is not true. He respects the practices of Pope John XXIII, the Second Vatican Council, Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, he said, but he disagrees with the present pope and much of the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops — especially because of their views toward women and sexual minorities.

Apart from The Shalom Center, Waskow co-founded the Alliance for Jewish Renewal in 1993 and the Network for Transformative Judaism in 2011. He is a member of the steering committee on the U.S. Council of Elders, and he has written several books on down-to-earth Judaism and eco-Judaism — arguing that environmental issues are a profound concern in the Torah.

“For me, God is one,” he said. “For me, that means that all life on earth is interwoven by and into the Breath of Life … and that I am obligated to act when any person or institution of any religion is perpetrating injustice on any being.”