Waskow dialogues on radically renewing, transforming the world

Rabbi Arthur Waskow speaks with the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, director of Chautauqua’s Department of Religion, about social issues Friday afternoon in the Hall of Philosophy. Waskow insists that every generation has to struggle for freedom from oppressors. Photo by Eric Shea.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is a radical, a pioneer; he has been one for a long time and has no intention of giving up anytime soon.

On Friday, Waskow sat down for an intimate conversation with the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell in the Hall of Philosophy for the final lecture on the Week Eight theme, “Radicalism: Burden or Blessing?”

In a discussion titled “Radicals, Radishes and the Spiritual Root of Social Action,” the two touched on the fight of the radical, Waskow’s work with the Jewish renewal movement, the inspiration behind his interfaith action and the new radical movement both Waskow and Campbell belong to: the U.S. Council of Elders.

Waskow, the founder of the Shalom Center, has a long history full of radicalism and activism. He has fought and written against war and for disarmament since the 1960s. He is a major proponent of the green movement and eco-Judaism and has written extensively about the environment. In 1993, Waskow co-founded ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal; in 2011, he founded the Network for Transformative Judaism.

During his Interfaith Lecture, Waskow reflected on the Latin root of the word “radical.” It is the same as the root of the word “radish,” and it means “root.” He wore red and white to the Interfaith Lecture in honor of the vegetable.

“A radical is a person who, we hope, goes to the root,” Waskow said.

Recently, Waskow was forced by illness to confront the root of what it means to continue to live as a rabbi and a radical. A year ago, Waskow had a sore throat that would not lessen. He visited his doctor, and it was eventually discovered he was suffering from throat cancer. Doctors treated the cancer with chemotherapy and radiation, but the onslaught of radiation left his mouth almost entirely immobile. In the weeks following the treatment, he could barely eat, speak or drink. His wife thought she was watching him die, he said.

Then, during the holy days following Rosh Hashanah, Waskow said he remembers sitting and thinking: “You know, it’s really hard to live, it’s hard work — especially doing the work I do do,” he said, “which is social justice peace and ecological organizing — that’s really hard work.”

In fact, he thought at the rate he was deteriorating, it would be much easier to just die; all he would have to do was continue not eating and not drinking, he said.

“I really, consciously, for the first time in my life, had to make a choice whether I did want to do the hard work of living or do the easiness of dying,” he said.

He thought about the reasons to continue living, and the first thing he considered was how much he enjoys loving his wife, Phyllis, and then how much he loves his work and his children.

“So, on the one side is the hard work of living, and the other side is the loving that comes from living,” Waskow said.

He decided that he would continue fighting to live and wrote an email to Phyllis that said, “Well, I did actually make a decision, and I want you to know that I made a conscious decision that I want to live, mostly out of loving you,” he said.

Waskow said he believes that at least once a year, everyone should ask themselves the question of whether they want to do the hard work and loving involved in living.

One aspect of Waskow’s radicalism is his work with the Jewish renewal movement, which stems from an understanding that during the past few centuries, the world has been dramatically altered and Judaism must transform to adjust to modernity.

Two thousands years ago when Judaism was confronted with the Roman civilization, it was forced to transform because of the altered world the Romans introduced. Some Jews re-created Judaism by looking at the tradition as a whole and making changes that accounted for the changing world.

“We’re living in the same situation. Modernity has done to all of us — Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism — to all of us, the formal structure, that was for about 2,000 years the system by which we lived, has been shattered,” Waskow said.

Modernity has introduced new issues such as the increased inequality between human beings, the subjugation of humans and ecological destruction. Jewish renewal and transformative Judaism is focused on using values and the “corrective vision” of the Torah to develop a form of Judaism that deals with the issues of the world — not just for Jews but for all people, Waskow said.

People can no longer swim in Chautauqua Lake because of the blue algae bloom, catalyzed by increasingly warm weather. In Central Africa, drought and famine have destroyed lives. A few years ago in Russia, drought caused famine and rising food prices, Waskow said. The changing climate is having real, tangible and frightening effects.

“So how do we deal with that? Can we draw on Torah to deal with that? Can we draw on Torah that doesn’t care only about the Jewish people but about the earth as a whole,” Waskow said.

“That’s what, to me, the movement that began as renewing Judaism now is about creating a Judaism that knows how to transform and renew the world,” he said.

The interfaith nature of Waskow’s work stems from the unpronounceable name of YHWH. When people try to say the word “YHWH,” it sounds like a breath. Though we have been trained to translate the word of the Lord, or God, really it should be left “YHWH,” Waskow said.

“If you think about the name as breath, think about what that means about God. First of all, breathing ain’t Hebrew, or Egyptian, or Sanskrit, or Latin, or Greek, or English, or Russian or Chinese — it’s all of them and is really the only thing that is all of them: just breathing,” Waskow said.

When he realized the universal nature of breathing and the connection between breath and the divine, Waskow also recognized it is not only human beings that breathe, but everything on Earth. Human beings can breathe, because the “green faces of God” — trees — breathe, he said.

“YHWH: One way of understanding it might be the inter-breathing of all life,” Waskow said.

When he teaches that, he often finds people of all faiths listen and are attracted to the idea that to just breathe is the name of God.

“The notion of thinking of God as not king, lord, judge, up there and us poor schmucks down here is just trying to figure out how to get out of the way of the bully king. I think that is radical,” Waskow said.

“I think it involves a whole new way of thinking about, what I call, the ‘green faces of God.’ I think it calls for a new way of thinking about each other to know that we’re breathing each other into existence too,” he said.

That way of thinking catalyzes social action and radical action, he said. From that perspective, people are consciously obligated to do something about poverty, about the suffering environment and about unfair economic conditions, he said.

“I hate the word “unemployment,” because it sounds like some poor son of a bitch stubbed his toe on the way to work, so he couldn’t get to work, so he’s unemployed. I use the word “disemployed,” which gives at least the hint that somebody made a decision to not invest in that factory, to send those jobs somewhere else for about a quarter of the wages,” Waskow said.

To be a radical, a person needs to acknowledge there is power and power inequality in the world.

“The old line about prophetic radicalism was speaking truth to power. I think it’s more important to speak truth to the disempowered, to the people who don’t have power, to re-empower all of us,” Waskow said.

The Occupy movement captured the essence of the problem with the 1 percent, 99 percent metaphor, Waskow said. In the Passover service, it says “In every generation, there will be one who rises up to suppress you,” he said. The passage continues to say in every generation all people must seek to be free, not just Jews, he said.

“In every generation, there are pharaohs. And in every generation, there must be struggles for freedom. That’s radical; taking pharaoh out of the picture is radical,” Waskow said.

In the Torah, God told Moses that his deep name is in the future tense, “I will be who I will be,” Waskow said.

“I will be who I will be — now, that’s a name you can change the world with, right? That’s a name that says the world can and will change,” he said.

“It’s radical in social action and radical in spiritual understanding at the same time,” Waskow said. “And maybe what’s most radical is insisting that two are one. That politics and spirituality are not two separate things.”

Waskow has been instrumental in supporting women’s rights and equality, though it comes from a lifetime of knowing and interacting with extraordinary women. He said he remembers one incident when he was 11 years old that has remained with him. During a presidential campaign, he heard someone say that American journalist Dorothy Thompson should be a candidate for president; he told that to his mother as though it was a laughing matter. She responded, saying, “What are you laughing about?”

“I listened. I didn’t just get scared, I listened. And of course the point was: Why not? And the point was further — what does it mean to say it’s laughable for a woman to be candidate for president,” Waskow said. “What does it mean to say that it is laughable or scornful for women to do anything, be anything in their own choices.”

Aside from that, Waskow said he has lived his life getting to know extraordinary women — women who may look ordinary but are extraordinary.

“Women who everybody might think are ordinary, but once you get to know them they are absolutely extraordinary, and no more extraordinary or ordinary than the men who are ordinary and extraordinary,” Waskow said.

In today’s world, there are many things that scare Waskow, such as the possibility of war with Iran and the destruction of the earth. However, he said they scare him into action rather than into passive sleep.

One way Waskow has inspired others to wake up and move into action is through the Council of Elders, an organization composed of veterans from social movements of the 20th century such as the anti-war, women’s, civil rights, environmental, LGBTQ and the foreign workers movements. To be a member of the council, radicals must be over age 65. However, they connect with other movements, such as the Occupy movement.

Since its inception, the organization has created a statement addressing the American public about the issues that are not being, but should be addressed in the congressional and presidential campaigns. The organization will endeavor to work alongside other radical groups and social movements.

“Our slogan is we are not here to pass the torch, we are here to share the torch,” Waskow said.

Campbell closed her dialogue with Waskow asking what role Chautauqua Institution plays during these turbulent times.

Waskow said Chautauqua is a place of Shabbat, deep rest; Chautauqua is a place that allows one to get in touch with the deep holiness of the world.

“The root of social action has to be able to rest deeply, deeply in the universe that just dwells and knowing that Shabbat doesn’t last forever and that we come out of it and go to work to heal the world,” he said.