September 13, 2023

The Bush Is Still Burning: An Interview with Arthur Waskow Celebrating His Ninetieth Birthday

By Shaul Magid

Art by Jessica Tamar Deutsch, 2023

Arthur Waskow (b. 1933) was born and raised in Baltimore. He graduated from Johns Hopkins University, and went on to receive a PhD in American History from University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1963. Born into a family of pre-WW II leftists, he began his activist career working on nuclear disarmament and civil rights, first at the Peace Research Institute in Washington DC from 1959 to 1963. He was one of the founding members of one of the first Jewish social justice organizations, Jews for Urban Justice, in 1966. He became a household name among Jewish progressives after he wrote the Freedom Seder Haggadah and led the Freedom Seder in the basement of a Washington DC church with over three hundred in attendance in 1969, commemorating the first anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

The author of many books including The Bush is Burning! (1971), God-Wrestling (1978), Seasons of Our Joy (1990), and Dancing in God’s Earthquake (2020), Arthur has been at the forefront of Jewish progressivism in politics and religion for over sixty years. His work on social justice, environmentalism and climate change, spirituality and the renewal of religious ritual, along with his writing on the role Judaism can play in the evolution of global consciousness, continues to inspire a new generation.  

Through his work at The Shalom Center, which he founded in 1983, Arthur continues to push the boundaries and to speak truth to power, including getting arrested on his eightieth birthday for nonviolently protesting Trump’s border policies.

I have long wanted to sit down with Arthur, turn on a recorder, and allow him to reflect on his life’s work. This fall I had my chance. Arthur and I had two extended Zoom conversations where I asked him a series of questions about his life and work, what he thinks of progressive politics today, climate change, and the successes and failures of the New Left and the counterculture. Below is an edited version of that conversation, which I think encapsulates the tremendous contribution Arthur has made to Jewish life in the US. What comes through in this interview is his honesty, passion, devotion, and an acute sense of what ails our society, coupled with a deep belief in the generosity of the human spirit that is emblematic of Arthur’s legacy. As Arthur has influenced me in so many ways, it was an honor for me to initiate this conversation and to bring Arthur’s voice of experience and insight to a wider audience, especially in these troubling times.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Arthur Waskow planting an olive tree in a Palestinian village, courtesy of Arthur Waskow

Shaul Magid

Thank you Arthur for taking the time for this conversation. It’s been something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Let me start with a basic question. You’ve been involved in progressive politics as a researcher and activist for over sixty years—before the founding of the New Left, before the Port Huron statement, before the counterculture, before Woodstock Nation, before multiculturalism. With such a wide lens on America since the 1950s, how would you assess the present state of progressive activism in America today?

Arthur Waskow

I think progressive activism is very strong, but there are two problems. The first is the strength of regressive activism, which is stronger now than it was in the forties or fifties. This is partly because of the Trump presidency and its appeal, how it drew forth all the most regressive energies in American society that were semi-buried. This problem has us facing the biggest crisis since the Civil War. The other problem is the planetary crisis, which is at least partially the making of American politics because of what the great oil and coal companies have done in the US, especially since we have been the most powerful of states and societies for the last century. 

In the mid seventies the Exxon staff knew the danger. They told their bosses the truth that the whole business plan was burning the earth. And they had two choices. They could have staged a step by step withdrawal from oil and committed to renewable energy and told people why and led the transformation. Or they could lie and purchase liars in government and even in a few scientific places. And they chose to lie in order to keep their profits and not have to change their business plan. And with the Reagan presidency, we lost fifty years of time that we could have dealt with the climate crisis before it became a crisis. And the consequences of losing that time are a major problem for progressive activism today.

SM

I want to come back to environmentalism and climate change a little bit later, but just to follow up on the first question: As somebody who has lived through so many iterations of progressive activism, what do you think it really accomplished in the last half century, and where do you think it failed? What lessons do you think a younger generation should take from the previous phases of this kind of activism?

AW

Well, the clearest thing we did in the sixties and early seventies was build a base for political change in the Black community. Although it’s been attacked and narrowed, it has not gone away and it was the seedbed for a whole new harvest of activism in the last five years. And that has made a great difference. That’s a lot of what I mean when I say that progressive activism is strong, very strong. That’s one. Secondly, we transformed the role of women and of LGBTQ communities in the United States. And again, there’s a reaction against it now, but there’s real political clout in those communities. They have built a real political base, which is now showing itself in the reaction to dumping Roe v. Wade and in the re-energizing call for abortion rights.

As for what we accomplished in the Jewish community, in the fall of 1968, I wrote the Freedom Seder. But I can only toot my own horn on this a little—it really wasn’t just me. When I wrote it, I had no expectations, no imagination, no plan beyond my need to write it. It was because of everything that happened—from the murder of Dr. King, to glimmers of a multiracial vision at the root of Passover, to Fanny Lou Hamer’s wonderful singing on the boardwalk in Atlantic City in 1964, which was somewhere at the root of the Freedom Seder.

A metaphor from the world of chemistry really came to me, and it stayed as a definition of how prophecy works. When you have a supersaturated solution and you drop one crystal into it, the whole thing crystallizes. And I think that’s what the Freedom Seder accomplished.

“Go tell it on the Mountain and let my people go. Who are the people dressed in red? Let my people go.” And for hundreds of years in the Black community, the next line was, “Must be the people that Moses led. Let my people go.” But she sang it on the boardwalk, “Must be the people Bob Moses led . . .” Bob Moses was the very crown of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which was organizing in Mississippi for the Black community’s voting rights. And what I heard was a song that echoed and rebirthed the Exodus, which she had made not only about Moses leading generally, but she made it of the moment, of the absolute moment in 1964—that Bob Moses led! For me, what that meant was, my God, you can take this ancient story and make it absolutely present. So that was somewhere in my head when I wrote the Freedom Seder, but there was no planning. It was just short of channeling. Only when I had finished writing it, and when it got used, I began to realize that it was much bigger than me.

A metaphor from the world of chemistry really came to me, and it stayed as a definition of how prophecy works. When you have a supersaturated solution and you drop one crystal into it, the whole thing crystallizes. And I think that’s what the Freedom Seder accomplished. There was a supersaturated solution of young Jews looking for some way to make these inherited rituals meaningful for the present. So what grew out of it was way more than I had imagined. People writing all kinds of new seders, feminist haggadot, anti-war haggadot, a vegetarian haggadah, and so many more. And the existence of the mimeograph machine made it possible to do that without the approval of any organized, Jewish established body. It meant you could do it yourself.

SM

It’s significant that the subtitle of the first Jewish Catalog in 1973 is “Do It Yourself Judaism.” The same basic idea.

AW

That’s right. And they wrote from joy, not from obligation. They wrote a Judaism that you could do because you really enjoyed it. It was really fun, and more than fun—joy was deeper than fun. And that was the message of my book from 1982, Seasons of Our Joy—that the seasons could be for joy, even the sad ones could be for joy in the great cycle of growth. And the whole notion that the seasonal cycle was not just a circle, but a spiral that could keep growing year after year and rise in people’s own lives. So that was what people wanted and they were hungry for it and they helped create it. And when that one crystal dropped, wow! Oh, you can do that?! Wow.

SM

That’s a great metaphor, Arthur. I wanted to ask about your small book, The Bush is Burning, which you published in 1971. It’s a book that I always teach with, and it’s really interesting to have eighteen-, nineteen-, twenty-year-olds read that book. It really is mind-blowing for many of them. It’s a timeless book in so many ways. It’s so much in the moment, but it also branches out. There’s a very suggestive phrase that you use to describe your own personal transformation from being a “Jewish radical to radical Jew.” Could you unpack that a bit—the Jewish radical to radical Jew—what did you mean by it at the time, and how you think it still resonates in today’s Jewish world?

AW

Well, for a couple years after the Freedom Seder, in 1969, I was totally unsure of what had happened to me. I mean, I felt like I wasn’t writing the Freedom Seder as much as the Freedom Seder was writing and rewriting me, turning me into somebody different. I was in that transformation from Jewish radical to radical Jew when we began the fabrengen, havurah-style minyan in Washington DC.1 I remember on Friday nights, I would sit in the doorway of the room where the cantor David Shneyer was chanting his songs because I didn’t know if I really belonged or not. It took a couple years for me to decide that I really did belong. 

SM

This notion of Jewish radical to radical Jew really captures a moment in the late sixties after the New Politics conference in Chicago in August 1967, where there were a lot of these New Left Jews who were Jewish radicals who started to feel alienated from the New Left because of the Israel stuff. This is right after the Six-Day War. And so it’s that movement from Jewish radical to radical Jew, which is expressed in The Bush is Burning

AW

For me, this transformation happened as the Freedom Seder came into my life. I was always clear about being Jewish, but it didn’t mean very much to me—except for the seder. The seder in my family was a big thing. My grandfather had been an organizer for Eugene Debs. My father was one of the key organizers of the Baltimore Teachers Union in the days when it was the only integrated institution in the entire Baltimore educational system. They were living the future by creating that union. The seder in our house was in English, and it was focused on freedom and justice. And that’s the way I learned it. That’s what it was about. So in 1968, when the seder came a week after Dr. King was murdered, the army was in the streets and there was a curfew that Lyndon Johnson established for the whole capital city of Washington DC. He sent in the army to enforce it because there was a Black uprising the day after King was killed.

I was part of a network of people called “The Center for Emergency Support.” We got food and lawyers and doctors into the Black community, which was otherwise totally cut off by the curfew. The curfew in theory applied to everybody, but the police didn’t care if white people were on the streets. So we were able to do that for a full week, day and night. And then came the first night of Passover. I walked home to get ready for the seder. And that meant walking past the army, and there was a Jeep with a machine gun pointed at the block I lived on. And my kishkes, my guts began to say, this is Pharaoh’s army! You’re going home to celebrate liberation from Pharaoh, and this is Pharaoh’s army! Oh, God. So the whole seder became, for me, a volcano in my own backyard that I didn’t even know existed.

It had always been serious for me, but in the midst of what was happening in Washington in 1968, it wasn’t just serious. It really was a volcano. And the traditional seder teaches: “In every generation, every human being [not just every Jew], every human being must look upon himself [herself, themself] as if we go forth from slavery to freedom.” Not our great-great-great-great ancestors only—but we! So I had read that line ever since I was old enough to read, but it was only a line on paper. But with Pharaoh’s army on the streets of Washington DC, it was like fire. And reading the Haggadah, suddenly this paragraph just leapt out—“Oh! That’s what’s happening on the streets and that’s what’s happening inside me.” 

That’s what made me a radical Jew. I began to understand what Judaism could mean—politically and spiritually. When I was writing the Freedom Seder, I would write a paragraph and call up one of my friends and read it to them, and half my friends said, “Waskow, that’s amazing!” And the other half said, “you can’t do that. There is a Haggadah! Nobody can write a haggadah!” So I decided to find out whether a seriously knowledgeable Jew who at least had decent politics, would think that what I was doing was useful or was just crazy. I asked around and got the name of Rabbi Harold White, a young rabbi in Washington. I called him up and explained what I was doing and said I wanted a frank answer whether it was useful or nuts.

When the hammer of the midrash strikes the rock of Torah, that’s where the sparks come from. And I fell in love with the whole idea that you could take a three-thousand-year old text, give it a twirl, and it would come out new.

And he said, “Well, it sounds interesting, send it to me.” So I sent it to him. A week later he calls up, he says, “Well, I read it, I love it! It’s an activist midrash [a creative commentary] on the Haggadah. You know, the rabbis two thousand years ago wanted there to be an activist involved in the great liberation. So they made up this story, this midrash, about somebody who goes into the Red Sea up to his nose ready to drown, and God wouldn’t split the sea until this activist went in ready to drown.” And I said, “What’s a midrash?” That’s where I was! And instead of saying, “Who needs to talk to an ignoramus like you!,” he said, “Oh, let me share the midrash with you.” And he sent me Nahum Glatzer’s little book, Hammer on the Rock: A Short Midrash Reader (1971). When the hammer of the midrash strikes the rock of Torah, that’s where the sparks come from. And I fell in love with the whole idea that you could take a three-thousand-year old text, give it a twirl, and it would come out new. It was just amazing to me! So the power of midrash, plus the politics of the haggadah, and increasingly I read some of the Hebrew Prophets. That’s what did it, and I became more and more inspired and driven by what this strange culture, religion, and spirituality could do. And these are the roots of what made me a radical Jew.

Sukkat Shalom Nuclear Disarmament Poster 1984, Courtesy of Arthur Waskow

SM

That’s a great story. I want to turn now to a whole library of stuff that you’ve written over the past sixty years. Some of the things that I think really still resonate with the younger generation are the God-Wrestling volumes and Seasons of our Joy. And I want to ask you to explore what you wanted to convey with those. 

AW

Well, Seasons began when I realized that in America, the Jewish community lived according to the festival cycle. That’s the only thing that made us different from any other Americans. And I wanted to communicate the depths of that difference, not just the Holocaust, not just the State of Israel, but the depths of what the festival cycle was about. So I decided to write a book about the festivals that would be both a history of the changes of the festivals and a kind of guidebook or handbook for how to do them with the spiritual roots beneath the doing. I wrote that and people loved it. They were tickled to realize that it wasn’t just that they were supposed to do it, but they could grow by doing it. And that’s what, for me, being a radical Jew means.

A few years ago I was invited to speak at Chautauqua2 about radicalism. So the first thing I did was to try to soften the implications for people. I dressed in a red shirt and white pants and I said, “This is the color of a radish because a radish and a radical are of the same root, and they both mean root.” And I said, “For me, the root of being a radical is Torah.” And then I talked about Torah as the root of what I try to live. So a guy stands up, he’s going to teach the rabbi. He says to me, “Well, very nice what you said. What do you do with: be fruitful, multiply, fill up the earth and subdue it?” He thought correctly that I wouldn’t especially like that as the goal of humanity on the planet. And I said, “Done! Now what?”

And he and everybody applauded. They got it. I was saying that the whole energy of humanity multiplying, ruling the earth, subduing it—it’s done. And unless we figure out something else, we’re done for. It’s like when people talk about cars and they say, I totalled the car. Totalling the car means totally destroying it. Well, that’s where we’re at. And then I said, for me, the next level has to begin with the Song of Songs. That’s not about coercing the earth. It’s not about coercing other human beings, it’s not about men coercing women. If you think that was the root of the Garden of Eden story, it’s not. It’s actually about joyful partnership between all human beings, between people of all genders, and between human beings and the earth—not about subjugation. And that’s where we need to begin with Torah for the next three thousand years.

SM

This leads into what I wanted to ask you next. I want to go back to environmentalism and ecology because certainly within post-war America, you really were one of the first true Jewish voices that raised ecology and environmentalism as a Jewish ethos. And lately, we don’t hear the term “environmentalism” anymore, we hear “climate change.” It’s all been scientized into climate change. And I’m just wondering how you see that transition from the environmentalism that you just described, which really has a strong spiritual component, to how the scientific community has taken over the narrative, while suggesting all kinds of really important things. I’m wondering if you feel like the spiritual critique has somehow been lost—that spiritual critique of the Whole Earth catalog, the spiritual critique of your work on the environment back in the sixties. What’s the price of making it a scientific idea versus a much broader consciousness-raising idea? What are the spiritual elements of the environmentalist movement that you were at the forefront of back in the 1960s?

AW

Through my journey deeper and deeper into Torah, I had another discovery that was as unexpected as my discovery of midrash. It started when I was eleven and my grandmother began to teach me Hebrew. First, she taught me aleph-bet and then words, then sentences, and then a sentence that had the letters, yudheivavhei. And she said, “That’s Adonai.” I knew enough about the Hebrew alphabet by then to know that the word Adonai should be spelled with the letters dalet and nun. I said “Grandma, you just taught me a dalet, but there’s no dalet in a yudheivavhei. You taught me a nun. But there’s no nun in that word either. It can’t be!” She said, “I know, just do it!”

I’m an eleven-year-old kid. So I just did it, and I kept on doing it until I was thirty-five or forty. But eventually I stopped and I said, “What would happen if I tried pronouncing yudheivavhei as it’s written in Hebrew, with no vowels?” It’s not Yahweh, which has two vowels. It’s not Jehovah, which has three vowels. What would happen? So what happened for me was—an out-breath—and I felt, “Oh, that makes sense!” It makes much more sense than Adonai, which means Lord, it makes much more sense than Melech, which means king. But the breath makes sense! First of all, what came to me was that if we are yearning for unity, there’s no word in every human language that is the same—but breathing is. Breathing is the substrate of all the names of God and all the names of everything. This is the universal name! How smart the ancient Israelites were. Not to name their God “Osiris,” or any of the other names, but simply breathing. 

Breathing is the substrate of all the names of God and all the names of everything. This is the universal name!

The second thing that occurred to me was that it’s not just human beings that say the name of God. All the life of this planet breathes and what’s more, they inter-breathe. The animals, all of them, breathe in oxygen and breathe out CO2, and the vegetation, all of it, breathes in CO2 and breathes out oxygen. And that’s the inter-breathing of all living things, all saying the unpronounceable name of God in every moment. And that’s when the science and the spirituality, it seemed to me, joined together. It took a while for me to realize that what we call the climate crisis, which is caused by the overproduction of CO2, so much so that all the plants on earth couldn’t absorb that much CO2 to turn it into oxygen, is also a spiritual crisis. The inter-breathing is being choked by the overproduction of CO2, which makes the planet hotter and hotter and hotter. We are choking God’s name.

And when I teach this, people gasp. They don’t choke, they gasp. They think that’s wonderful. The whole notion that the name of God is breathing and that breathing is the crucial element of what’s gone wrong, what people call the climate crisis. So I teach that it’s a crisis in the name of God. It’s not just a climate crisis. And as you say, a lot of people don’t get it and they rest only on the science. I try to teach the spiritual element that what’s driving us to disaster is greed. And that’s a classic spiritual issue: Is greed or love the way in which we shape our lives? And clearly in our society greed is a lot stronger than love. And I teach that that is an issue. And we have to face the fact that there is no way to deal with the climate crisis unless we deal with greed in light of love.

Arthur Waskow, Shoshana Waskow, and Pete Seeger, 1998, Courtesy of Arthur Waskow

I teach that it’s a crisis in the name of God. It’s not just a climate crisis. . . . I try to teach the spiritual element—that what’s driving us to disaster is greed.

SM

One of the things I find striking, and that students who read some of your early work really notice, is that you said some very provocative and courageous things very early on following the Six-Day War in 1967 about Palestinians when the term itself was hardly being used, certainly in America. Yet it seems, at least the way I was reading it, certainly in the Bush is Burning, that even as you were being critical, you still considered yourself a Zionist of sorts. Looking back now from 2023 and what’s happening in Israel today, and what’s happening on the question of American Judaism and the role that Israel has in it, where do you see that story going? Where has it come from, and where do you see it going?

AW

My first visit to Israel was in the summer after the Freedom Seder in 1969. My then wife was the sister of one of the founders of a kibbutz in the Negev, and she said she wanted to spend the summer with her sister. Being a Zionist was something more than just support for a Jewish state. It was support for the center of all Jewishness being a Jewish state. And I was never there. I had a long debate with a guy who was a kibbutznik and a lefty, that summer of ’69. When I told him I thought I was a Diasporist, I said, “I think I’m really convinced that a great deal of the creativity of Judaism came from diaspora Jews, and that’s what I’m committed to.” He said, “Wow, I have never heard of such an idea.” The American and Israeli Jewish communities evolved in different reactions to the Holocaust. American society in the ‘30s had strong antisemitic currents, but the Holocaust wiped that out. People were so horrified by what could happen that I think in America, there was a collapse of antisemitic culture and politics. In Israel, the fact that they began a war against others who were horrified by the existence of a Jewish community claiming to be a state in the midst of an Arab and mostly Muslim region reinforced the fear and rage born out of the Holocaust. So the difference in the surrounding communities made for a real difference in the way in which the two sets of Jewish communities, in America and Israel, responded.

SM

I wanted to ask you another question related to that. So much of the conversation in American Jewry today is about antisemitism and the rise in antisemitism—antisemitism on the left, antisemitism on the right. What are your thoughts about that? Do you see this phenomenon as a real threat to American Jewry? Do you see much antisemitism on the left, and all of those equations between anti-Zionism and antisemitism? What are your thoughts on that?

AW

Well, as you notice, I have not spent much of the last fifty or sixty years working on antisemitism except Soviet antisemitism. Twice, I’ve been arrested at what was then the Soviet Embassy because of its behavior towards Soviet Jews. In America, until the Trump administration, I did not think that antisemitism was a serious threat. It was there [it existed in American culture], but it was frowned on. There were very few people who were willing to turn it into political energy. But a president of the United States who was willing to encourage it has made a real difference. But rather than address that problem, we’ve become consumed by the notion that any serious critique of Israel is antisemitic. I’m sure there are antisemites who wage a serious critique of Israel, but the Jewish people made the decision to create a state. If you create a state, a state is vulnerable to all the ills of statehood. Some states are more or less good and some are terrible.

I think the massive demonstrations over the last several months mostly focused on the danger that the present government has to an independent judicial system as it dealt with Jews and was not really seeing how behavior toward the Palestinians was affecting and corrupting behavior toward Jews. It would be much more important if that became a shared understanding of the uprising in Israel.

And that’s what I hope for—that the uprising can understand that ending the occupation is going to be necessary if they want a renewal of democracy in Israel. So by deciding to invent this state, we should’ve taken on ourselves the expectation that of course people are going to criticize the state. All states merit critique, and the Jewish state is no exception. And that’s not necessarily antisemitic, to criticize the state. 

The Jewish people made the decision to create a state. If you create a state, a state is vulnerable to all the ills of statehood. Some states are more or less good and some are terrible.

One of the dangers of the way the state operates is it tries to claim that all Jews everywhere are sort of quasi-citizens of the state and owe it obedience and loyalty. Some people think, “Oh, well that’s true.” Well, that’s not true. It’s not true in theory, and it’s increasingly not true in practice. So thinking that every Jew in the world supports the behavior of the present government is just false. It’s classic antisemitism. We should be saying, “Let’s be clear, there’s a spectrum of political opinions in every Jewish community.” In Israel and in America, there are serious criticisms of the present government and increasingly of what it means to define the state as a Jewish state rather than as a state of all its citizens. So that’s one aspect of this. 

And then another aspect is the antisemitism of the right, the antisemitism of the guy who killed eleven Jews in prayer at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Because he had a reason. He said the Jews were welcoming Latino and African refugees and immigrants to the United States and defending their right to be accepted as American. That’s why he murdered those Jews. Well, he was right that the Jewish community recognizes the need for refuge. There’s even a verse in Deuteronomy [23:16] which I wish Jews would quote more, as well as Christians, which says, if someone comes to you out of feeling that his master is oppressive, do not send him back to his master. Bring him within your gates and let him live wherever he wants inside your gates, your boundaries, and encourage him to become part of the community. That’s right there! And if you think, “My God, we have defined ourselves as a band of refugees,” of course you would treat people who were refugees that way.

SM

Yes, a hundred percent. I want to take that and go back to 1964 and the story that you told about being in DC watching Pharaoh’s army after Dr. King was murdered. Where do you think America is on the race question? You went through the transition from civil rights to Black nationalism. Now you have the Black Lives Matter protests, along with a whole intellectual tradition in Black studies and in critical race theory. How do you see the transition within the Black community from the desire for rights, to the desire for power, to this new sense of rethinking the very story of America?

AW

There’s no denying the fact that American society, in the North and the South, was originally built on the basis of the existence of slavery. And there has been a constant fight to transform that fact into a different society, a multiracial democracy. And that fight has not been easy and it’s not been won. Pieces of it have been won, you might say. But the fight as a whole has not been won, because there’s a real opposition, there are people who want to return to a society that was fundamentally based on white Christian male hegemony.

The Tanakh itself, the Hebrew Bible, is a record of arguments about that in our own history. For me, the most disgusting part of the Torah is the story where God commands that Moses and the Israelites carry out the genocide of the Midianites, Moses’s own family through his wife, Tzipporah. People ask: “Why are we keeping this in the Torah and why do we read it every year?” I think it’s valuable to keep because it reminds us that we are not immune to the virus of genocide. It reminds us to watch ourselves. We can’t say, “Oh, we’re Jews. We would never behave that way!” Well, we have a story that helps us remember that we can indeed behave that way. So let’s take that story as a warning, as a caution.

I think we’re at the cusp of something. The Civil War isn’t dead. But the possibility of a real reconstruction isn’t dead either. The struggle goes on! God forbid that it turns into a bloody war again. But the struggle continues. We have to live knowing that that’s true. It’s also clear that huge imbalances in wealth and income are not possible in a thriving democracy. So the race question is distinct, and not alone, in threatening democracy in America. It’s also connected with the planetary crisis. The fact that there are corporations so rich that they were able to spend just a small part of their wealth to prevent any action that would rein them in is the reason that the climate crisis has gotten so bad. So the two are linked. I have found myself actually working on drafting a real democratic constitution for the United States, looking at what the blocks of democracy are, and what the blocks to ecological sanity are in present American politics and trying to imagine an America in which it would be a real, full multiracial, multi-sexual, multi-religious democracy with real love and caring for the earth. What would a society that took the Song of the Songs as its central teaching be like? And how would we function politically in that register?

SM

I want to take you to the early 1970s, back to Philadelphia and the beginning of P’nei Or [founded by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi].3 The Philadelphia scene was the kind of germ cell of what became the Jewish Renewal movement. And you were very much at the center of it with Zalman. A lot of attention and focus since Zalman’s passing has been on his contribution to that conversation. But I always tell people that when you talk about the early phases of Jewish Renewal, Arthur Waskow was really right there at the center of it. What do you see as your role in that movement and in its beginnings, and where do you situate yourself now looking at what Jewish Renewal has become? Do you see yourself as a part of it?

AW

Yes. I took part in the last Kallah [ALEPH’s Jewish Renewal annual meeting]. The first one was in 1985. I, with Zalman, created ALEPH as a merger between my organization, The Shalom Center, and his spiritual community, P’nei Or. We often forget this about Zalman, the fact that he was a victim of war (the Second World War). He was a refugee from Vienna. In Vichy France, he was a victim of a pro-Nazi government. He escaped from southern France, first to Cuba and then to the US. He understood what being a refugee was, what war did to people, and he didn’t forget and he spoke out against it. He was not a politically focused person, but I went to him and said, “I know how you feel and I know how I feel about the liturgical work you’re doing and the spiritual possibilities and your deep ecumenism with other religious communities. I feel that too. And we are so similar. Why don’t The Shalom Center and P’nei Or merge?” And we ended up naming [the collaboration] ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Our work on Israel, by 2005, resulted in the two centers becoming separate again. But I’ve never abandoned being a member of Ohalah, the Jewish Renewal Rabbinic Association. I’ve never abandoned caring about ALEPH, even after being sort of pushed out of it.

I decided to become a member of the Reconstructionist movement because I thought Ohalah was less oriented to social justice. I found more response among the Reconstructionist rabbis. But I’ve carried membership in both of them for years now because I think that they both belong together and that they are different reflections of the same impulse towards love and justice. Somebody said, justice is the public face of love. And I think that’s true, and I think that it’s important for Jewish organizations to affirm both of them. 

SM

One of the things I find interesting is that among the younger generation of people affiliated with Renewal, many of them come to Renewal with a very progressive political consciousness. They had been involved in progressive movements, they’d been involved in Black Lives Matter, they’ve been involved in other progressive things. I think what you said was right. One of the things that Renewal really lacks in its public face is politics. And when I speak to people like that, I tell them that they have to go to Arthur and The Shalom Center because that’s where the politics is. That’s a dimension that hasn’t really been adequately integrated into this new iteration of Renewal yet. So I think maybe some of the work that you did decades ago will begin to bear more fruit in that way.

AW

Well, I hope that’s true. I think there are changes happening partly because history has been demanding it. And so I’m hopeful that Jewish Renewal will be as I think it was intended to be in the beginning: politically and spiritually creative. Zalman told me once—this must have been six or seven years after the Freedom Seder—he said, “when the Freedom Seder appeared in Ramparts Magazine, I was so delighted because I knew you had never heard of me. I had never heard of you. The whole notion of a new form of Judaism that I had been cooking up . . . here it was! I was so happy because it meant that I wasn’t crazy, that somebody else was doing it and didn’t even know me and somebody else was doing a piece of the same vision.” So I think that sense of possibility may be turning again.

SM

What advice would you give to this new generation who want to own their radical selves? What should they be radical about? What could they take from you for all of the decades that you’ve been a radical?

AW

Well, that story about Chautauqua is part of what I say: go to the root. The radical is about going to the root. And I think the root is a spiritual outlook on the world. The root is love and justice. I am not a prophet, but what I seek is a prophetic vision. And with that is the possibility for political radicalism. This new constitution I’m working on is pretty radical, and at the root of that is a spiritual vision. I think the prophetic is about the transformation of the individual and the society in terms of love. So in terms of how to carry that into actuality, the world of doing, there are two things I’ve found myself working on.

Go to the root. The radical is about going to the root. And I think the root is a spiritual outlook on the world. The root is love and justice. 

One is that we have for decades spontaneously taken one or another of the festivals or the fasts for public action. I remember when a group of Jews near Washington turned Tisha b’Av into a time to challenge the United States war in Vietnam, connecting the Romans sowing the land of Israel with salt to try to prevent crops from growing with what the United States was doing with Agent Orange, trying to prevent forests from growing and violating the passage of Torah about not destroying trees, even or especially in times of war. So that took Tisha b’Av beyond the two ancient temples in Jerusalem. And now about fifteen years ago, Rabbi Tamara Cohen, actually at the request of The Shalom Center, wrote what she called “Eicha for Earth,” a Book of Lamentations for Earth in English, and chantable by the traditional, mournful, grieving melody of the Book of Lamentations.

So what has come to me and to us, not just at The Shalom Center, is the question of what would happen if we tried to make these sporadic efforts at taking one of the festivals—Pesach against the Pharaohs that are bringing plagues upon the earth, Hanukkah as the time of conservation of oil into a conservation of energy and solarization—what would happen if we take each holiday in its deepest contemporary meaning? 

We can imagine that forty and then four hundred years from now, most of the Jewish community assumes that every festival has a public ecological or social change demand built into it. We imagine that if you ask somebody, “So what did you do for Passover?” you would get not only the answer, “Oh, I did the seder to remember the ancient liberation from Pharaoh,” but of course, “The next day we appeared at a government office, a corporate office, somewhere to say: last night I chanted a line that says, ‘In every generation, every human being should look upon ourselves as if we go for from slavery to freedom,’ so here we are! It’s time to move forward from slavery to freedom!” And that would be absolutely natural. I hear the matzah in the light of Martin Luther King’s outcry about “the fierce urgency of now,” because that’s what the matzah is about. Now! You have to get going—not wait, not let the bread rise. Now! There’s the powerful and redemptive urgency of now. 

And it’s no accident that the tradition teaches that during Passover, we also chant Shir HaShirim—the Song of Songs, the Song within all songs, the Song beyond all songs. For the rabbis who taught this knew that the ultimate flowering of freedom was not just the Red Sea, not even Sinai, but the Garden of Eden for a grown-up human race. Love of all beings for all beings, the Love that is even stronger than death.

Arthur Waskow 2010, Courtesy of Arthur Waskow

Footnotes

  1. A fabrengen is a Yiddish term used in Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic communities for a gathering with spiritual teachings, niggunim (singing Hasidic melodies), l’chaims (drinks), and snacks, usually on holidays or special occasions. Havurah is a Hebrew term (meaning a social group) that was adopted by the Jewish Renewal movement to refer to informal, unaffiliated Jewish communities that met to practice Jewish holidays and rituals together.
  2. The Chautauqua Institute in upstate NY runs a summer-long series of lectures on politics, religion, and the arts.

Arthur Waskow is a lifelong activist, author, rabbi, and religious leader. He has published more than two dozen books, including the Freedom Seder and his best seller, Seasons of Our Joy. He founded The Shalom Center in 1983 as a “prophetic voice in Jewish, multireligious, and American life.” He has trained rabbis at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, co-founded Aleph: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal (with Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi), helped to found the National Havurah Institute, the Green Hevra (an early network of Jewish environmental organizations), and Rabbis for Human Rights North America (now T’ruah).

Shaul Magid is Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University, and rabbi of the Fire Island synagogue. In 2023-2024 he is the Visiting Professor of Modern Judaism at Harvard. He works on Jewish thought and culture from the sixteenth century to the present, focusing on the Jewish mystical and philosophical tradition. His three latest books are The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism (Academic Studies Press, 2019), and Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical (Princeton University Press, 2021). His book The Necessity of Exile: Essays from a Distance will be published with Ayin Press in 2023. He writes regularly for Religion Dispatches+972, and other topical journals. He is an elected member of the American Academy for Jewish Research and the American Society for the Study of Religion.


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