Football, Rape, Cash: Idolatry

— by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

I watched with horror but little surprise as thousands of Penn State students rioted against the firing of Head Football Coach Joe Paterno for failing to call the police  – even when a grad student told him of actually witnessing the anal rape of a ten-year-old boy.

The fact that a few days later, thousands of students mourned the damage to  dozens of young lives felt like only the first small step toward compassion, toward comfort.

For it is the systematic idolatry of football at Penn State  and beyond that is the true culprit — not merely Joe Paterno or the alleged multiple rapist, Jerry Sandusky, or the now dismissed president of the University and his indicted colleagues

These people were merely the priests of that idolatrous cult.  Football brought oceans of prosperity to Penn State, as to other colleges and businesses — and like many ancient and modern idolatries, whoever / whatever can bring such abundance is a god and Its priesthood is too sacred to be doubted.

What is idolatry?

More after the jump.
It is turning a pleasing and partial aspect of the universe, a single limited aspect of the  Holy, into the Ultimate.  It is falling on our faces and closing our eyes before it, blinding ourselves to its flaws,  as if it were the Interbreathing of all life, the Majestic Order of all existence.

The Talmud tells a tale of a Jew who came to one of the ancient rabbis: “I have bought a Roman house with beautiful pool and waterfall. At one end of the pool is a beautiful statue of Venus. Must I destroy it as an idol?”

“It depends,” answered the rabbi. “If the pool was put there to adorn and celebrate the statue, it is an idol. Destroy it. If the statue was sculpted to adorn and beautify the pool, then it is art. Enjoy it.”

Football has its place. It can be an example of graceful speed, agility, accuracy, and strength – an example of how delightful the human body can be, one of the glorious unfoldings of Divine grace and Divine Grace, love beyond merit.

As the Jewish prayer says on the occasion of going to the bathroom, ” We thank You for this body of open hollow vessels and closed-off stops, knowing that if the hollow vessels became closed-off or the closed places became open, we could not survive before You to live and celebrate Your creativity.”

But for many football has become an idol.  Why?


As Moses warns the people,

“You will enter this rich and fruitful land that has grown and flourished because I, the Breath of Life, have interwoven plants and animals, microbes and mountains, human beings of many different talents and desires and cultures.

“But soon you will convince yourselves that you alone invented all this fruitfulness, that you can exploit it with no self-restraint, that it would be a waste of time — literally, a waste of time – for you to pause and let the earth and yourselves and each other rest and celebrate the Interbreathing that created it.

“Corruption will conquer. If you rape the Earth your Mother, why not rape your own children?”

“And then the abundance will vanish.”

And the people will face the truth – some with grief and awe and compassion, some with rage at what they seem to be losing.

Whether it is a world-wide church or a single yeshiva or synagogue or mosque or ashram,  a football stadium or a computer design or a company that extracts primeval carbon from the planet’s underparts, elevating abundance from part of the sacred whole to the Ultimate is one of the paths to self-destruction.

Penn State and BP’s oil-well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico were rooted in the same spiritual distortion.

The sacred intertwining that does in fact deserve our celebration, our awe, does not need to be called God. Some who call themselves secular feel and act upon that Awe; some who call themselves religious have turned “God” into an idol.

Indeed, in another story the ancient rabbis say they went searching for the impulse to idolatry, hoping to destroy it – and finally found it hiding in the innermost chamber of the sacred Temple, the Holy of Holies.

It is the Awe that we must constantly renew, not the labels we attach to it.

With blessings of wholeness, harmony — shalom, salaam, the deep peace —


Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director, The Shalom Center; newest book, co-authored with R. Phyllis Berman, is Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness Across Millennia (Jewish Lights), available from Shouk Shalom, our on-line bookstore

Occupy Wall Street – Commentary Still Doesn’t “Get” Young Jews

— by Kenneth Bob

“It’s déjà vu all over again,” Yogi Berra’s overused aphorism, fits this moment perfectly.

Mid-week before Yom Kippur, Daniel Seiradski, a new media activist, asked on Facebook whether people would attend a Kol Nidre service at the site of the Occupy Wall Street. First there were a hundred people who responded in the affirmative, then two hundred and by the time the service was held a few days later, press reports estimated that there were 1000-1500 people in attendance.

In addition to the impressive numbers, the press quotes and online comments from the mostly young attendees, whether they skipped their regular synagogue observance or would not have attended services otherwise, were uniform in their appreciation of the organizers and in their sense of meaning they felt from their participation. All in all, an inspiring story of organization and communal engagement.

Mathew Ackerman, writing for Commentary, was not pleased. He admitted that

“it must be said there is, of course, justification to be found for specifically economic protests of a leftist variety in the prophets, perhaps most especially Isaiah. But it stretches truth far beyond the breaking point to claim such texts based on conditions in ancient Israel offer much guidance for the policy questions of our day, or impel a religious believer to a particular side of the political aisle.”

His tone became harsher, suggesting that “the organizers’ attempts to combine Judaism and today’s fashionable politics are simply incoherent.”

Seeing this critique of young, Jewish progressives by a Commentary writer took me back 40 years. In the February, 1971 issue of the magazine, four articles were dedicated to the Jewish role in the brewing “revolution” in America. In particular, writers took aim at Arthur Waskow‘s recently published The Freedom Seder and the entire radical Zionist movement that emerged on campuses at that time in response to the anti-Israel New Left.

More after the jump.
Norman Podhoretz, the magazine’s editor, wrote that the The Freedom Seder should be considered “a contribution to the literature of Jewish anti-Semitism” and suggested that Waskow and his ilk “belong to the tribe of the wicked son.”

Walter Laqueur, the noted historian, wrote that “the hope that young radicals of this generation will become “good Jews’ is a slender one, comparable perhaps with the hope of a psychoanalyst for the recovery of a patient with a weak ego structure or a serious intellectual deficiency.”

With the benefit of time, we now know that these “young radicals” have become Jewish Federation directors, Rabbis, not-for-profit executives, Jewish Studies professors, Jewish journalists, and active lay leaders in a wide range of Jewish life. Laqueur also challenged the sincerity of the movement’s “strong identification with Israel,” but that prediction was terribly off the mark as well when considering the number of kibbutzniks, social activists and others the movement produced for Israel.

As satisfying as it may be to settle old scores, what is truly important is that the Jewish community ignore >Commentary’s hope regarding the organizers: “Let their successes be few, and the passage of their movement from the American Jewish scene swift.” On the contrary, efforts like those on Kol Nidre should be encouraged and supported by the community.

Why? Regardless of your view of Occupy Wall Street (I am supportive) the related Jewish effort inspires creativity, develops leadership and results in community. Are these not all values that the Jewish community strives for?

I, for one, would expect that “graduates” of 2011 Wall Street Kol Nidre service and other such events will be activists in our community for years to come.

And one footnote, for historical purposes, linking this span of 40 years that I have described. Arthur Waskow, the author of the The Freedom Seder, is now a Rabbi and contributed the inspiration that became the New York Kol Nidre service this year.

Kenneth Bob is the National President of Ameinu.

Does The Spirit Matter?

— Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Last week, The Shalom Center suggested and encouraged Jewish communities to carry the celebration  of Yom Kippur into public space — in the “Occupy Wall Street”  protests.

In New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Washington, and other cities, people worked out ways of celebrating the most sacred Jewish festival while affirming that it  speaks powerfully to issues of justice, equality, the “99%” of Americans who have had more and more of our power to govern ourselves yanked away by the 1% most rich and powerful.

We have received dozens of letters from people who connected prayer with action in this way and who wanted to thank The Shalom Center for its support. Here is one:

My girlfriend (who is Jewish) and I (who am a Christian) attended the Kol Nedrie service across the street from Occupy Wall Street, on Friday evening. It was by far the most moving religious service I’ve ever attended. Such an example of a community consciously engaging with G_d to dream of change and a better world. I understand that you were one of the sparks that brought this event to fruition. Thank you so much.

More after the jump.
Indeed, we DID strike a spark with Dan Sieradski in NYC, and then with other creative people;  from those sparks, these sacred burnt-offerings arose.  

You can see and read a powerful video and article about the New York Kol Nidre, put together by the Forward newspaper, by clicking here.

One participant wrote:

The high point came during one part of the sermon, as Getzel’s voice rose louder and louder:
“Yom Kippur is the day that we are forgiven for worshipping the golden calf!
“What is the golden calf?
“It is the essence of idol worship!
“It is the fallacy that gold is God!”
Afterward, I felt like I was walking on air, and judging from the spontaneous song session that sprung up later, I suspect I wasn’t the only one.

One passage from the ancient prophet Isaiah and one from the modern prophetic teacher  Abraham Joshua Heschel were used again and again in these services across the country:

“This is the fast I have chosen:
to unlock the shackles of injustice,
to loosen the ropes of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free!”

“Prayer  is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow  and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism,  falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary  movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the  promise, the hope, the vision.”

The Yom Kippur prayers ask, “Who shall live and who shall die? Who by fire, who by flood?”

In our generation,  it is the whole planet, in the sacred Name of YHWH, the Interbreathing of all life, that asks this question. For we face the  danger of planetary Death, rooted in greed and domination —  and the joyful possibility of a Living Future rooted in love, in justice, and in compassion.  

What are we choosing? Can we make Spirit matter by infusing our pocketbooks with prayer, our compassion with commitment? With your help,  The Shalom Center will keep striking sparks of  sacred transformation.

Jews Among The Many: Where Should We Pray This Yom Kippur?

— Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Who ever imagined the question: “Where should we pray Yom Kippur?”

For centuries, the answer has been obvious: In our own sacred space  — a synagogue, or mini-fellowship, a havurah.

For more information about this extraordinary decision, please email Daniel Sieradski, visit the Facebook event page or call 347.560.0440.

But this weekend  — In the glowing light of “Occupy Wall Street,” more than 60 Jews in New York City have decided to take Kol Nidre, this Friday evening, into public space – God’s public holy space.

“Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.” — Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

More after the Jump.
Dan has asked us to make absolutely clear that this effort is a personal initiative of his own, not connected to any workplace or other institution.

The Shalom Center applauds this as one among several possible ways of honoring YHWH, the Interbreathing God of freedom,  in the midst of Yom Kippur.

That way may remind us that at the Burning Bush, God declared public holy space on behalf of freedom from suffering and oppression- “Take off your sandals,” spoke the Voice to Moses, “for this is Holy Ground.”

A second way:  Bring the values and visions  of “Occupy Wall Street” into highest awareness in the already established Jewish holy space of synagogue and havurah. This is not hard to do:

We have a profound teaching that on Yom Kippur morning, we read the passage from Isaiah in which he breaks into the official liturgy and calls for us to “FAST” not only by feeding the hungry and housing the homeless but by breaking off the hand-cuffs from our imprisoned millions – a very political act.

When you reach haftarah time on Yom Kippur morning, read it as an incitement to action. Intersperse the Isaiah passages with news stories straight from the daily paper or progressive magazines and Websites, of the struggling middle class and suffering poor in America.

See our translation and read past the translation itself into my comments on what Isaiah was doing – and what we should do.

Third way: Do Kol Nidrei and Yom Kippur morning in synagogue, and then come pouring out into the streets to visit your local focus-point of “Occupy Wall Street.”

When you arrive, read the Isaiah Haftarah aloud. Reclaim for the Spirit, for Judaism, for all the great religious traditions, the radical roots that say deep prayer is subversive, and that sacred public action for justice can be prayer — if it is done in compassion and nonviolence.

Beneath these ideas is a basic question: Jews, who for millennia have felt  we were “on our own” and had no allies to our basic values, have been unwilling to sacrifice our own unique spiritual-political practices and spaces and symbols amongst the larger bodies of the Spirit.

Are we still so isolated? Or can we turn the question upside down? Can we come out of our closet to make our own symbols and practices available to enrich the work of others?

Is the outpouring of “Occupy Wall Street” the teaching of our God of Ironies that it is time for all the peoples to make a “Yom Kippur” in which we face a Planetary Death and choose whether to choose life instead?  —  Jews can name where their own truthful wisdom comes from, while others bring and create their own —  they do not need the label.

Can we choose life in plural parallel? That is the basic question, and we will keep exploring it.

With blessings for this Turning-time in the history of the earth, that we choose shalom, salaam, healing, peace —  Arthur  

Ten Years Later: The Sukkah & the World Trade Center

The past, as William Faulkner said, is not even past.

— by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

At about 11 o’clock on 9/11 ten years ago, I casually phoned New York to talk with my beloved life-partner, Rabbi Phyllis Berman. Phyllis founded and directs an intensive English-language school for newly arrived immigrants and refugees. The school is housed in Riverside Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and every weekday Phyllis commutes back and forth from/ to Philadelphia.  

But that morning, my telephone gave back only a frantic bzz-bzz-bzz, a super-busy signal. After trying for 30 minutes, I called the Operator. “There’s a glitch in the phone system to New York,” I said.

“Haven’t you heard?” she answered — and explained.

I knew that once a  month or so, Phyllis had a business breakfast in the World Trade Centers. So now my call was not a casual “How you doing?” I finally got through to learn that she was safe at Riverside, shepherding her  frightened non-English-speaking students  to walk their ways home through a frantic, fearful city  — with no means of public transportation.

In 2001, September 11 came three weeks before Sukkot,  the Jewish harvest festival whose major symbol is a thatched hut, a sukkah, utterly open to the wind and rain.  
Through that day and night, I was haunted by two images: the proud, massive, sky-penetrating Twin Towers on Manhattan’s edge, and the  utterly vulnerable sukkah we were soon to build.

During the next weeks, as we move toward 9/11/11, I will share with you some prayers and liturgies that might help us build new sukkahs in our souls.

On September 12, I wrote the meditation that follows the jump.

The Sukkah & the World Trade Center

When the Jewish community celebrates the harvest festival, we build sukkot.

What is a sukkah? Just a fragile hut with a leafy roof, the most vulnerable of houses. Vulnerable in time, where it lasts for only a week each year. Vulnerable in space, where its roof must be not only leafy but leaky — letting in the starlight, and gusts of wind and rain.

In every evening prayer, we plead with God – Ufros alenu sukkat shlomekha – “Spread over all of us Your sukkah of shalom.”

Why a sukkah?- Why does the prayer plead to God for a “sukkah of shalom” rather than God’s “tent” or “house” or “palace” of peace?

Precisely because the sukkah is so vulnerable.

For much of our lives we try to achieve peace and safety by building with steel and concrete and toughness:

  • Pyramids,
  • air raid shelters,
  • Pentagons,
  • World Trade Centers.

Hardening what might be targets and, like Pharaoh, hardening our hearts against what is foreign to us.

But the sukkah comes to remind us: We are in truth all vulnerable. If “a hard rain gonna fall,” it will fall on all of us.

Americans have felt invulnerable. The oceans, our wealth, our military power have made up what seemed an invulnerable shield. We may have begun feeling uncomfortable in the nuclear age, but no harm came to us. Yet yesterday the ancient truth came home: We all live in a sukkah.

Not only the targets of attack but also the instruments of attack were among our proudest possessions: the sleek transcontinental airliners. They availed us nothing. Worse than nothing.

Even the greatest oceans do not shield us; even the mightiest buildings do not shield us; even the wealthiest balance sheets and the most powerful weapons do not shield us.

There are only wispy walls and leaky roofs between us. The planet is in fact one interwoven web of life. The command to love my neighbor as I do myself is not an admonition to be nice: it is a statement of truth like the law of gravity. For my neighbor and myself are interwoven. If I pour contempt upon my neighbor, hatred will recoil upon me.

What is the lesson, when we learn that we – all of us – live in a sukkah? How do we make such a vulnerable house into a place of shalom, of peace and security and harmony and wholeness?

The lesson is that only a world where we all recognize our vulnerability can become a world where all communities feel responsible to all other communities. And only such a world can prevent such acts of rage and murder.

If I treat my neighbor’s pain and grief as foreign, I will end up suffering when my neighbor’s pain and grief curdle into rage.

But if I realize that in simple fact the walls between us are full of holes, I can reach through them in compassion and connection.

The perpetrators of this act of infamy seem to espouse a tortured version of Islam. Responding to them requires two different, though related, forms of action:

  1. Their violence must be halted. They must be found and brought to trial, without killing still more innocents and wrecking still more the fragile “sukkot” of lawfulness. There are in fact mechanisms of international law and politics that can bring them to justice.
  2. At the same time, America must open its heart and mind to the pain and grief of those in the Arab and Muslim worlds who feel excluded, denied, unheard, disempowered, defeated.

We must reach beyond the terrorists — to calm the rage that gave them birth by addressing the pain from which they sprouted.

From festering pools of pain and rage sprout the plague of terrorism. Some people think we must choose between addressing the plague or addressing the pools that give it birth. But we can do both — if we focus our attention on these two distinct tasks.

To go to war against whole nations does neither. It will not apprehend the guilty for trial, and probably not even seriously damage their networks. It will not drain the pools of pain and rage; it is far more likely to add to them.

What would it mean, instead, to recognize that both the United States and Islam live in vulnerable sukkot?

What do we need to do to recover our knowledge of the history of two centuries of Western colonization and neo-colonial support for oppressive regimes in much of the Muslim world?

How do we keep remembering that in all religious communities and traditions — including Judaism and Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as Islam — there are streaks of blood? How do we work with the peaceful majority in each community to grow past those messages of violence toward embodying the vision of compassion?  

How do we welcome Muslim societies fully into the planetary community?

What does the United States need to do to encourage grass-roots support for those elements of Islam that seek to renew the tradition?

How do we encourage not top-down regimes that make alliances with our own global corporations to despoil the planet, but grass-roots religious and cultural and political communities that seek to control their own resources in ways that nurture the earth?

Of course not every demand put forward by the poor and desperate and disempowered becomes legitimate, just because it is an expression of pain. But we must open the ears of our hearts to ask: Have we ourselves had a hand in creating the pain? Can we act to lighten it without increasing the over-all amount of pain in the world?

Instead of entering upon a “war of civilizations,” we must pursue a planetary peace. We must spread over all of us the sukkah of shalom.

Four Jewish Summer Camps Sell “Fracking Rights”

Camps Endanger Drinking Water, Food, Health & Climate

— by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

The Forward reported that the following four Jewish summer camps in Pennsylvania have signed leases with gas exploration companies to allow “fracking” —  the hydro-fracturing method of pouring tons of highly chemicalized water to smash shale rocks into releasing natural gas.

  • Starlight’s Perlman Camp, which is owned and operated by B’nai B’rith;
  • Camps Nesher and Shoshanim, which share a property in Lakewood and are owned and operated by the New Jersey Federation of YMHA and YWHA; and
  • Camp Morasha, an independent camp in Lakewood.

The Forward reports that

Fracking of a single well creates more than one million gallons of wastewater awash in pollutants, including some radioactive materials.  According to a February report in The New York Times, state and federal documents show that the waste water is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water.

The Shalom Center views it as a profound violation of Jewish wisdom and values for summer camps or other Jewish institutions to sell the rights to use their land in ways that will poison  God’s and humanity’s earth, air, food, and water.

More on actions you can take to halt this after the jump.
Normal Federal protections for drinking water and clean air have been thwarted by the Halliburton Loophole pushed through Congress by former Vice-President Dick Cheney. It prevents application of these protective rules to drilling by the gas and oil industries. As a result, no one knows what chemicals are causing the dangers to water, food, and health that are appearing in fracking areas.

Fracking has turned the drinking water of farmers near well-heads into “water” that turns to flame when a match is lit at the kitchen faucets.

Fracking threatens the drinking water supply of the Philadelphia and New York  City metropolitan areas, and has been charged with raising cancer rates in communities near fracking sites.

Fracking is also a planetary threat. Scientists at Cornell University have analyzed fracking and report that it leaks methane, a planet-heating gas much more  powerful than CO2, at such a rate that  “if you do an integration of 20 years following the development of the gas, [fracking] shale gas is worse than conventional gas and is, in fact, worse than coal and worse than oil.”

On September 7-8, the national commercial association of companies that are  fracking shale rock regions will gather for a national convention in Philadelphia.

So environmental organizations are planning to face the “Fracking Association” with major demonstrations on September 7-8. The goal is at least 2500 demonstrators, with a rally, a march, a counter-conference, and a “Blessing of the Waters.”

The Shalom Center has taken the lead in bringing together an interfaith planning committee to put together a “Blessing of the Waters” as part of the Sept 7-8 arrangements.

We invite religious folk, clergy and lay, who want to take part in these events to get in touch with us by writing Rabbi Arthur Waskow with “Interfaith Blessing Waters” in the subject line.

The two-day anti-fracking event will include: a large rally near the Philadelphia Convention Center from  noon to 2 pm, Wednesday September 7; a march through Philadelphia to Gov Corbett’s office that day; an interfaith “Blessing of the Waters” at Penn’s Treaty Park on the Delaware River at 5:30 pm;  and on Thursday, an all-day conference to plan strategy to stop fracking, to be held at Rodeph Shalom Congregation in down-town Philadelphia.

Fracking is currently under a moratorium in parts of New York State. New Jersey has just outlawed it. Wells have been drilled in parts of Pennsylvania. The Delaware River Port Authority has imposed a moratorium that may expire in September.

What you can do to stop fracking:

  • Call your child’s summer camp to urge they reject any leases or plans that might allow fracking.
  • Call  Daniel S. Mariaschin, Executive Vice President of B’nai Brith International, at (888) 388-4224 (toll-free) or 202-857-6600, about Camp Perlman, and Leonard Robinson, exec of the New Jersey Y Camps, who has decision-making power over those camps,  at (570) 296-8596..
  • Sign the petition for a national ban on fracking.
  • If you live in New York State, call Governor Cuomo at 518/474-8390 and urge him to ban fracking throughout New York State. In Pennsylvania, call Governor Corbett at 717/787-2500 with the same demand.
  • Call your members of Congress and tell them to pass the FRAC Act to repeal the “Cheney-Halliburton” exemption for hydrofracking from environmental laws.
  • Show the documentary film Gasland in your community. It documents the dangers of fracking. DVD’s are available on the Gasland website.
  • Save the dates of September 7-8 to attend the interfaith events on fracking in Philadelphia.  Click here for more information.
  • See our article for background.
  • Prepare to use Shabbat Noach, October 28-29, when Jews read the biblical story of the Flood, the Ark, and the Rainbow, as a time to address fracking and other threats to our planet, and act to heal our Earth in the spirit of the Rainbow.

I talked with Leonard Robinson, director of the New Jersey YH-YWHA summer camps (which are located in Pennsylvania). He gave four arguments for the leases:

  1. The issue is “bigger than we are,” he said. This meant that whether the Delaware Bay and River authorities clamp down on fracking will make a difference, and the camp is essentially helpless.
  2. Moreover, the camp’s neighbors were leasing their land and since the gas drilling/fracking may do damage beneath the earth’s surface horizontally across ownership lines, better they should make their own deal that might protect the camp’s land better than not leasing.
  3. The camp made a lot of money from the lease.
  4. The lease was agreed to two years ago, when the camp had much less information than it does now about the dangers of fracking. “Now, we can’t just cancel the lease.”

I responded thus:

Of course the issue is bigger than the camp. When big institutions are attacking Jewish values, the question is whether to surrender because they are more powerful or organize to stop them —  including, in this case, to reach out to the neighbors and work with them against the fracking companies.

I mentioned the San Francisco case where some people are organizing a referendum to outlaw circumcision of children. The official Jewish community could have decided the issue was “bigger” than they were – too big to fight – and surrender (even maybe having mohelim make a deal for a buy-off to replace their lost income) or instead, choose to fight. They chose to fight, because circumcision was seen as a core Jewish value. Are clean water, air, and food, and the healing of our climate crisis, the protection of God’s Creation, a core Jewish value or not? In “Jewish identity-building” of campers, what are they taught about Jewish values and the Earth?

As for the inviolability of leases agreed to two years ago, I pointed out to Mr. Robinson that it MIGHT be argued that if the fracking companies withheld information they had two years ago about the poisonous chemicals they are adding to the fracking water, and in other ways misled the camps and other lessees, that the leases might be voidable.

So I encourage you to call Mr. Robinson at (570) 296-8596, and urge him to take all necessary steps to void the existing leases, to make no new ones, to make protection of the Earth and of human health a clear Jewish value taught in his camps, and to join with The Shalom Center and others in the Jewish and  broader American communities to convince state governments to outlaw fracking, as the State of New Jersey has just done.

My conversation with Mr.Robinson makes clear that this issue goes beyond the four camps that have already leased land for fracking. It raises the basic question whether Jewish camping, which is widely  said to be intended to strengthen Jewish knowledge, practice, and values among young people, can actually enhance – instead of betraying –   its unusual opportunity of making connections between Jewish values and the healing of relationships between adam and adamah, the earthy human race and the Earth itself.

There are hundreds of such camps, sponsored by the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and various Orthodox denominations, by Habonim Labor Zionists and by Young Judea, by many Federations and other Jewish organizations.   There is even a Foundation for Jewish Camp, 15 West 36th Street, 13th Floor, New York, NY 10018 ; Phone: 646-278-4500, whose CEO is  Jeremy J. Fingerman, 646-278-4505.

Among these many camps, there is at least one,  Eden Village Camp in Putnam Valley, NY (877) 397-EDEN (3336);  which was founded explicitly to renew the Jewish connection with the Earth. Its program to do this is both extraordinary and exemplary.

The Shalom Center intends to pursue both our efforts to end any practices that subvert the Jewish value of healing God’s creation, and our efforts to strengthen those program that support that value as a core commitment of Judaism and the Jewish people.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director, The Shalom Center; newest book, co-authored with R. Phyllis Berman, is Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus & Wilderness across Millennia.

Weaver beyond Women: In Memory of Esther Broner

–by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

For more than the last generation, the new tallit of Judaism renewed has been woven of two great strands of thought and action: Hassidism and feminism. On of the most important weavers of the feminist strand has been Esther Broner.  

On Tuesday afternoon, June 21 (19 Sivan), after 83 years of intense life, after the recent death of her life-long husband, and after weeks of worsening illness, Esther’s life-force gave out.
She was surrounded by loving family and friends and by many prayers and messages of love and kindness, coming from many who had been inspired by her — sometimes face-to-face, sometimes  through her writings.

Many who wrote were, I am sad and joyful to say, responding to the Shalom Center‘s alerting us all to her illness.

Esther wrote The Women’s Haggadah; Her Mothers; A Weave of Women; The Telling: The Story of a Group of Jewish Women Who Journey to Spirituality through Community and Ceremony; and Mornings and Mourning: A Kaddish Journal.
For me, Her Mothers and A Weave of Women – her mid-’70s novels (the second about a semi-fictional group of women from all around the world, gathered in Jerusalem, who were reinventing Judaism with new ceremonies and midrash) were a crucial opening in my own rebirth.  

And her memoir of the Seder Sisters who have gathered for more than 30 years each Pesach to create and recreate their own Haggadah was both an affirmation and a beyond-growing of my work on the Freedom Seder.

Her pioneering mark on our thought and lives have already made her into a permanent presence, fuller than a memory, of tzaddik-hood.

Her daughter Nahama quotes her mother’s writing in Bringing Home the Light (p.168):

I see the day fade like smoke,
like fog in the harbor.
Tomorrow, the fog will burn off
in the morning sun.
The boats will depart,
the trees emerge,
so I live in and out of my life,
so I border on yours,
on the pillow of the past
and the brink of the day.

The family suggests that donations in her memory may be sent in Esther’s name  to one of the following three organizations:

B’nai Jeshurun Rabbis’ discretionary fund to Rabbi Rolando Matalon or to Rabbi Marcello Bronstein-2109 Broadway, Suite 203, New York, NY 10023-2106 or

Center for Constitutional Rights, 666 Broadway, NYC 10012

New Israel Fund (Projects focusing on women)

Beside these, I suggest as an act of creative memory and more than memory, reading or rereading A Weave of Women.  Through fiction set in an Israel of struggle and hope, it stirred many of its readers to help create the facts of a transformed Judaism, shaped especially but not exclusively by women, drawing on new forms of prayer and celebration and new acts of peacemaking.

Not only that novel but all her writing and her work as well can  help us do what the tradition calls us to: “Chadesh yamenu k’kedem, Make new our days as they were long ago.”  Not just in nostalgia celebrating the “good old days” of that early wave of Jewish feminism and neo-Hasidic renewal,  but making our own days new and full of creative energy as those days were in their own time.

Fracking and Fukushima: Obcene Efforts to Subjugate the Earth

— Rabbi Arthur Waskow

What is just happening in Japan and what is on the verge of happening in Pennsylvania have a deep connection.

In the one, it might seem that disaster flowed from a small-scale decision:  that it was “impossible” for a tsunami to get higher than x feet. That decision led to placement of emergency generators for the nuclear power plants in ways that made them vulnerable to being knocked out when a monster tsunami did in fact sweep across northern Japan.

Result: already as I write (5:30 a.m., Eastern US time, Tuesday March 15) radiation at medium levels is venting onto nearby regions of Japan, carrying the seeds of cancer and death that have forced the Prime Minister to tell residents to stay indoors. In the next week, God forbid, there may be a full melt-down of one or more of the damaged plants, rendering large areas of Japan (and possibly Korea, depending on wind currents) as uninhabitable as the Chernobyl melt-down rendered parts of Ukraine, while increasing the rate of cancer deaths in a larger swathe of Europe.

A small mistake, yes? —  misgauging the power of a possible earthquake and tsunami. As minor as the small mistake that turned the BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico into an ecological and economic disaster.

But neither one was exactly a “mistake.” The whole nuclear energy system, and the whole system of deep-sea oil drilling (now again permitted in the Gulf), and the whole system of  “fracking” for natural gas that endangers the drinking water of millions of Americans  — all are the result of a far more profound transgression.

More after the jump.
That transgression is the pursuit of power to control the earth and other human beings that has run amok. Has become not mere “control,” but subjugation. And has brought Plagues upon the Earth and all Humanity, as tyrannical Pharaoh brought plagues upon ancient Egypt.

All life on Earth is the result of a Dance between control and community. Eco-systems are ways in which any given species restrains itself from overwhelming its surroundings, encouraging other species to co-exist with it in a biological community- not using as much power to control as it might, so that it can continue to live in the longer run.

(For example: an amoeba might gaily multiply itself into proliferous plurality, gobbling up all the sugary water in the vicinity – until there is no more sugar and too many amoebae, who then all abruptly die.  But if the amoebae learn to limit themselves and leave space for other life-forms, what emerges is a eco-system. Fewer amoebae at any one moment, but they can live on into the future.)

In human culture, knowing when to Do and when to Pause, when to restrain one’s self, when to encourage a community instead of gobbling up all wealth and power for one’s self, is   crucial. All the great traditions tried to teach this wisdom. Indeed, it was made them great, able to live across millennia.

When some human institution of Power-Over over-reached, ran amok – like Pharaoh, the Babylonian Empire, Rome – the corrective came in a great new surge of community – new kinds of community. But Modernity has become an adventure in Over-reaching, Over-powering, far beyond any previous imperial power.

And the result has been General Electric’s convincing Japanese governments that its expertise could overpower earthquakes and tsunamis, that nuclear energy was more “profitable” than wind or solar energy could ever be, that the “cost” of a billion dollars each for these brittle power plants was better spending than conserving energy in the first place, learning to live within limits, encouraging decentralized arrays of sun and wind power that lived in the nooks and crannies of the Earth instead of trying to dominate it.

And the spending was better – for General Electric. And for BP. And for Massey Coal. But not better for the Earth or human earthlings.

And now let’s look at the other obscene word  —  “fracking” — in the same light. It’s slang for “hydrofracturing” —  that is pouring tons of chemicalized and pressurized water into shale rock that has within it natural gas that can only be accessed by fracturing the rock.

But this means that the water table is poisoned. Watching the film Gasland, one sees drinking water flaming up – literally burning – when a match is touched to it.

Obviously, thank God and the wisdom of our Congress, such processes that poison the drinking water of millions of people are forbidden by the Clean Water Act.

But — Vice-President Chaney and the Big Oil conglomerates he worked for persuaded Congress to exempt oil and gas companies from the provisions of the Clean Water Act.

How did they pull this off? With money, of course. Money in campaign contributions, money in lavish lobbying (of judges, not only Congress).  This money was not wasted. It was an investment, mere millions paying off in multibillions of profit.

And what did the exemption mean? That the fracking companies don’t even report what the chemicals are they are putting in the water.  Independent researchers, working on shoe-strings, have isolated some of them: cancer-producers among them. And that the fracking companies expect enough profits  to make it worth their while to buy state governors and legislatures.

So in Pennsylvania, not only is there no regulation of fracking but not even taxes on the fracking profits.
The companies plan tens of thousands of fracking wells in the Marcellus Shale region. In the shale region itself, some wells that have watered farm families for generations are already poisoned. It may take a generation for Philadelphians to start dying of the cancer-causing chemicals that seep into their drinking water.

Just as it took the Fukushima nukes a generation to start poisoning the Japanese people.

“Frack you!” say the oil companies. “Fukushima you!” says General Electric.

What we need is the birthing of a new kind of community, just as ancient wandering Hebrews responded to Pharaoh with Sinai, as Biblical Israel responded to Rome with both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, as the Arabian tribes responded to the tyrants of Mecca with Islam.

A planetary community.

Rabbi Phyllis Berman and I concluded that that was the crucial wisdom we need to learn from the story of Exodus, when we wrote Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness Across Millennia.   For more information on the book, and on the Interfaith Freedom Seder for the Earth, please see the Shalom Center website.

But it’s not just us, or that book. More, of course, to come.

Blessings of shalom, salaam, of a deeper, fuller freedom for the Earth and all Humanity.

“To Bigotry No Sanction”: Should US follow Washington or Pharaoh?

— Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Remarks at Philadelphia City Hall, March 11, 2011

The hearings planned by Congressman Peter King to isolate American Muslim communities as hotbeds of terrorism evoke two memories from Jewish life – one from two centuries ago, in America; the other, far more distant —  about 35 centuries ago, in Egypt.

The first:

“Now there arose a new king over Egypt… And he said to his people, “Behold,  the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us use our wits against them, lest they multiply and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and rise up over the land…. So they made the Children of Israel subservient and embittered their lives.” (Exodus 1: 10-13)

In the other, it was August 17, 1790. The new Constitution had been in effect barely more than a year, and the Bill of Rights — including the First Amendment’s forbidding Congress to invade freedom of religion — had not yet been adopted. But President George Washington had just received a letter from the “Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island,” asking what the role of Jews and Judaism would be under the new government.

More after the jump.
Washington was no great writer, no great speaker. Yet he wrote back perhaps the most eloquent and ringing words of his life.  Though it is clear that his behavior as a slaveholder was ignoble, yet this letter bespoke nobility:

“To bigotry, no sanction;
To persecution, no assistance.”

“May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall  be none to make him afraid….”


In the minds of Americans in 1790, “the stock of Abraham” meant the Jewish community. Yet two centuries later, millions of American Muslims also look upon themselves as “the stock of Abraham,” and for them Washington’s promise is in jeopardy.

Shall American government and society today lean toward Washington’s or Pharaoh’s vision of society, when it comes to behavior toward American Muslims?

There have been virulent attacks by radio talk “hosts” with millions of listeners against Islam as a religion. Local governments have tried to use zoning laws to prevent the construction of mosques in neighborhoods where churches were warmly welcomed. And where local governments have supported such efforts (as in New York City and the plans to create a Muslim community center/mosque in Lower Manhattan), political vigilantes have whipped up a storm of fear and rage.

Yet the most egregious of these acts of bigotry is the  decision by the new chair of the House of Representatives Committee of Homeland Security, Congressman Peter King of Long Island, to hold hearings on American Islam as if it were a hotbed of terrorism.

Leave aside Congressman King’s own hypocrisy: He used to support the Irish Republican Army, twin culprits with the Ulster nationalists in terrorizing Northern Ireland for three decades. Leave aside the real question about homeland security: Why is it taking so long to secure American ports against the clandestine import of high explosives, even nuclear weapons, for use against civilians? Leave aside why the Committee is not looking urgently into the network of incitement against “homeland security” that led to the near murder of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the actual murder of her staff and supporters  and a Federal judge — an event that one might think should occupy the thoughts of another Member of Congress.

Leave all that aside, and we still must ask ourselves what it means for the Congress to be inciting bigotry and inviting persecution of an entire religious community

In two sorts of crises in the past — wars and economic depressions — some Americans have reacted with scapegoating of “the other” and attacks on freedom. These moments include passage of the Alien & Sedition Acts in the 1790s during the half-war with France, the “draft riots” that killed hundreds of Blacks in New York City during the Civil War, the “Red Scare” deportations led by J. Edgar Hoover in 1919, the wave of anti-Semitism during the Great Depression, the imprisonment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the hounding of artists and professors and actors and activists by Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee early in the Cold War.

Afterward, almost all Americans have felt deeply ashamed of these behaviors. But during each episode, some political forces in America benefited from inciting bigotry.

Now, we are in the midst of both mass disemployment and an endless, unwinnable war. For those modern analogues of Pharaoh who rule and support centers of great undemocratic power and wealth while stripping others of public services and servants — teachers, nurses, social workers — indeed, while some lose jobs, homes, lives, and limbs — it is convenient to make scapegoats, just as Pharaoh did.

Indeed, as we look around today we notice that the same political forces that are trying to smash unions, to undermine the health of low-income women by defunding Planned Parenthood, to weaken even the mildest milieux of independent public discussion by defunding NPR, to risk global scorching and the pollution of the drinking water of millions of Americans and the imposition of unprecedented droughts in Russia and unprecedented floods in Pakistan — all for the sake of enormous profits — are the same forces trying to scapegoat Hispanics and Muslims, so as to distract those who are suffering in the present economic, political, and cultural crisis in the US and the world.

This analysis of our situation suggests that addressing bigotry directly is a necessary but not sufficient response to the wave of bigotry. It is crucial to address as well the need to end the endless wars and the economic depression that are exacerbating Americans’ sense of insecurity and anxiety that make scapegoating attractive.

In the present American crisis, there is an even more precise political use for anti-Muslim scapegoating. The second most progressive ethnic voting bloc in the US, second only to African-Americans, is the Jewish community.   Efforts to use anti-gay or anti-immigrant or anti-abortion rhetoric to divide various progressive blocs and nullify their progressive instincts have been shrugged off by almost all American Jews.

But anti-Muslim bigotry, because it evokes fears of Muslim and Arab hostility to the State of Israel, has won more support in parts of the Jewish community than any of these other forms of bigotry. At the same time, still other parts of the Jewish community have responded out of strong memories of the treatment of Jews as outsiders, pariahs, and traitors, from the time of Pharaoh to the time of Henry Ford and Father Coughlin.

The best of Jewish wisdom, Jewish values, and Jewish historical experience all accord with the best of American wisdom, American values, and American historical experience to teach us that America will “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” as the Constitution promises,  if we choose the path of shalom and tzedek — peace and social justice – and the path of President Washington, not the path of Pharaoh as in our generation it is echoed in Congressman King’s diatribes against Islam.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center;  co-author with Sr. Joan Chittister and Saadi Shakur Chisti of The Tent of Abraham (Beacon Press, 2006);  co-author with Rabbi Phyllis Berman of Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness Across Millennia (Jewish Lights, 2011) – on learning from the biblical story of Pharaoh, the Exodus, Sinai, and the Wilderness how to address the world-wide crisis of today.

Tahrir Square, Berlin Wall, Red Sea

Fallen Pharoahs & Creative Communities

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Today I want not to focus on Pharaoh but to celebrate the people – those million or more who have gathered in Tahrir Square, both as a united, insistent, revolutionary body and as the individuals — professors and street bums and secretaries, bakers and housewives and lawyers, each one unique, each one fashioned in the Image of God, who have awakened from the stupor their modern pharaoh imposed upon them.

They stand in a great line of nonviolent revolutionaries, stretching back in the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to those who dared to smear blood on their doorposts and come forth from these wombs of rebirth to break the birthing waters of the Red Sea.  

More after the jump.
Suddenly, people who have seemed literally stupid, unable to chart their futures in the iron maze of “stability,” come alive, intelligent, able to debate and plan and create community when the Iron Guards of “order” defect and disappear —

  • as did the people of  East Germany and all Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989;
  • as did the students and workers of the nation-wide uprising in France in May 1968;
  • as did the Black communities and their white allies in America in the early 1960s;
  • as did the auto workers of Michigan in 1937 who took over the auto plants, refusing to be disemployed or dislodged and winning the right to organize;  
  • as did India in 1930 when Gandhi led an illegal campaign to make salt from the sea without paying the British tax on salt  —

There is a softer kind of stupor in America, these days:

We face with stupor the droughts that follow on the heating of our planet, droughts that burnt wheat crops in Russia last summer, sent wheat prices sharply higher, and took food from the mouths of Tunisian and Egyptian workers  — whose revolt is rooted in the global scorching that we American shrug off.  

We face with stupor the shoveling of a trillion dollars worth of human ingenuity and labor, the shoveling and shriveling of blood and limbs and genitals, of shattered minds and souls of Americans and Iraqis and Afghans, into the trash heaps of illegitimate and unwinnable wars.    

We face with stupor the despair of fifteen million Americans who are officially counted among the disemployed – and another five million who are not even counted because they have given up looking for jobs.

“Disemployed” – my computer software puts a red line under the letters, telling me that’s not even a word. But these people are not “unemployed,” as if they had accidentally stubbed a toe on the way to work. They have been disemployed by decisions of those who hold power in our society, who have used their power to grasp even more power by dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into election campaigns, who have used their power to win obscene tax cuts so as to put even more money into buying more power to keep the disemployed in their despair – and all of us in stupor.

We do not need to be stupid. Like the Egyptians in Tahrir Square – the word means “Liberation” – we can awaken.

In mid-April, Jews will celebrate the Passover when their stories teach that Pharaoh fell and Miriam led the people in songs of jubilation; Christians will celebrate Palm Sunday, Black Friday, Easter Sunday  when their stories tell them that a courageous few faced Caesar and that life renewed and resurrected transcended death and torture.

Can these celebrations leap off the pages of prayer books to become sparks of change?  Where, three months from now, could bands of the disemployed celebrate  by reentering their work places and demand to be paid for their work?  – laid-off firefighters reentering the fire houses, laid-off teachers creating Freedom Schools like those in Mississippi in 1964 to teach the truth and end the stupor of their students,  laid-off nurses  demanding that the wars end and the money be rechanneled so hospitals can serve the sick instead of warehousing the overflowing supply of brain-injured veterans.

Where, in the week before Palm Sunday and Passover, could multireligious folk  picket the banks that are funding Old King Coal, That Lethal Old Soul, and demand that the investment money be channeled to wind and solar power instead?

What spark of bold intelligence, like Rosa Parks’ refusal in Montgomery, will against all expectation light the fire of love against the flames of destruction and the darkness of despair?

Uprisings, whether in ancient or in modern Egypt, are not fulfilled by overthrowing pharaohs. There needs to be a “Sinai” and perhaps many years of troubled experiment and exploration in the Wilderness – a working out of new forms of community.

In our world, that community must be broader and deeper than we have ever known. It must take seriously that YHWH Echad, the Breath of Life is one: that a coal plant belching CO2 in Pennsylvania creates a drought and fires in Russia that create a dearth of wheat and bread in Egypt that fills Tahrir Square and scares a President in Washington.

Cast off the stupor, create community.

To keep abreast of Tahrir Square, the  best coverage is by Al Jazeera in English —  the news network blackballed by almost all US channel TV. But you can watch it on-line here.