Torah, World Politics and Iran

5438[1]How does our Jewish community make a decision on the crucial issue of making sure that Iran is not able to produce nuclear weapons?

One classically Jewish approach: We could draw on the deep, ancient, and evolving wisdom of Torah, reading it anew in the light of the circumstances in which we find ourselves today.

The passage of Torah that leaps out as most relevant is Deuteronomy 20:10-11. It teaches that if we besiege a city (which is what the sanctions against Iran have been), we must proclaim Shalom to it. If it then agrees to decent terms that meet our conditions and fulfill our crucial needs, we must make sure it adheres to them and we must end the siege.

That is what the proposed agreement with Iran does. It does this by requiring Iran to abandon all the physical objects and scientific processes that could lead to nuclear weapons, and to subject itself to unprecedented intrusive inspections to make sure it is adhering to that regimen. It makes sure that if Iran’s government were to change its mind, decide to go nuclear, and expel inspectors, the world would have at least a year to take action before Iran could make even one nuclear weapon.

Yet we must test the Torah teaching against our present situation. In this case, what is an alternative approach that would make sure Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons?

Yet we must test the Torah teaching against our present situation. In this case, what is an alternative approach that would make sure Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons?

The same Torah passage that counsels proclaiming Shalom to a besieged city and bending it to our own will sees that the alternative to agreement would be an utterly destructive war.

And in our present situation, that expectation seems correct. If the Congress were to torpedo this agreement, the world-wide regimen of sanctions against Iran would almost certainly unravel and we would be left with no agreement, no inspections, no restrictions, and no sanctions. At that point, there would be intense pressures for war, on the grounds that there would then be no other way to ensure that Iran could not change its mind and proceed to acquire nuclear weapons.

War would begin with what its proponents would advertise as a one-shot military attack on Iran.Such an attack might well win a momentary victory, though Iran could respond in low-level ways that would have huge effects – like disrupting oil traffic in the Straits of Hormuz. But even an immediate military victory would not end there, any more than did the initial victorious invasion of Iraq.

Far likelier that any surviving Iranian government would then with absolute determination seek nuclear weaponry, in order to deter future attacks. To prevent that effort from succeeding, the attacking government would find itself hooked into a continuing, probably permanent, occupation. Its forces would be constantly harassed by guerrilla warfare from a furious and united Iranian people.

Such a war would be far worse for the US, Israel, and the whole Middle East than the Iraq War was. Worse in dead bodies, failure to meet urgent civilian needs, collapse of US influence abroad.

But what about the hostility that the Prime Minister of Israel has vehemently expressed to the proposed nuclear-control agreement?

Two factors are at work: Much of the Israeli Jewish community and predominant Israeli Jewish culture, feel the Holocaust as a constant nightmare in the constant present, stoking fear that any agreement with a hostile power will endanger the Jewish people — which their fear still defines as a powerless victim.

Yet the military/ security leadership in Israel has over and over spoken out in opposition to Mr. Netanyahu’s go-for-broke insistence on continuing the siege of Iran — refusing any agreement.

Why is the Prime Minister rejecting the advice of the security leadership? It is all too possible that an increasingly right-wing government is appealing to this ever-present subterranean fear in order to increase its own power — just as Prime Minister Netanyahu did just before the election.

It is the task of the American Jewish community to make up our own minds about this decision, drawing on our own Jewish values and our understanding of the broader consequences of the two choices, both in America and in the Middle East.

Here too we must take seriously the Torah’s teachings. The Torah counsels respect but not automatic obeisance to rulers. Instead it places strong limits on the power of kings – including the kings of ancient Israel. The passage (Deuteronomy 17:16) especially warns against the frequent inclination of many kings to pursue military power, as in “multiplying horses” for a horse-chariot army when cavalry was the aggressive weaponry of an imperious pharaoh.

That injunction applies to any secret nuclear-weaponry ambitions of Iran; to unwarranted militarism of any Israeli government; and to those in the US who thirst for military adventures now as they did twelve years ago when they targeted Iraq.

It will do Israel no good to curdle our love for it into idolatry toward some of its leaders. It will do America great harm for us to pursue war with Iran instead of a vigorously safeguarded shalom. For as our scriptures also teach (Psalms 115 and 135), those who erect dead objects and deadly ideas into their gods will become like their idols — dead. It is celebration of the ever-changing, ever-growing Breath of Life that gives life to ourselves and all our neighbors.

Shalom Center Grasps at Straws to Find Substitute for War


“What happened to those people — to those children — is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security.”

— by Amir Shoam

Last week, before the Russian suggestion to disarm Bashar al-Assad’s forces of chemical weapons, The Shalom Center’s Rabbi Arthur Waskow wrote an article titled Drop Gas Masks, Not Bombs, opposing military action in Syria.

Waskow suggested that we “use the power of the U.S. in nonviolent, non-military, nonlethal ways” to stop the chemical war.

These surrogates for military action are each deeply flawed. Indeed, if Rabbi Waskow felt he had a good response, he would have probably given that response alone instead of a menu of responses each as ineffective as the next.

Waskow’s proposals and my comments follow the jump.


Waskow recommends distributing gas masks, but this is what you actually need to wear in order to fully protect yourself against sarin.

Waskow’s title suggestion “Drop Gas Masks, Not Bombs” (although the word “drop” was a metaphor) would not work, since gas masks do not offer complete protection against sarin.

Look what equipment the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends to use in a Level A sarin exposure:

  • A NIOSH-certified CBRN full-face-piece SCBA operated in a pressure-demand mode or a pressure-demand supplied air hose respirator with an auxiliary escape bottle.
  • A Totally-Encapsulating Chemical Protective (TECP) suit that provides protection against CBRN agents.
  • Chemical-resistant gloves (outer).
  • Chemical-resistant gloves (inner).
  • Chemical-resistant boots with a steel toe and shank.

Waskow recognizes that the suggestion in his title might not actually work, so he gives this alternative:

If gas masks would not meet the need, drop antidotes to the nerve gas sarin.

According to the CDC, sarin “is generally odorless and tasteless. Exposure to sarin can cause death in minutes. A fraction of an ounce (1 to 10 mL) of sarin on the skin can be fatal.”

Antidotes to sarin are only approved by the FDA for use by trained members of the U.S. Military, and would be useless or even dangerous in the hands of untrained Syrian citizens.

Waskow then makes this suggestion:

Test out what would happen if the U.S. invited physicians to be parachuted into Syria.

This is what would happen: The U.S. would ignore the first thing taught in a first aid course — do not risk lives in order to save lives.

  • If someone is injured on a busy road after a car accident, you should not go there.
  • If someone might be trapped inside a burning building, you should not go there.
  • If they offer you to be parachuted unarmed into a chemical war zone, you should not go there!

Waskow makes another suggestion, that also does not sound practical:

Drop leaflets and broadcast radio and social-media messages denouncing the use of chemical weaponry and offering amnesty and monetary rewards to anyone in the military who comes forward with information on their use.

If people in Assad’s army resisted his ways, would they still serve in his army, and not in one of the other armies in the country?

The following suggestion explains itself:

Bollix the Syrian military’s computer system just as the U.S. bollixed the Iranian nuclear-research system.

The U.S. is aware of that possibility — it just would not help.

Sarin is a binary compound, created naturally by the mixture of two gases stored separately in the shell. It does not need sophisticated electronics, and would be deployed in the field in the place of regular munitions, and not networked with a computer system, which made the Iranian centrifuges vulnerable to this kind of attack.

But the most flawed is Waskow’s final suggestion:

In Iran there is fierce opposition to chem-war because Saddam used it in Iraq’s war against Iran, killing tens of thousands…. Ask the government of Iran to intervene with its ally Syria to demand a total end to any use of chem-war, and offer Iran relaxation of U.S. sanctions against it if it does so.

Again, do not risk lives in order to save lives. Even assuming that Iran will accept this offer, a nuclear weapon in Iran’s hands is a threat to each and every person in the world.

Ambassador Samantha Power explained the situation last week:

It is only after the United States pursued these non-military options without achieving the desired result of deterring chemical weapons use, that the President concluded that a limited military strike is the only way to prevent Assad from employing chemical weapons as if they are a conventional weapon of war.

Indeed, after two years of diplomacy and sanctions, it is only the threat of military action which is finally getting the attention of Syria, and maybe will lead to a peaceful solution.

Occasional PJVoice Contributor Arrested At White House Protest


— by Rabbi Arthur Waskov

Along with 14 other religious folks, clergy and committed “laity,” I was arrested for standing at the White House with signs and songs, reciting the names of more than one hundred people who had been killed by one result of the climate crisis — Superstorm Sandy.

Among those arrested alongside me were Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, who teaches on social justice at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and is a member of The Shalom Center’s Board; Lynne Iser, a member of the Board of Isabella Freedman retreat center; and Freyda Black, a cantor, farmer, and member of P’nai Or Fellowship in Philadelphia.

More after the jump.
We were calling on the President to act swiftly to heal our Mother Earth from the climate crisis, from the plagues that modern Pharaohs — Big Oil, Big Coal, Unnatural Gas — have brought upon us.

As you see on the faces of two of us actually in the prison wagon after our arrests, the arrest itself — paradoxically — felt like a step into freedom, a continuation of, rather than a break from, both our joy in singing and our sorrow at the deaths we had recited. What is the Freedom of Passover? Freedom to grieve our wounds, Freedom to celebrate our covenant for action with YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Holy One who is the interbreathing of all life.

These are the Ten Plagues I recited, and below them, “Ten Healings” that accompanied the blessing of our Globe.

Ten Plagues

  1. Undrinkable water poisoned by fracking. (Sorrow!)
  2. Asthma: Lungs suffering from coal dust and gasoline fumes. (Sorrow!)
  3. Suffering and death for fish, birds, vegetation, and human beings from the oil upheaval in the Gulf of Mexico. (Sorrow!)
  4. Smashed mountains and dead coal-miners in the lovely hills of West Virginia. (Sorrow!)
  5. Unheard-of droughts in Africa, setting off hunger, starvation, civil wars and genocide. (Sorrow!)
  6. Drought in Russia, setting off peat-bog fires and scarcity of wheat. (Sorrow!)
  7. Summer-long intense heat wave in Europe, killing thousands of elders. (Sorrow!)
  8. Unheard-of floods in Pakistan, putting one-fifth of the country under water. (Sorrow!)
  9. Superstorm Sandy, killing hundreds in Haiti and America. (Sorrow!)
  10. Years of drought and fires in Australia. (Sorrow!)
  11. Parched corn fields and dead crops in the US corn-belt. (Sorrow!)

Ten Healings

  1. Creating organic farms in countrysides and cities. (L’chayyim, To life!)
  2. Wind-based energy: Purchasing home & company electric power from wind-based suppliers. (L’chayyim, To life!)
  3. Hybrid or electric cars. Families buy them; convince cities, government agencies, & businesses to switch their auto fleets. (L’chayyim, To life!)
  4. Use public transportation. (L’chayyim, To life!)
  5. Family & congregational education/ action to heal the Earth: At Bat/Bar Mitzvah time and teen-age baptisms/ confirmations, “turning hearts of children and parents to each other, lest the Earth be utterly destroyed” (Quote from last passage of Malachi, last of the classical Hebrew Prophets). (L’chayyim, To life!)
  6. Vigils, picketing, civil disobedience at sites of mountain destruction by coal companies. (L’chayyim, To life!)
  7. Prevent the Tar Sands Pipeline. (L’chayyim, To life!)
  8. End fracking: Insist on moratoriums or prohibitions. (L’chayyim, To life!)
  9. Divestment by colleges, pension funds, religious communities, etc from investment in fossil-fuel companies, shifting investment to renewable, sustainable energy. (L’chayyim, To life!)
  10. Carbon pricing: Insisting that Members of Congress put prices on carbon-fuel production and pay dividends from the incoming fees to American families. (L’chayyim, To life!)

Three Moments of Horror: Kaddish, Kaddish, Kaddish

— by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

  • For Trayvon Martin, murdered February 26 in Sanford, Florida;
  • For Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his sons, Gabriel and Arieh, and Miriam Monsonego, murdered March 19 at Ozar Hatorah in Toulouse, France;
    Master Sergeant Imad Ibn-Ziaten, murdered March 11 in Toulouse, France; and
    Corporal Abel Chennouf and Private Mohamed Legouad, murdered March  15 in Montauban, France; and
  • For the families murdered in March 11 in Balandi and Alkozai, Afghanistan:
    • Mohamed Dawood son of Abdullah,
    • Khudaydad son of Mohamed Juma,
    • Nazar Mohamed,
    • Payendo,
    • Robeena,
    • Shatarina daughter of Sultan Mohamed,
    • Zahra daughter of Abdul Hamid,
    • Nazia daughter of Dost Mohamed,
    • Masooma, Farida, Palwasha, Nabia, Esmatullah daughters of Mohamed Wazir,
    • Faizullah son of Mohamed Wazir,
    • Essa Mohamed son of Mohamed Hussain, and
    • Akhtar Mohamed son of Murrad Ali

— we grieve and we try to learn how to prevent such killings in the future.

After the jump, an English version of the Mourners’ Kaddish in Time of War and Violence; then, my thoughts on the causes and the meanings of these deaths.  I urge that in synagogues, churches, and mosques, memorial prayers be said this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday for all those killed in these three moments of horror.
Mourner’s Kaddish in Time for War & Violence

Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash shmei rabbah: May Your Great Name, through our own expanding awareness and our fuller action, lift You and us to become still higher and more holy.

For Your Great Name weaves together all the names of all the beings in the universe, among them our own names, and among them those who have touched our lives deeply though we can no longer touch them —(Cong: Amein)

Throughout the world that You have offered us, a world of majestic peaceful order that gives life through time and through eternity — And let’s say, Amein

So may the Great Name be blessed, through every Mystery and Mastery of every universe.

May Your Name be blessed and celebrated, Its beauty honored and raised high, may It be lifted and carried, may Its radiance be praised in all Its Holiness —  Blessed be!

Even though we cannot give You enough blessing, enough song, enough praise, enough consolation to match what we wish to lay before you —

And though we know that today there is no way to console You when among us some who bear Your Image in our being are killing others who bear Your Image in our being —

Still we beseech that from the unity of Your Great Name flow a great and joyful harmony and life for all of us.   (Cong: Amein)

You who make harmony in the ultimate reaches of the universe, teach us to make harmony within ourselves, among ourselves —  and shalom, salaam, solh, peace for all the children of Abraham — those from the family of Abraham & Sarah through Isaac and those from the family of Abraham & Hagar through Ishmael — and for all who dwell upon this planet. (Cong: Amein)

Killing Jews, Killing Muslims, Killing Blacks

Three recent incidents:

  • A Frenchman kills a Jewish family and several French soldiers (some of them Muslims) who had served the French government’s interests by using violence against Muslim societies.
  • An American soldier kills several Muslim families in  Afghanistan, the second Muslim country in which he has been ordered into four tours of violence.
  • An armed Euro-American kills an unarmed African-American for looking suspicious inside a gated community in Florida.

Three utterly different news items? Merely, as a Secretary of Defense once euphemistically said, “Stuff happens”? Just dots, no connections?

I don’t think so. For one thing, I think all three killers were operating within a framework of what seemed like legitimate violence. Even though there was widespread condemnation of their acts, afterwards. Afterwards.

Beforehand?

The Florida killer was operating under a basic American cultural “rule” (once felt by almost all white Americans, then by a majority, and still by a large proportion of them): The lives of black folk are far less valuable than the lives of white folk.

The Florida killer said he felt fearful. And Fear in a white person is far more urgent to end than Life in a black person is important to save.

Why did he feel afraid? Because the domination of other human beings, the willingness to enslave one class of them, lynch them, segregate them, impoverish them, imprison them, can only be undergirded by coming to believe that this class of them are dangerous. The oppression — which benefits the oppressor – precedes and gives rise to the Fear.

You can overcome fear by connecting, communing, with the people you fear. (But then how can you keep the benefits you get by oppressing them?) Or you can overcome fear by being willing to suffer and die for a principle. Or you can overcome fear by being willing to kill.  

In France, a marginalized  Frenchman put meaning in his life by enlisting in a one-man army. An army to avenge all the killings of Muslims by the French and Israeli armies. Anyone wearing a French uniform, and anyone wearing not only an Israeli uniform but the “uniform” of Orthodox Judaism, was dangerous. Even their tiny children.

He might have overcome his fear of these “dangerous” people by connecting, communing with them, trying to affirm his own humanity so that they would be more likely to affirm his. Or he might have overcome his fear by risking suffering and even death,  directly and nonviolently challenging the governments he saw as dangerous and frightening.  Or he could overcome his fear by killing.

And the third killer, an American soldier. He had been taught, not only in the brain but with every muscle and blood vessel in his body, that his job, and more than that his moral task, his sworn duty, is to kill Iraqis and Afghans. And certainly he fears them. They have damaged his brain, distorted his life.

He could have transcended his fear by trying to connect, to commune, with the Afghans he feared, whom he had been ordered to kill. If his officers had prevented his doing that, he could have transcended his fear by putting his freedom, maybe even his life, on the line by nonviolently challenging them. Saying the fourth tour of duty was too much. Laying down his machine-gun. Demanding to be discharged, to be able to make love with his wife and parent his children.  

Or he could transcend his fear by killing.

No wonder the Army that had taught him to kill brought him home after he killed, lest he be tried by the Afghans whose community he had shattered. After all, that same Army has time after time killed civilians, murdered wedding parties, broken the brains and bones of children — claiming all the while these dead were merely “collateral damage.” That same Army has taught such fear and hatred of Islam that its soldiers could piss on the bodies of dead human beings because they were Muslim, they could casually burn the book that to Muslims is the very Word of God.

So one soldier went beyond the Army’s expectations. If they were honest, they might give him a medal. Not the Medal of Honor, not the Medal of Courage, but the Medal of Fear Transcended.

In every one of our traditions, religious and secular, there are streaks of blood. In the Torah, proclaiming genocide against the Midianites.  In the Gospels, pouring contempt upon the Jews. In the Quran, calling not only for the inner jihad, the struggle against arrogance and idolatry, but on occasion for jihads of blood against some communities. In the Declaration of Independence, with its denunciation of “the merciless lndian savages'” who were the indigenous peoples of this land.

Let us not turn our rage, our fear, and then our violence against those “others” who have such bloody streaks amidst their wisdom, while pretending there are no such streaks amidst our own.

Let us instead remember that these streaks are only streaks in the many fabrics woven of connection and community, woven of a “decent respect to the opinions of Humankind.”   A fabric woven by all human cultures and by all the life-forms of our planet. A fabric of fringes, where every thing we call our “own” as if we own it came into being only through the Interbreathing of all life.

Shalom, salaam, solh &nmdash; Peace!  Healing! Wholeness!

From the “new poor” to “Free Time” and a Free Society

— by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Many people have urged that synagogues, churches, mosques make sure they know who among their members need help – and make sure they get it. That requires explicit public statements from clergy, board members, etc., that no one who has been disemployed or had their home taken away, etc., is at fault, and all should let the clergyperson or a Board member know they are in trouble.

More after the jump.
Many of us in the last generation — whether we thought of ourselves as members of religious, racial, and sexual minorities or thought of ourselves as members of “the majority” — affirmed the dignity of those minorities and worked to bring us/ them out of the ghetto or the back of the bus or the closet. Many of us in this generation have worked to end the pariahdom of other minorities — “them” and “us” — in vandalized mosques or violated barrios. Just so we must bring the new poor and the old poor — all/both “them” and “us” — out of the shame and hiding often imposed upon us/them.

Every congregation should have a special fund — ideally funded on a sliding scale where rich congregants give a lot and even the poorest some tiny contribution – to help people in need.

Every congregation should have in place channels for the flow of goods, money, and service — for example, gemachs (grass-roots assistance funds for sharing money, or goods like food, special clothing, home appliances, loans, home health care, etc.; the word is an acronym of Gemilut chassadim, the Hebrew for “acts of loving-kindness”).

And in every congregation, it should be clear policy that no one who cannot afford school fees, etc., will be denied congregational services.

This kind of congregational action is necessary —  but not sufficient.

Every congregation should also recognize and affirm that to meet society-wide economic disaster, there must be society-wide action.

Clergy should urge congregants to create committees to examine and recommend what social change is necessary. Clergy must set the tone by making absolutely clear that “social action” committees must address “social activism” and advocacy, not only “charity.”

They must make clear that Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism all require passionate compassion. Pursuing “spiritual highs” for the affluent while others “lose” their jobs and homes, their knowledge, their skills, and their dignity, is not an acceptable religious path.

“Social activism” for what?

Already many educators, journalists, politicians, activists have made clear one important path: Move swiftly toward greater economic equality; reduce the power of global corporations; increase taxes on the 1% wealthiest; invest in our rotting infrastructure, our wounded Earth, our disintegrating education.

I think this basic approach is valuable. And I want to propose we also pursue another path – also, not instead. A path far less discussed:

Laws to require a shorter work week and shorter work days, intended to meet four crucial needs:

  • The need for income: instead of overworking some and disemploying some, full employment at living wages with livable hours: hiring more people to get the same amount of work done, thus meeting needs for shared prosperity;
  • The need for knowledge: making time for mid-life reeducation in new skills and new understanding of the world, so that in a swiftly changing economy and eco-system, people can actually know how to do honorable work that needs to be done, instead of falling into permanent “unskill.”
  • The need for real democracy:revitalizing citizen activism by providing the time for grass-roots political action (instead of leaving politics in the hands of giant corporations and ultra-rich billionaires, manipulating the mass media).
  • The need for love: providing more free time for family, neighborliness, artistic creativity, and spiritual/ religious life.

Why do we need to do this? The new technology (computers, etc) has increased “productivity”: fewer people can get the same amount of work done in less time.

There would have been several ways to benefit from this advance:

One would have been to reduce work hours, keep the same number of people working, redirect the new technology into healing the ecosystems it was damaging, and keep business profits on an even keel.

Another was to fire hundreds of thousands of people, pillage the Earth, and channel the benefits of greater “productivity” to corporate profits.

The first way would have strengthened democracy, human dignity, and the web of life on our planet; the second way has radically weakened all three.

The Shalom Center will be pursuing the approach we call Free Time for a Free Society.

To achieve it will take a redirection of ideas and efforts by labor unions, religious communities, middle-sized and small businesses, teachers and social workers.

If you want to work with us toward this vision, let us know! And if you want to help us carry this work forward, please gift The Shalom Center with a tax-deductible donation. Thanks!

With blessings on your own work toward justice and healing — Arthur


Broad Jewish Leadership Signs Eco-Covenant

— by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Yesterday, The Shalom Center and I joined with the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) in a formal signing of the “Jewish Environmental and Energy Imperative” declaration, part of its Jewish Energy Covenant Campaign. Leaders from a broad spectrum of the Jewish community set the community-wide goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 14% by 2014.

More after the jump.
Before reporting my own talk and naming the other speakers,  I want to note that over the last two years, COEJL has come back from the brink of the grave, mostly owing to the work of three people: Rabbi Steve Gutow, head of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs (under whose umbrella COEJL operates); Rabbi David Saperstein, the Jewish community’s designated prophetic voice in Washington as head of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; and Sybil Sanchez, the exec of COEJL, who breathed active life into the newly raised-up body.


This is what I said:

We have just been reading the Torah passages about the ecological disasters that Pharaoh — a top-down, unaccountable, arrogant ruler — brought upon his own country: undrinkable water, swarms of frogs and lice and locusts, unprecedented hailstorms: what we call the Ten Plagues.

Today our own Pharaohs — the top-down, unaccountable, arrogant giant corporations of Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Gas, and their allies in and out of government — are bringing terrible plagues upon our planet:

  • unprecedented droughts and fires in Russia;
  • droughts and famines in Africa;
  • floods in Pakistan;
  • oceans encroaching on the shores of island nations and Bangladesh, endangering their very existence;
  • vanishing snow-caps in the Himalayas that for centuries have provided water to billions of human beings.

And these are not just foreign events. Those who think that we Americans will be safe if we stop using “foreign” oil must face the truth:

  • The oil-well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico — a plague brought on by modern corporate pharaohs drilling for “American” oil.  
  • Drinking water on the farms of Pennsylvania, so poisoned by the fracking industry that when farmers touch a match to their kitchen faucets, chemicals in the water flame up into torches — a plague brought on by modern corporate pharaohs drilling for ‘American’ gas.  If these pharaohs get their way, the plague will engulf the drinking water of millions in the cities whose water comes from the shale rock regions.
  • The worst drought in the history of Texas,  the destruction of whole mountains in West Virginia, the epidemic of asthma among our children ‐ all plagues brought on by modern corporate pharaohs.  Brought upon Americans by corporate obsession with profits from exploiting ‘American’ oil, coal, and gas. Supported by some, including even some in the Jewish community,  in the name of US ‘energy security.’

We can halt these modern pharaohs, as we halted the Tar Sands pipeline when thousands of protesters surrounded the White House and about a thousand were arrested there.

For The Shalom Center, the Covenant we are about to sign means that in order to reduce emissions of CO2,  we must dissolve the arrogant pharaohs of Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Gas — no matter whether they bear a “made in America” label or not.”

Others who spoke were

  • Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, exec of the Rabbinical Assembly;
  • NY City Councilman David Garodnick; Nancy Kaufman, exec of the National Council of Jewish Women;
  • Joe Laur, exec of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal;
  • Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, director of the program on the rabbi as social activist at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (and president emeritus of the board of The Shalom Center); and
  • Rachel Jacoby Rosenfield, exec of the Jewish Greening Fellowship at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center.

In signing the Jewish Environmental and Energy Imperative Declaration, leaders are committing to take many significant steps, including:



  • Setting the personal goal of reducing emissions by 14% by September 2014, which is Judaism’s next sabbatical year (Shmittah year). 


  • Setting the community-wide intention of reducing greenhouse gases by 83% of 2005 levels by 2050 (a goal set by the US government), with a communitywide approach to greening homes and buildings.

Meanwhile, including but reaching beyond COEJL, there has emerged an amalgam of Eco-Jewish organizations called the Green Chevra, which has recently received an important grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

Among its fifteen active and activist members are groups committed to one or more of four ways of dealing with our planetary crisis in Jewish terms:  hands-on greening of synagogues, JCC’s, and Jewish households; the awakening of ecological themes in Jewish practices like the festivals and life-cycle events and the “kosher” consumption of food and other fruits of the earth; the creation of alternative communities, especially Jewish organic farms; and public advocacy for change in public policy.

I am glad to report that The Shalom Center is not only a member of the Green Chevra but sits on its “stewardship committee,” coordinating its work.

For many years we have been doing this work to pioneer eco-commitment in many regions of the Jewish world. It is an aspect of what we call “Transformative Judaism” — a commitment to bring the fullest Jewish wisdom and action to address the present deep multidimensional earthquake (ecological, economic, military, political, familial, sexual) in the life of the human race and the rest of our planet.

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?

Cash.

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 —

Arthur

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director, The Shalom Center http://www.theshalomcenter.org; 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

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.