Thanksgiving, Arlo Guthrie, & My Yarmulke

A Ritual of Joyful Resistance

— by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Just five minutes before noon today, I took part in a wonderful ritual. One of the members of a men’s group that began 30 years ago – Jeffrey Dekro, founder of the Isaiah Fund [see below for an explanation] —  called me and its other members to remind us to turn on our radios. He has been doing this, year after year on Thanksgiving Day, for almost all those thirty years.


Every year at noon on Thanksgiving, WXPN Radio in Philadelphia plays Arlo Guthrie’s  “Alice’s Restaurant,”  about a Thanksgiving dinner in Stockbridge Mass. in 1967; about obtuse cops; and about nonviolent resistance to a brutal war.

More after the jump.
And every year, this seemingly non-Jewish set of rituals stirs in me the memory of a moment long ago when my first puzzled, uncertain explorations of the “Jewish thing” took on new power for me.  And when I came to understand the power of a yarmulke.

In 1970, I was asked by the Chicago Eight to testify in their defense. They were leaders of the movement to oppose the Vietnam War, and they had been charged by  the Nixon Administration and Attorney-General John Mitchell (who turned out to be a  criminal himself – see under “Watergate”) with conspiracy to organize riot and destruction during the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968 .

I had been an alternate delegate from the District of Columbia to the Convention – elected originally as part of an anti-war, anti-racist slate to support Robert Kennedy. After he was murdered, we decided to nominate and  support as our “favorite son” the chairperson of our delegation –  Rev. Channing Phillips (may the memory of this just and decent leader be a blessing), a Black minister in the Martin Luther King mold.  

Our delegation made him the first Black person ever nominated for President at a major-party convention.  The following spring, on the first anniversary of Dr. King’s murder, on the third night of Passover in 1969, his church hosted the first-ever Freedom Seder.

AND – besides being aan elected delegate, I had also spoken the first two nights of the Convention to the anti-war demonstrators at Grant Park, at their invitation, while the crowd was being menaced by Chicago police and the National Guard. The police – not the demonstrators – finally did explode in vicious violence on the third night of the Convention.

Although the main official investigation of Chicago described it as a “police riot,” the Nixon Administration decided to indict the anti-war leaders. So during the Conspiracy Trial in 1970,  Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Abby Hoffman, and the other defendants figured I would be reasonably respectable (as a former  delegate) and therefore relatively convincing to the jury and the national public, in testifying that  the anti-war folks were not trying to organize violence but instead were the victims of police violence.

 As the trial went forward, it became clear that the judge – Julius Hoffman, a Jew  – was utterly subservient to the prosecution and wildly hostile to the defense.  (Some of us thought he had become possessed by the dybbuk of Torquemada, head of the Inquisition.  – How else could a Jew behave that way?  We tried to exorcise his dybbuk. It didn’t work.)

Judge Hoffman browbeat witnesses, ultimately literally gagging and binding Bobby Seale, the only Black defendant, for challenging his rulings – etc.  Dozens of his rulings against the Eight were later cited by the Court of Appeals as major legal errors, requiring reversal of all the convictions the prosecution had achieved in his court.

So when I arrived at the Federal court-house in Chicago, I was very nervous.  About the judge, much more than the prosecution or my own testimony.

The witness who was scheduled to testify right before me was Arlo Guthrie. He had sung “Alice’s Restaurant” to/ with the demonstrators at Grant Park,  and the defense wanted to show the jury that there was no incitement to violence in it.

So William Kunstler, z’l,  the lawyer for the defense, asked  Guthrie to sing “Alice’s Restaurant” so that the jury could get a direct sense of the event.

But Judge Hoffman stopped him: “You can’t sing in my courtroom!!”

“But,” said Kunstler, “it’s evidence of the intent of the organizers and the crowd!”

For minutes they snarled at each other. Finally, Judge Hoffman: “He can SAY what he told them, but NO SINGING.”

And then – Guthrie couldn’t do it. The song, which lasts 25 minutes, he knew by utter heart, having sung it probably more than a thousand times – but to say it without singing, he couldn’t. His memory was keyed to the melody. And maybe  Judge  Hoffman’s rage helped dis-assemble him.

So he came back to the witness room, crushed.

And I’m up next. I start trembling, trying to figure out how I can avoid falling apart.

It took me another year or so to start wearing some sort of hat all the time — a Tevye cap or a beret or a rainbow kippah or an amazing tall Tibetan hat with earflaps and wool trimming.

I decide that if I wear a yarmulke, that will  strengthen me to connect with a power Higher/Other than the United States and Judge Hoffman. (Up to that moment, I had never worn a yarmulke in a non-officially “religious” situation. I had written the Freedom Seder in 1969, but in 1970 I was still wrestling with the question of what this weird and powerful “Jewish thing” meant in my life.)

So I tell Kunstler I want to wear a yarmulke, and he says – “No problem.”  Somewhere I find a simple black unobtrusive skull-cap, and when I go to be sworn in, I put it on.

For the oath (which I did as an affirmation, as indicated by much of Jewish tradition), no problem.

Then Kunstler asks me the first question for the defense, and the Judge interrupts. “Take off your hat, sir,” he says.

Kunstler erupts. – “This man is an Orthodox Jew, and you want – etc etc  etc.” I am moaning to myself, “Please, Bill, one thing I know I’m not is an Orthodox Jew.”  But how can I undermine the defense attorney?  So I keep my mouth shut.

Judge Hoffman also erupts: “That hat shows disrespect for the United States and this Honorable Court!” he shouts.

“Yeah,” I think to myself, “that’s sort-of true. Disrespect for him, absolutely. For the United States, not disrespect exactly, but much more respect for Something Else. That’s the point!”

They keep yelling, and I start watching the prosecutor – and I realize that he is watching the jury.   There is one Jewish juror.  What is this juror thinking?

Finally, the prosecutor addresses the judge: “Your Honor, the United States certainly understands and agrees with your concern, but we also feel that in the interests of justice, it might be best simply for the trial to go forward.”

And the judge took orders!!  He shut up, and the rest of my testimony was quiet and orderly.

Yes YOU Can, Too: Footage of Clergy Visit to Congressional Offices

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Have you been wanting the courage to go down and visit congress to express your views? This video, taken yesterday of Philadelphia Rabbi Arthur Waskow leading the way, shows one clear and compelling way to do so. Filmed by an unnamed participant yesterday during a clergy visit to the office of House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Rabbi Waskow is joined by Gerry Serota of New Jewish Agenda, and Rabbi David Shneyer of Am Kolel, a greater Washington area congregation.

Seventy colleagues from a wide array of religions joined the effort, part of a Capitol Hill Pilgrimage with locked-out federal workers. Their goal: To urge an immediate end to the government shutdown and urgent passage of laws to prevent a default on the US debt. While Cantor wasn’t in his office, interns and staff received what must surely have been an unforgettable delegation.  

Thinking Outside the Box About Syria

“One Strike” was a fantasy. People killed by a chemical attack in Ghouta, last month.

— by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Amir Shoam’s attack on my Drop Gas Masks, Not Bombs article, about U.S. policy toward Syria, ignores my saying that that phrase was a metaphor.

A metaphor for what? For breaking out of the official “box,” in which some officials of the U.S. government, some of the Israeli government, and some “official” institutions of American Jewish life, tried to assert there were only three choices about Syria: “Do nothing, one strike, or all-out war to topple the regime.” That metaphor and the article were a way to awaken deeper thought among American Jews. We pointed out that “One Strike” was a fantasy, ignoring the fog of war, the swamp of war, the possibility of unpredictable retaliation and re-retaliation.

More after the jump.
We also pointed out the despair that is seeping into American life, because we are wasting on self-destructive wars not only the lives, limbs, minds, and souls of our soldiers, but also the schools, renewable-energy sources, and new jobs we desperately need.

That awakening of deeper Jewish thought did happen. As a result, a much more nuanced statement was initiated by The Shalom Center, written and signed by rabbis and cantors — as of the afternoon before Yom Kippur, 64, of every stream, gender, and age.

In that Statement, the 64 rabbis and cantors proposed a serious approach to the Syrian regime’s allies — Russia and Iran — to get them to insist on its never using chem-war. When we wrote and first circulated the statement, some called that line “unrealistic.” But two days later, it became utterly “realistic” for the U.S., Russia, and the Syrian regime to be negotiating on it.

Never write off good sense; even self-absorbed and domineering leaders may decide good sense is realistic.

About Mr. Shoam’s other criticism of the original article: The real nub of them, as he said, is Iran. There I have a view very different from the Netanyahu/AIPAC view of how to deal with Iran, now that a new president has been elected. President Rouhani has put forth cautious, but important negotiating feelers. Indeed, the leading German newspaper, Der Spiegel, reports that Iran has offered to dismantle the Fordo nuclear facility — in exchange for ending the sanctions against Iran. Moreover, Ahmedinajad’s Holocaust-denial assertions have been publicly rejected. As a high official of the new government said, “Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone.”

The U.S. should be pursuing with great vigor the possibility of, by stages, making a profound change in our relationship with Iran. That does not mean encouraging an Iranian nuclear weapon, as Mr. Shoam twists my suggestion of negotiating with Iran to mean. It does mean working to bring Iran into a legitimate framework of peace with the U.S. and the world.

That will require addressing some deep wounds the U.S. has inflicted on Iran over the last 50 years:

  • By CIA intervention, overthrowing a democratically elected, New Dealish government in 1953;
  • By then, restoring the Shah, and for 26 years supporting his using of torture and murder on dissidents;
  • By protecting the Shah in 1979, when the Iranian people drove him from office and wanted to try him for his crimes; and
  • By supporting Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical war to kill 100,000 Iranians, during Iraq’s 1980-1988 wars against Iran.

Finally, Mr. Shoam assets that the present diplomatic possibility of eliminating Syrian chemical weapons rests on a military threat. That is probably partly true. But it also rests on the fact that the “No” from the UK Parliament, and the chorus of “No” from the American public, first forced the President to ask permission from Congress to go to war, and then to pursue diplomacy, when it became clear Congress was also poised to say “No.”

I am proud that The Shalom Center and the 64 rabbis we inspired, and millions of grass-roots American Jews, joined in that “No,” and helped us all move away from a disastrous war. I wish the official “leadership” of American Jewry, now totally out of touch with the real flesh-and-blood community, would learn the lesson.

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.

Is Not Marching on Shabbat the Sin of Silence?

— by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Fifty years ago, I was one of 240,000 marchers at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Until Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke, the most notable speech was the one right before Dr. King’s closing address, by Rabbi Joachim Prinz, head of the American Jewish Congress. Rabbi Prinz said:

When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.

Rabbi Prinz was not an add-on speaker. The American Jewish Congress, which in those days was vigorously progressive with a strong membership, was one of the six key organizations that planned and took responsibility for the March.

More after the jump.

Fifty years later, this past Saturday, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, spoke at the opening prayer service to the anniversary event of the March. (That announcement from the Religious Action Center, and a column encouraging local Reform synagogues to observe the March at home, did not reach me until yesterday — electronically dated August 25, the day after the March.)

At the main event, no one spoke on behalf of the Jewish community, and on the March website I could find no national Jewish organization among the labor unions, civil-rights organizations, women’s organizations, and other progressive groups that sponsored and organized support for the anniversary March.  

Why? Was this absence the sin of silence — not speaking out against a racist backlash and worsening economic injustice in America?

One possible explanation: In 1963, the March was on Wednesday, August 28. This year, it was on Shabbat. Most major national Jewish organizations say they will not take part in such demonstrations on Shabbat. I do not know what negotiations about the date may or may not have taken place between some large national Jewish organizations with a social-justice bent, and March initiators — the King Center and the National Action Network.  

In past situations like this one, including several major anti-war marches, The Shalom Center invented what we think was a creative solution, both honoring Shabbat and affirming our bond with our neighbors: We announced and held a Shabbat morning service. Hundreds of people came, and afterward marched off as a group to join the demonstration.

That required — and received — help and participation from local congregations in Washington and New York City. When I sought such help this time, there were no volunteers. A possible reason: With Labor Day on Sept. 2 and Rosh Hashanah beginning the evening of Sept. 4, many pulpit rabbis are consumed with writing their most important sermons of the year, and planning services to reengage and revitalize their members.

If for some reason none of this was possible, large national networks of synagogues or havurot could, with enough lead time and ingenuity, linked congregations so that, for example, Congressman John Lewis’ address could have become a Shabbat sermon everywhere.

For the past month, our primary focus at The Shalom Center has been on sparking climate-crisis activism as part of the March — not by Jews alone but by Interfaith Moral Action on Climate (IMAC), including Jews in a broader coalition. So we pursued, but not as our highest priority, what it might mean to create an explicitly Jewish presence on the March.

Even putting IMAC first, I should note, came from my realization that no Jewish organizations beyond The Shalom Center and the Green Zionist Alliance were ready to take a forthright stand to end fracking and stop the Tar Sands Pipeline, to support a carbon tax or call on Jewish and other institutions to Move Our Money/Protect Our Planet (MOM/POP). IMAC has taken those stands.

No one left to speak

I have an even broader worry, that comes from the history of the American Jewish Congress. I began this rumination with the story of Rabbi Prinz fifty years ago. Through the 1960s and early 1970s, in concert with the civil-rights movement, the AJCongress drew grass-roots energy and membership. Its Women’s Division was especially strongly opposed to the Vietnam War, and strlngly committed to the feminist movement. But through the ’80s and ’90s, the national board of AJCongress persistently moved to the right, while some of its chapters continued to be progressive.

On Feb 1, 1999, its Los Angeles chapter, together with California offices of the Reform movement, issued a report on sweatshops in the California garment business that showed, along with many other critiques, that many of these sweatshops were owned by Jews. But it turned out that some Jewish garment-industry owners were on the national Board of the AJCongress. Within weeks, national AJCongress had simply abolished the L.A. chapter, claiming it was deep in financial arrears.

By March 17 of the same year, “survivors” of the chapter’s abolition announced the founding of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. For years it was financially and politically successful. During this time, national AJCongress did away with its progressive chapters in Boston and Philadelphia. There too, local progressive Jewish groups emerged.

But the rightward drift of the AJCongress undid itself. As grass-roots support diminished, and right-wing Jews found themselves much more at home in more vigorously right-wing organizations, AJCongress tried depending on money from the Ponzi-pyramid schemes of Bernard Madoff. When the Madoff scheme collapsed, the AJCongress suspended its activities on July 13, 2010.

Why does this concern me? Because it seems a parable for much of the rightward drift, or centrist exhaustion, of many national Jewish organizations in the last fifty years. The result: no national organization so far with the foresight, strength, and passion to:

  • Work out ways to meet the needs of Jewish organizations, so that they could bring a hundred thousand Jewishly-focused Jews into an on-the-streets coalition against the New Jim Crow: mass imprisonment of millions of black and brown men;
  • Flood the U.S. Capitol with Jewish bodies, demanding a renewal of the Voting Rights Act.
  • Turn out thousands of Jews to demand a carbon tax, and to Move Our Money/Protect Our Planet, even after Jewish homes on the Jersey Shore are washed away, and Jewish travelers on the Manhattan subways are flooded by Big Carbon’s burning of the planet.

I am glad to add that in that same late Email notice I received last night, commemorating the Great March of 1963, the Religious Action Center wrote:

Wednesday, August 28: Join us at the RAC (2027 Massachusetts Avenue, NW) at 8:30 a.m. for a bagel breakfast and then walk with our staff to the National Mall for speeches by Presidents Obama, Clinton and Carter. RSVP here by Tuesday evening!

Less of an effort than I would have wished, but something.  

On Tisha B’Av, We Are Not Weeping Alone

We weep and fast this year together with millions starving all around the world. Children’s mass grave in Dadaab, Kenya.

— by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Last night, Rabbi Marcia Prager led Philadelphia P’nai Or (“Faces of Light”) in a powerful observance of the beginning of Tisha B’Av — the midsummer mourning that began in the burning, scorching heat of mid-summer Middle East and that traditionally was focused on the burning of two Holy Temples in Jerusalem. In addition to the classic mourning chant of Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, Reb Marcia brought us the dirge of Karaite Jews, with its refrain: “We sit alone and weep.”

She invited me to make the transition from “We sit alone …” to “We sit together …”  That is, we are transforming Judaism to mourn not alone, a people mourning only its own disasters — but a people that mourns along with other communities grieving their own disasters — and mourning those disasters that afflict us all.

Continued after the jump.
This Tisha B’Av is especially poignant, for we weep and fast this year together with more than a billion Muslims, who are fasting in this month of Ramadan. Some Muslims are fasting in sorrow for thousands killed in a civil war in Syria, and hundreds killed in an incipient civil war in Egypt. For hundreds of children killed by U.S. drones. For tens of thousands killed, and millions driven from their homes, by the U.S. war against Iraq. Other Muslims — millions of them — are fasting to turn themselves away from pointless materialist obsessions and toward the spiritual life called forth by the best of the Quran.

We weep and fast this year together with more than a hundred prisoners in Guantanamo, on hunger strike to protest their being held for years illegally and immorally by the U.S. government. These are prisoners whom the U.S. has acknowledged were never guilty of any terrorism, any violence, any crime — but whom the U.S. government will not release. Indeed, the U.S. has responded to the hunger strike with forced feeding — a torture by itself.

We weep and fast this year together with more than 12,000 American prisoners in California, on hunger strike because they are subjected to overcrowding that is so abominable, that federal courts have ruled it is “cruel and unusual punishment” forbidden by the Constitution. But the Governor has ignored court orders, and even refused to release prisoners held in cells already infected by deadly “valley fever.” Among the grievances, the thousands in California are protesting against the use of solitary confinement, that for some prisoners has been imposed for decades. (Decades!)

We weep and fast this year together with millions starving all around the world, in famines created by the droughts, created by the global scorching that’s caused by addiction to burning fossil fuels. An addiction carried like a triumphant banner by Americans, who per capita are by far the worst at scorching our shared planet, and whose government refuses to take action to lay a cost upon the Drug Lords of Big Carbon, that profit from this addiction.

We weep and fast this year together with tens of thousands of American children who will suffer hunger, because their parents have been robbed of their jobs by rapacious corporations, and because their congress is hell-bent on cancelling food stamps, while increasing subsidies to wealthy farmland owners.

Last night, the mourners in our circle said, each as the spirit moved them, a line of truth and then another and another, of what we bewail and weep together. How can we heal these lethal wounds upon humanity, and the earth, our mother?

Former Congressman Rev. Bob Edgar Dies at 69

— by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

This is a letter I never imagined writing, and am deeply grief-stricken to be writing. Rev. Bob Edgar, a great public servant and my friend, died last Tuesday.

I last saw him on Jan. 15, when he spoke at a gathering at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church near the White House, sponsored by Interfaith Moral Action on Climate, to protest Presidential inaction on the climate crisis.

He recalled the moment when as a seminary student he sat young and awe-struck in the balcony of that church, and heard Dr. Martin Luther King preach the need for a movement of the Spirit to heal America.

Continued after the jump.
From that moment on, Bob dedicated his religious life to the public good. He served as Congressman from Pennsylvania for six terms, and later was general secretary of the National Council of Churches, constantly urging it to work for social justice. Most recently, he was head of Common Cause, working to end the flood of corporate and super-rich money to buy elections and office-holders.

And for me, Bob was the person who could call me on a hot day two summers ago and ask if I would join the very next day with him and other religious leaders to pray — and risk arrest — in the US Capitol Rotunda, praying for the Congress to create a Federal budget that would meet the needs of the poor and of the Earth. Because it was Bob, I broke other appointments and said Yes. And then ten of us were indeed arrested. For God’s sake, joyfully. For America’s sake, sadly — for we knew the Congress would not listen to the God we prayed to.

On that phone call, and indeed whenever we came together to plan some action for justice and for peace, Bob would smile as we decided what to do, and say, “You are my rabbi!” And I would answer, “Okay, you are my leader!”

I spoke that night with his wife Merle. She said he went jogging in the morning, came home, but then did not come upstairs as he usually did. She went down to find him lying still. She tried to revive him, and called 911. The medics tried, but all too late. He was only 69.

In our generation no one that I have known has matched the passion and compassion, the generosity and commitment, that he drew from God to work for the common good.

Over and over, in that speech in January and when The Shalom Center honored him years ago as one of the Prophetic Voices of our generation, and in every time I heard him speak, he would say, and call us all to repeat it aloud with him:

We are the leaders we have been waiting for!

We are, and he was. May his life inspire us to become what he was, and what he called us to.  

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.


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