Jewish Values from Aleph to Wisconsin

The Boards of Directors of ALEPH:  Alliance For Jewish Renewal and of its affiliate,  OHALAH: Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal, have adopted the statement below.

Whereas, Jews for millennia have learned and affirmed the archetypal story of the suffering of ancient Israelites as oppressed public workers under Pharaoh, building the store-cities of Pithom and Ramses, and the vigorous activism of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to organize those workers into an effective community that could win its freedom;

And whereas, ever since the great migration of millions of Jews to America many of them have upheld the rights of workers by organizing labor unions first in the garment industry, and later among teachers, social workers, and other public employees;

Therefore, the Board of ALEPH [and the Board of OHALAH] affirms and supports the right of public employees as well as those in private industry to organize unions and carry on collective bargaining, and supports the nonviolent protests now being carried on in the State of Wisconsin and elsewhere against efforts to undermine or cancel those rights.

Contacts:

Tahrir Square, Berlin Wall, Red Sea

Fallen Pharoahs & Creative Communities

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cast off the stupor, create community.

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

Tu b’shvat


Reprinted courtesy of Yaakov (Dry Bones) Kirschen www.DryBonesBlog.blogspot.com.

— Rabbi  Arthur Waskow

Tonight is in Jewish tradition the midwinter time called “Tu B’Shvat”  for celebrating with a sacred meal of fruit, nuts, and wine the rebirth of trees and of the sacred Tree of Life that nourishes all the abundance of our planet.

(There is every reason for people of other religious and ethnic communities to join in celebrating the Earth that nourishes us all. And for some, this coming weekend may be a better time.)

In our world today, the flow of life that makes abundance possible is threatened by many Overdoings of the human race – especially by our pouring too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, heating and scorching the earth.

In the spirit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s teaching that “prayer is useless unless it is subversive,”  we must infuse Tu B’Shvat with some political action that protects the physical planet in which we live.  

Ideally, perhaps, in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Heschel, we would hold the Seder by nonviolent direct action in the very offices of Senators who are trying to shatter the fragile defenses against climate crisis that are already in place.

But few of us are ready for that kind of action.  We propose instead, ending the Seder with a new ritual: writing, by hand, a letter to our Senators and to our local newspapers. (And you can do this any time, even without a Seder.)

We at The Shalom Center have made available a model text that our members and readers can modify and send your Senators.  You can use this letter
and we encourage you to add your own words and thoughts.

We also urge you to draw on and modify this text for a letter-to-the-editor of your own local and communal newspapers. (See the model text following the jump below.)

For more information on the mystical, intellectual, political, and physical aspects of Tu B’Shvat, see any of the articles on our website.

Blessings of shalom, salaam, peace —  Arthur
 
Sample Letter

Dear Editor,

I have just taken part in a sacred Jewish celebration of God’s creation and the rebirth in this wintry time of trees and of all life. Yet it is already clear that God’s command to protect and heal the Earth is being ignored as we pour still more carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.

The rising epidemic of asthma, unprecedented floods in Pakistan and fires in Russia, extreme weather events in Nashville and other American regions, all tell us that the climate crisis is already damaging our lives and our planet.  

Some Senators and Congressmembers in the new Congress are hoping to restrict or cripple the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to carry out its court-ordered mandate to prevent emissions of  CO2 from poisoning our neighborhoods and our country.

We must join in opposing any and all efforts to restrict or cripple EPA’s authority to heal our neighborhoods and our Earth.

Shalom,

On 8 Days of Hanukkah, my True Love said to me…

… “Help Save The Earth”

— Rabbi Arthur Waskow

This year, the first night of Hanukkah comes unusually “early” in the solar year — Wednesday evening, December 1. As always, it comes when the moon is dark and the Earth is moving toward the winter solstice when (in the Northern Hemisphere) the night is as long as it gets, the sun is as dark as it gets.

In this time of darkness, we kindle a gathering bank of lights. If we are feeling depressed or despairing about our country, our world, our planet — now is the time to kindle new light.

There are three levels of wisdom through which Hanukkah invites us to address the planetary dangers of the global climate crisis – what some of us call “global scorching” because “warming” seems so pleasant, so comforting.

These are the deep teachings of Hanukkah:

More after the jump.

  1. The Talmud’s legend about using one day’s oil to meet eight days’ needs: a reminder that if we have the courage to change our life-styles to conserve energy, it will sustain us.
  2. The vision of Zechariah (whose prophetic passages we read on Shabbat Hanukkah) that the Temple Menorah was itself a living being, uniting the world of “nature” and “humanity” – for it was not only fashioned in the shape of a Tree of Light, as Torah teaches, but was flanked by two olive trees that fed olive oil directly into it.
  3. The memory that a community of “the powerless” can overcome a great empire, giving us courage to face our modern corporate empires of Oil and Coal when they defile our most sacred Temple: Earth itself. And the reminder (again from Zechariah) that we triumph “Not by might and not by power but by My Spirit [b’ruchi – or, “My breath,” “My wind!”], says YHWH, the Infinite Breath of Life.”

We are taught not only to light the menorah, but to publicize the miracle, to turn our individual actions outward for the rest of the world to see and to be inspired by.

So we invite you to join, this Hanukkah, in The Shalom Center’s Green Menorah Covenant for taking action – personal, communal, and political – to heal the earth from the global climate crisis.

And here is how we can encode these teachings of Hanukkah into actions we take to heal the earth, one action for each of the eight days:

After lighting your menorah each evening, dedicate yourself to making the changes in your life that will allow our limited sources of energy to last for as long as they’re needed, and with minimal impact on our climate.

No single action will solve the global climate crisis, just as no one of us alone can make enough of a difference. Yet, if we act on as many of the areas below as possible, and act together, a seemingly small group of people can overcome a seemingly intractable crisis. We can, as in days of old, turn this time of darkness into one of light.

  • Day 1: Personal/Household: Call your electric-power utility to switch to wind-powered electricity. (For each home, 100% wind-power reduces CO2 emissions the same as not driving 20,000 miles in one year.)
  • Day 2: Congregation, Hillel, JCC, retirement home, etc: Urge your congregation or community building to switch to wind-powered rather than coal-powered electricity. Call your utility company to learn how.
  • Day 3 (which this year is Shabbat): Automobile: If possible, choose today or one other day a week to not use your car at all. Other days, lessen driving. Shop on-line. Cluster errands. Carpool. Don’t idle engine beyond 20 seconds.
  • Day 4: Your network of friends, IM buddies, Facebookers, and the members of civic or professional groups you belong to: Connect with people like newspaper editors, real-estate developers, architects, bankers, etc. to urge them to strengthen the green factor in all their decisions, speeches, and actions.
  • Day 5: Workplace or College: Urge the top officials to arrange an energy audit. Check with utility company about getting one free or at low-cost.
  • Day 6: Town/City: Urge town/city officials to require greening of buildings through ordinances and executive orders. Creating change is often easier on the local level!
  • Day 7: State: Urge state legislators to reduce subsidies for highways, increase them for mass transit.In states (like Pennsylvania and New York) where high=rofit oil/ gas companies are trying to “frack” Oil Shgale deposits, demand a moratorium until we can get full inormation on
  • Day 8: National: Urge your Senators to strengthen the authority of EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to regulate CO2 emissions from coal-burning plants, autos, oil refineries, etc. — for the sake of our planet’s climate, and to lessen asthma outbreaks among our children. Some Senators and Congressmembers are seeking to cripple the EPA, mostly to protect Big Coal.

Happy Hanukkah for you — and Planet Earth!

• For more information, to explore having your congregation or community becoming a partner in the Green Menorah Covenant, or to arrange for Green Menorah resource people to visit your community, please contact us at [email protected] or (215) 844-8494.

Beyond This Election: Tears to Water the Wellsprings of New Life

Rabbi Arthur Waskow— Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Adlai Stevenson once said on losing the Presidency, “It hurts too much to laugh, but I am too old to cry.”

I am sad to have lost such gutsy, wise, and independent-minded  Members of Congress as Russ Feingold (WI) and Joe Sestak (PA).

I mourn the growing numbers of Americans, Afghans, and Pakistanis who are dying and being maimed in wars that no one can win and that no one in our new government will stop – wars that are pouring down the drain not only blood — but the resources that could meet deep civilian needs in America.

I  am grief-stricken that under our new government, millions of Americans will continue to suffer without jobs or homes.

I am grief-stricken that the suffering from global scorching and from our addiction to fossil fuels – the suffering of Gulf fisher-folk and West Virginia miners, drought-stricken Russians and Darfurians, flooded Pakistanis — will worsen and will spread — and no one in our new government will act to resolve the climate crisis.

I am grief-stricken that fear and frustration will drive millions of Americans into rage at scapegoats – Muslims, Hispanics, gay people.

I am horrified that the super-rich will get still richer while the poor sink into an abyss of despair, and that the billions of secret dollars from great corporations that poisoned this election will grow still more to bury our democracy.

For all these, tears aplenty.

But tears can water the wellsprings of new life, new energy, new hope. “Hope” not as an empty slogan but as a stubborn determination to renew our country and our planet. To act.

More after the jump.

Those who are deeply rooted in the Spirit know that from slavery in Egypt we rise to Sinai, from reading the death of Moses we turn to reading the creation of the world, from the Crucifixion to the Resurrection, from Muhammad’s flight out of Mecca to the transformation of all Arabia and well beyond.

In this moment of mourning, how can we plan to move toward action deeply rooted in the Spirit and in the ways we have created to celebrate the Spirit?

Jobs Not Wars
Who/What Is Pharaoh Today?
A Spirit-Rooted  Campaign for Grass-roots Reempowerment

According to the Biblical story of the Exodus, Sinai, and the Wilderness, Pharaoh turned workers into slaves, immigrants into pariahs, and tormented the earth until it rebelled in ecological disasters – the Plagues. He used his domestic police – overseers — to harass and punish dissidents and workers, and his horse-chariot army to subjugate an empire.  

Yet —  or therefore — inspired by YHWH, the Breathing-Spirit of the World – a band of runaway slaves created a whole new form of community.

Today, what institutions are behaving like Pharaoh, and how do we create new communities that celebrate the intertwining of many different human cultures with each other and the Earth?  What could be the role of a transformed and transformative Judaism in that process,
alongside other religious and spiritual communities?

The Shalom Center proposes a two-level action effort aimed at renewing the deep meaning of Passover (April 18-26);  the Holy Week from Palm Sunday to Easter (April 17-24); and the Quran’s retelling of the stories of Exodus and liberation.

One level: “Jobs, Not Wars.” Demanding that the resources now poured into the Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan wars and attacks, along with other wasteful and destructive military spending, be redirected to meeting the mounting needs for jobs and social repair in American society.

The second level, “the issue behind the issue”: Naming the institutions responsible for our decline as a nation and a prosperous society. “Who are the Pharaohs/ Caesars of today?”  Naming (with evidence) as Pharaoh/Caesar such major holders of top-down, unaccountable, and destructive power as the Military-Corporate Complex, Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Banking,  and their governmental allies,  that have imposed massive disemployment, the climate crisis,  and a hugely swollen military budget on our society.

Crucial to this effort will be the development of materials – factual reports on corporate power, alternative budgets, model sermons, prayer and celebration forms, art, music, dance —  that can be used by religious and spiritual communities and congregations during the spring.  If you are interested in helping create these, please write me and explain what you have in mind.

Though Islam this year does not have a festival during the spring that would parallel Passover and Holy Week, the rich references to the Exodus and to the origins of Christianity in the Quran, plus the experience of Islam’s own  birth in  resistance to the power elite of Mecca and its deep commitment to social justice,  offer a parallel path for such education.

We will also pursue the possibility of multireligious public action growing out of this educational process, to challenge corporate domination and  demand the necessary transfer of money and creative energy from military uses to meeting urgent civilian needs.

By working together, the campaign will also shape new kinds of community connecting our present forms of community,  just as Ancient Israel, Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam built new kinds of communities in response to the oppressive top-down powers of their day.

If, as I have said, our new government will be even more unwilling than the old one to face these challenges, what is the use of renewing the ancient meanings of our religious and spiritual traditions?

History will not end in 2012, or 2020, and history is not made by governments alone.  Now we sow seeds. Watered with our tears, they will sprout.
They will bear fruit.  

Veterans of Hope: Shirley & Charles Sherrod

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

The extraordinary story of  Shirley Sherrod that has emerged so publicly over the last several days has reminded me of an extraordinary moment I lived through that involved her husband, Rev. Charles Sherrod.

In 1963, Charles Sherrod, like several other SNCC activists (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), came for several months to the Institute for Policy Studies, then a very new Washington center for progressive thought and action where I was a Fellow.  They  came to us for time to breathe, share, and reflect, after months or years of intense and harrowing work in the South.

We arranged a seminar for Members of Congress to meet Sherrod and learn from him what was happening in the South–specifically in the town of Albany [pronounced “All-Benny”] in southwest Georgia,  where he had been working.  About a dozen Members of Congress came.

Sherrod began by telling the story of Albany almost like an observer, a reporter. Then, as he began explaining the role of the Black church there,  his tone slowly shifted and he morphed into the Black minister that he was, giving a passionate sermon in the Black church in Albany.

The sermon was hair-raising. Transformative.

The members of Congress had never heard anything like it. I had never heard anything like it. They and I went from that seminar shaken to our core. I think it was one of the subterranean moments that prepared me for 1968, when Passover came shortly after the murder of Dr. King, to become a serious and impassioned Jew.

  Unlike almost all of the other SNCC activists, Sherrod stayed in the very same community where he was organizing —  stayed in Southwest Georgia, committed to the very same people and the very same region. He has been there ever since.

I don’t know when he married Shirley, but she clearly,  like him, comes from the deepest kind of religious faith. The work she has for years been doing–to empower and strengthen the Black farmers of Southwest Georgia–and, it turns out, to empower white farmers too–is rooted in the best and deepest nonviolent traditions of SNCC.  

It is disgusting — and predictable — that some right-wing racist TV jockey would attempt to smear and ruin her.  

It is horrifying — much less predictable — that the leadership of the NAACP would let themselves, as they themselves named it, be “snookered” by a right- wing broadcaster from Fox News.  What on earth possessed their national leadership to react – especially knowing what they must know about Fox News — without even calling her or the local Georgia chapter where she gave the speech that was so brutally distorted?

I can’t but imagine Mr. Justice Thurgood Marshall, one of the NAACP’s great leaders, may he rest in peace, not resting in such heavenly peace this past week —  instead infuriated and ashamed as he heard the NAACP’s utterly unthinking, indecent response to the doctored videotape.

It is also horrifying — unfortunately somewhat more predictable — that the Obama administration would react as it did.

I do take heart from the fact that the Department of Agriculture, the White House, the NAACP, and even Fox News have apologized so abjectly.

Yet the whole series of events makes clear that the spirit of SNCC ought not be dead in the land, that the work that both Sherrods have done in their extraordinary lives is not yet finished.