Interviews with the National Council of Elders: Rabbi Arthur Waskow, part 1
In the second of our series of interviews with members of the National Council of Elders, I interviewed Rabbi Arthur Waskow. The National Council of the Elders is a group of illustrous and august veterans of civil rights and social justice movements dedicated to sharing “the torch of feedom, justice, peace, and non-violent action with those who have risen anew in the 21st Century.”
Reb Arthur is the founding director of the Shalom Center, a prophetic voice in Jewish, multireligious, and American life that brings Jewish and other spiritual thought and practice to bear on seeking peace, pursuing justice, healing the earth, and celebrating community. A generating force within the Jewish Renewal Movement, he has also long been deeply involved with Jewish and interfaith movements on behalf of peace, the wellness of the earth, and equality for all races, sexualities, and genders. He is the author of numerous books. [Photo: Reb Arthur with the National Council of the Elders and Occupy Faith at Liberty Sq, Manhattan]
Nathaniel: It would be great to hear a word about who you consider to have been your mentors in entering into a religiously based commitment to social change efforts.
Reb Arthur: Well, let’s see, some of them are mentors in the classic sense, some of them are you might say mentor-colleagues or mentor-students. There’s a wonderful line in the Talmud that quotes one of the rabbis as saying, “From my teachers I have learned much. From my colleagues I have learned even more. From my students I have learned most of all.” So, let me first mention in terms of mentors that not all of them brought together the religious and social activist element. From some of them it was the social activist element I learned from them, from others it was the religious, spiritually rooted element I learned from them. For the bringing of both elements together: Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King. I met each of them only once, but what I learned from them in those meetings, and subsequently from the news and from reading their writings, was very powerful.
But before I tell those stories, I should say that it was not they that convinced me into this path, the real mentorship that led me into it was not a person. You might say it was King’s death as much as his life that was my mentor. On March 31 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek reelection, I was part of an insurgent slate of delegates – we didn’t even have a candidate – to the Democratic National Convention. I was nominated by a neighborhood caucus in the heart of Washington. If you had asked me on March 31, 1968, about my being a Jew I’d have said, “Yeah, of course,” but I really didn’t have any central calling in my life – the only thing I felt connected to from my Jewishness was the Passover Seder, not even Passover as a whole. Other than that, nothing. Okay.
King is killed several days later. On April 5th is the Black uprising in Washington and every major city in the country. President Johnson sent the Army to occupy the city of Washington. And I really mean occupy: they took over the schools in my neighborhood, they took over the traffic circles, which had actually been designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a Frenchman who had been through the French Revolution, to make sure that if they had to put down a revolution they could put cannons, or later machine guns, in the traffic circles to command six streets at once. So this was the first time in history they were actually used that way. Johnson also proclaimed a curfew, which in theory pertained to everyone in the city, but in reality the cops didn’t care about whites in the streets. 10,000 Blacks were arrested just for being on the streets in the next week or so. We discovered that whites could move around without a problem. So a group of us set up what we called the Center for Emergency Support. We got medical supplies, and doctors, lawyers, and food into the Black communities who were otherwise totally cut off. So I was doing that for the next week.
The week after Dr. King was killed came the first night of Passover. I walked home to get ready to do the Seder, the one Jewish thing I did. That meant walking past detachments of the Army, with a machine gun pointed down the block I lived on. And my guts, more than my brain, began to say, “This is Pharaoh’s Army!” So, suddenly the Seder became for me not just serious, but volcanic. The Seder was in the streets; the streets were in the Seder. There is a line in the Haggadah that says, in every generation, every person - not just every Jew, every human being – is obligated to look upon him or herself as if we were going forth to freedom, not just the ancestors. I had read that line ever since I could read, and I was 35, and it never meant much. But that night I found myself profoundly moved and, you might say, profoundly moved by being so profoundly moved. What is going on? I didn’t care that much about this stuff. What is going on?! [Photo: Soldiers in Washington DC, April 1968. Warren Leffler/ Library of Congress]
We in fact won, our slate of complete outsiders. We came out for Bobby Kennedy and when he was murdered, we came out for our own chair, who was a young Black minister in the King mold, Channing Phillips, may he rest in peace, for president. The first Black person ever nominated for president in a major party convention. But the summer, Kennedy’s death, what happened in Chicago, the police riot led by Mayor Daly, the policing of the convention itself, all of that left me really bereft of the identities I thought I had. The one that was still there, at a bedrock level, was the identity that came out of the Seder: a radical Jewish identity.
So that fall I sat down with the Haggadah I was given when I was thirteen years old in one hand, and in the other hand King and John Brown and the slave uprisings in the 1840s and the Warsaw Uprising and Gandhi and Selma. I wove that stuff into the Haggadah, and came out with what got published as the Freedom Seder. It intertwined the story of the liberation of ancient Israel from slavery in Egypt along with the struggle of Black America against racism from the beginnings of slavery into the Civil Rights era. We actually did that Seder in the basement of a Black church in Washington on the first anniversary of Dr. King’s death, which was third night of Passover in 1969, April 4th. So that’s why I say King’s death served as my mentor. And you might even say the United States Army in the streets of Washington was my mentor.
Click here for Part 2 and here for Part 3 of my Interview with Reb Arthur, in which he relates the powerful lessons he received in his meetings with Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr., and discusses Eco-Judaism and the path to the future.