Interviews with the National Council of Elders: Rabbi Arthur Waskow, part 2
This is the continuation of my interview with Rabbi Arthur Waskow, part of a series of interviews with members of the National Council of Elders, veterans of civil rights and social justice movements dedicated to passing down their spirit and experience to the next generations of activists. For the first part of the intervew, go here, and the third part, here.
Nathaniel: Wow. So you had mentioned that both Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr. had been mentors for you, though you had met each of them only once. What did they teach you in those encounters? What came across? [Photo: Rabbi Arthur Waskow]
Reb Arthur: Well, Heschel I met because a colleague of mine, or chaver, to use the Yiddish, which means something more than colleague, more like comrade, — from Jews for Urban Justice in Washington DC in 1971 — said he wanted to meet with the leadership of both the Yiddisher Arbeiter Bund, the Yiddish Workers Union, you might say, an inheritance from Eastern Europe, which was very important in 1905 during the first effort of the Russian Revolution, and again in 1920s and 30s especially in Poland. He wanted to meet with them and he wanted to meet with Heschel, mostly to see who it was, if anybody, that we were drawing from in trying to connect with the Jewish past. So we went to New York and met with the central committee of the Bund – who were all over eighty. And when we met with them we sent ahead stuff we had been working on: we sent the Freedom Seder, and also an effort to create a kind of Seder that would explain Shabbat the way the Passover Seder explains Passover. In creating that Seder we drew a lot on Heschel’s book The Sabbath, a brilliant, extraordinary, short, and lyrical book about the deep meeting of the Shabbat.
So we met first with the Bund folks, and they said, “Vell, I tink I understand vaht you are trying to do mit dis Haggadah (that is, the service for the Seder), but vy did you keep God in the Haggadah!? I vent to Yeshiva (that is, the school for advanced training out of which one would be made a rabbi) back in 1905 and ven I came out I vas a shoshalist and the rabbis, dey burned our books! Dey burned our books! And you? You vould keep God in the Haggadah?!” He was about as angry in 1971 as he was in 1905. So we kind of blinked and absorbed and then went on to see Heschel.
So the first thing Heschel said was, “Did you come to New York to see just me?” We said we had met with the Bund and described what happened. He smiled ruefully and said, “I love the Bund, I really do love the Bund.” I learned many years later that in fact he was learning Talmud in Vilna where he studied during the day and went to meetings of the Bund at night. This was back in 1927, ‘28, ‘30. So when he said, “I love the Bund,” it was rooted in his own life history. Then he said, “I’m not surprised that they’re all so elderly. I think that any movement that completely cuts itself off from religiously based Judaism can’t last more than two generations.” So that was the first thing he said.
Then we asked him what he thought of what we had sent him. He said, “Well, I really like this Freedom Seder. And I was interested in this Seder for Shabbat. I’m honored that you quoted me in it. I’m not sure that after thousands of years the Jewish people needs a Seder for Shabbat, but I understand what you’re trying to do.
“But there was one thing you sent me that really troubled me. You sent me the newsletter for your organization (our organization was called Jews for Urban Justice). Its title is the ‘Jewish Urban Guerrilla.’”
He looks at us and says, “What weapons do we have?” I remember being moved that he, this great scholar, sage, activist, leader, was talking to these two, much younger, unlearned Jews who were sort of learning our way into what it means to be seriously Jewish, religiously and spiritually Jewish … and he used “We.”
He said, “What weapons do we have? We don’t have guns. We don’t have money. The only weapons we have are words. We must use words with as much precision as people with guns aim and shoot their guns. So if you were Jewish urban guerrillas …” the sentence kind of trailed off … “but you’re not!”
Oy Gevalt! [laughter] So we said, “Um, all right, we’ll go back and talk to our chaverim, our comrades, in Washington.” And in fact we did and we changed the name to something boring. I mean, the “Jewish Urban Guerrilla” was a kind of, what, chutzpah, thumbing our nose at the world or at the Jewish establishment. But, in fact, he was right.
I learned years later that when Heschel wrote he wrote only five or six words a day. He would sit writing with a pen and then cross out the words and throw the page away and try again. He was trying so hard to get absolute precision in what he wrote. So that was a very powerful lesson!
Nathaniel: No kidding!
Reb Arthur: [Laughter] Right! So the one time I got to sit down with him was very powerful. [Photo: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel presenting the Judaism and World Peace Prize to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dec. 7, 1965. Source: U.S. Library of Congress]
From King the lesson was this. The only time I actually met him was on the night, the Sunday night, right before the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in 1964. The Freedom Democratic Party of Mississippi had come to challenge the regular, all-white, pro-segregation Democratic delegation from Mississippi who had the seats at the convention. The credentials committee met on Sunday and we, meaning I and several other legislative assistants on Capital Hill, were invited to come by the Freedom Party because we knew some of the people on the credentials committee. They thought we could act as connection points. So I was there, Marc Raskin, other people like us. The job was to pursue ten members of the committee to sign a minority report that would then take the issue to the floor of the convention on Monday night, on prime time, on national television, so the Freedom Party could make their pitch there. Linden Johnson was absolutely fixated on not having that happen. He was afraid that he’d lose Texas in the general election. He threatened that if this went to the floor, he’d dump Hubert Humphrey as VP. The northern liberals were all hot for Humphrey, so they didn’t want to make the President mad. So this was going to be hard to do.
The Freedom Party got Dr. King to come to Atlantic City and lobby. It’s August, the temperature was about 115 degrees. King had a broken leg. One by one we got people from the credentials committee to come out and talk with him. It was not a charismatic moment. He didn’t just say, “This is what you should do.” And they didn’t just reply, “Oh, Dr. King, of course!” He spend hour after hour after hour talking with these people, explaining what Mississippi was really like. [Photo: Aaron Henry, Chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party, before the Credentials Committee, Aug 22 1964. Source: U.S. Library of Congress]
We did persuade ten people, but it was the hardest work I think I had seen anybody do. That was the powerful lesson.
I was at the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom and moved deeply, deeply, deeply by his eloquence there. And when I got to read his speech on April 4 1967 at Riverside church – far more radical, far more profound than his “I Have a Dream” speech –I was moved again, both intellectually and emotionally and spiritually. It took a lot of moral courage when a lot of the Civil Rights Movement was telling him to shut up about the war. He had President Johnson on his side and he was going to attack Johnson’s favorite war?! That was reckless and it was going to hurt the movement, they said. But he said in that speech that he couldn’t help it. This really was God’s demand on him, that he speak out. He couldn’t avoid the moral and ethical insistence to speak out against the war.
He did it at Riverside Church in a gathering of Clergy and Laymen (as it was called back then, still “laymen”) Concerned about Vietnam. And standing beside him as he spoke was Heschel, who was co-chair. Heschel also was having the heat put on him by his alleged supporters and community. The Jewish leadership wanted him to shut up about the war. The Israeli government was being threatened by Johnson, and later Nixon, that if the American Jews interfered with the war, the President would withdraw support from Israel. So there was pressure from the Israelis to shut up. And Heschel refused to shut up. The two of them, King and Heschel, strengthened each other in speaking out about the war.
So this was all happening from 1963 until ’68 when King was killed, to ’72 when Heschel died, the last thing Heschel did was go to prison to visit one of the Berrigans, and that trip he had been warned by his doctors not to take, after his heart attack the prior year. The trip probably did do him in. But he couldn’t not visit these folks in prisons. So these leaders were my mentors in this sense in the possibility of a religiously rooted progressive political activity.
I do want to add two other people [as mentors]. One taught me political activism and commitment on a really deep level, but not explicitly religious. The other taught me religious and spiritual commitment at a deep level, but not explicitly political. The first was Marc Raskin, who was the co-director and cofounder of the Institute for Policy Studies. I was among the original Fellows of the Institute in 1963, and had worked with Mark as a legislative assistant on Capital Hill. He and I had written a book together about nuclear deterrence and nuclear disarmament. He taught me a lot.
The other one is Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. He was a spiritual genius who came out of the Lubavitch Hassidic community and, as he says, “graduated” from it – they didn’t throw him out, he didn’t quit, he “graduated.” He went in with Christian mystics like Thomas Merton, and Sufis, Howard Thurman, Timothy Leary, and a whole host of other spiritual teachers of the 1960s. And he came out a sort of universally pointed Jew, you might say, drawing deeply on Hassidic and Cabbalistic Judaism but pointing to what he called a New Paradigm of Judaism, what we often call Jewish Renewal, or what I sometimes call Transformative Judaism. Not just renewing the tradition but transforming it and aiming it at transforming the world. So he was my second great mentor.
I would add a third, very important in my thought: Judith Plaskow. She wrote a book called “Standing Again at Sinai.” She was probably the most important Jewish feminist theologian. The combination of Jewish feminism and transformative Hasidism was very important for me in developing who I am and who I hope am still becoming.
Click here for the Part 3 of this interview, in which Reb Arthur discusses the critical direction for religiously rooted activism now and in the future.