Interviews with the National Council of Elders: Rabbi Arthur Waskow, part 3
This is the last installment of my interview with Rabbi Arthur Waskow, part of an ongoing 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 parts of the intervew, in which Reb Arthur shares stories of critical lessons he learned from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dr. Martin Luther King, and the aftermath of King’s death, go here, and here.
Nathaniel: My questions here are about past, present, and future. We talked about the past, so now I’m very interested in your sense of the present and future – on the generational transference moving forward. I suppose a way to pose that question is: What have you learned from your students?
Reb Arthur: [Laughter] Right, right, exactly. For me the crucial step into the future is what I call Eco-Judaism: a Judaism committed to the healing of the earth, to healing what in Hebrew is adam, the human race, and adamah, the earth. I often teach that the crucial teaching is exactly those two words, adam and adamah. They are intertwined. It is not like “environment,” which is out there, in the environs, out there. But adam and adamah are interconnected. [Image: “Der Herbst,” Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 16th Cent. Public Domain]
I’ve also reinterpreted, or perhaps went back to an original interpretation (there’s no way to tell) of the YHWH original name of God. It is not “Yahweh” and not “Yahovah” because it doesn’t have any vowels. In 1982 I was teaching the course I was teaching at Swarthmore College, which was sort of about Martin Buber, though we tried to make the course with Buber and not about him, though he had been dead by that time. You should try to do with every great teacher, but especially with the teacher of I-Thou: you should not turn him into an It, but rather a Thou. [Laughter]. So we were having a conversation with Buber using his writings.
We were looking at one of his chapters in his book about Moses about the words on the tablets at Sinai. I found myself responding to the words on the tablets: the first one is an expanded version of the Hebrew word for “I.” If the universe where to say “I” it couldn’t be a normal “I” like “ego,” but it’s got to be an expanded word, and it is. The second word is the YHWH. I said “Ha! Professor Buber, I’ve been taught way back from when my grandmother taught me Hebrew that you’re not supposed to try to pronounce this YHWH thing. The Rabbis for 2,000 said the same. But I’m a rebel and you’re a rebel … what would happen if I tried pronouncing it?”
So I tried pronouncing it. What came out was: [breath]. In that instant, a whole bunch of things happened to me. One was that I thought, “Well, that makes sense. The real name of the real God, or at least one of the real names, shouldn’t be just in Hebrew or Egyptian or Sanskrit or English or Latin or Greek, but in all of them. The only thing it can be is just breathing.” The second thing that happened to me was, “Hey! It’s not just human languages. Every life form on the planet breathes.” And the third thing was, “Oh! We don’t just breathe each of us in our own little bubble. We breathe in what trees breathe out, and the trees breathe in what we breathe out.” It’s the inter-breathing that keeps life going on the planet. So in that sense we can understand the name of the Creator as the Inter-breathing Of All Life, rather than Lord, King, Judge, all those domination words.
So for me those two things, adam/adamah, and [breath], from the tradition became key theological pointers toward Eco-Judaism. It’s now growing toward becoming a movement. Not everyone in it by any means adopts what I just said. But many people, their eyes just bug out when I say this.
Nathaniel: That’s what happening to me!
Reb Arthur: [Laughter] Right! So, for me, that’s a major part of what I call Transformative Judaism: Judaism that takes on the mission, using Jewish wisdom, to point in a universal direction. One of the major places of that pointing is the planet. What is interesting to me is that rabbinic Judaism, which didn’t have a land to work with or play with and didn’t have the political clout to write policy about the land, is pretty weak about what an environmental Judaism could be. But biblical Judaism, which was the religion of an indigenous people living on its own land, had a lot about sacred relationship with the land. From biblical Judaism it seems to me we gain some things, for instance, by the connection between food and the earth, and using meat, mutton, grain, and pancakes in the Temple. People often ask, What do you mean, “Pancakes”? I respond, quoting the Torah: “Take a handful of flour, mix it with oil, put in spices, and turn it to smoke on the altar.” That’s a pancake! The earthiness of it being a pancake flabbergasts people – food as a connection between human beings and the earth is the sacred connection between human beings and God. That’s what biblical Judaism was, and what rabbinic Judaism was not. One of the major events of the last twenty years has been the rebirth of a Judaism that cares passionately about the earth, the sacred and honorable connection between Jews and other humans and the earth.
For me, that’s the path into the future. It includes peacemaking between humans. It includes justice making. The Shalom Center actually started around issues around the nuclear arms race. From the beginning we didn’t just see it as just a human problem, but as a question of ecocide, the destruction of the planet. As the danger of a Soviet-American war receded, at the same time we were beginning to see the impact of burning fossil fuels. “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper.” We have to deal with the whimper too. The fire next time might not be the atom bomb, but what I call global scorching (“global warming” sounds too pleasant for what it is). [Photo: Reb Arthur and Occupy Passover/Occupy Holy Week liturgical protest before BP in New York City, 4/1/12. Source: The Shalom Center]
So that’s were I am about the future. A lot of it I learned from my students. It is not where it began. It began with one of the traditional prayers, which interestingly is in traditional prayer books but not in quote-unquote modern prayer books. It’s the second paragraph of the central Jewish prayer of the Shema, which affirms God’s Unity. The paragraph says, “If you actually follow my teachings about Unity, then the rains will fall, the rivers will run, and the heavens will be your friends. But if you chop the world up into idols, and worship strange gods (I would say gods of ambition, of greed, race, nation, etc) the rain won’t fall (or, I would put in brackets, they would turn to acid), and the rivers won’t flow (or, I would add, will overflow and flood your cities, along with the oceans), and the heavens will become your enemies (I would put in brackets, scorching the earth because of too much CO2).” This is one of the crucial teachings. It is true. That’s what I’ve learned is happening from a whole generation of Jewish farmers running organic farms, now scattered over North America. So from them and from other folks who are doing Eco-Judaism, I have learned a lot over the years.