Arthur Waskow wants Judaism to deal with climate change, tech challenges

The book’s theme is that when big changes come, opportunities open up to transform religion and society, or in the author’s terms, “dance in the earthquake.”

BIRDS FLY near factory emissions n Tangshan, China, in 2016. Waskow emphasizes the importance of using religion to fight climate change (photo credit: KIM KYUNG-HOON/FILE PHOTO/ REUTERS)
BIRDS FLY near factory emissions n Tangshan, China, in 2016. Waskow emphasizes the importance of using religion to fight climate change
(photo credit: KIM KYUNG-HOON/FILE PHOTO/ REUTERS)
In 1968, Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow had a life-changing moment as he walked home to prepare for Passover Seder. It was a week after Martin Luther King’s assassination, and there were soldiers in the streets of Washington, DC, as rioters had destroyed some areas of the city.
As he approached his home, he saw a Jeep with a gun pointed at the street on which he lived.
The rabbi writes, “From deep in my gut arose the words, ‘This is Pharaoh’s army and I’m going home to do the Seder. This is Pharaoh’s Army.’ That moment was the turning point of my life.”
King’s murder was, as he writes, a “violent victory of racism” over a beloved apostle of nonviolence. It was a horror, a stain on America. It was an outrage.
But so was the looting and burning in many cities, including Washington, in response. The soldiers whom he equates with the army sent either to return forcibly thousands of people to slavery in Egypt – or to murder them – were instead there to protect his neighbors and his family.
And, if those troops were “Pharaoh’s army,” then the “Pharaoh” was none other than president Lyndon Johnson whose vision and dedication resulted in the landmark civil rights legislation that changed the lives of millions of black people.
What was the rabbi thinking?
The book’s theme is that when big changes come, opportunities open up to transform religion and society, or in the author’s terms, “dance in the earthquake.”
Three thousand years ago, writes Waskow – an activist rabbi associated with the Jewish Renewal Movement and founder and director of the Shalom Center – pressure from the Babylonian and Egyptian empires on the Semitic communities caught between them produced Israel – and the Torah with its new ethics. One thousand years later, the Roman Empire produced an earthquake in the Mediterranean world, and rabbinic Judaism and Christianity emerged.
Today, the rabbi believes, we are living in a new earthquake in which the industrial and computer revolutions have produced both good and bad – slavery and freedom, abundant food and many more people, computer conversations and industrial genocide.
“Some of these uncertain shuffling steps lifted our knowledge, our compassion; some multiplied cruelty. All of them together shook us into a worldwide earthquake.”
These changes form an opportunity to transform religions, connect with each other and create a better life.
He advocates changing how we conceive of God – from king or Lord to “YHWH as the Breath of Life that interbreathes us all.”
THAT IS certainly a very non-traditional way of looking at the Almighty. However, we know that animals and plants are dependent on each other for oxygen and carbon dioxide. And there is a connection in Hebrew between the words for “soul” and “breath” (neshama and ruach).
So, for example, the morning service prayer Kol ha’neshama t’hallel YAH (“Every soul, praise God”) Waskow re-envisions as, “Every breath praises Yah, the breath of life.” It’s a little bizarre but not completely out of bounds.
This conceptualization allows us to see “God embodied in and rising from all the myriad beings in the Universe,” the rabbi writes.
De-emphasizing hierarchy by ditching “king” and “Lord” helps us change religious doctrine and our thinking. In this age of global warming, for example, it helps us see that the biblical injunction to humans to expand their power over the planet – based on the hierarchical idea that God is king, and he delegates control of the Earth to people – is now outmoded and counterproductive.
Waskow also puts forth recommendations for action. I found some of them to be flawed. For example, he would have corporations periodically try to convince a jury that they had lived up to their duties to stakeholders – customers, workers, neighbors and the Earth – to have their charters renewed. Corporations are private companies that should pay for their shortcomings in the marketplace, losing customers and disgruntled workers. They should be fined if they violate environmental law. But firms should not have to go through bureaucratic hoops to stay in business.
Some of his other advice is more practical: planting trees and gardens, lobbying politicians to fight global warming, solarizing your house.
But the book’s main contribution comes from the very different way the rabbi perceives God and the ideas that may flow from such a conceptualization.
The writer is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His memoir, Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, is slated to be published by Chickadee Prince Books in March.

DANCING IN GOD’S EARTHQUAKE
By Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow
Orbis Books
198 pages; $25