Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Rabbi Waskow at ICUJP: Let us remember Dr. King's Riverside Church speech and his anti-war legacy

Rabbi Arthur Waskow and his wife Rabbi Phyllis Berman came to ICUJP and spoke in February. What an amazing couple, and what a blessing!

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is a life-long peace and justice activist, and one of the founders/leaders of the Jewish Renewal movement. He also founded the Shalom Center in Philadelphia. He has written numerous books and received numerous awards. Time magazine even named him one of the 100 most influential rabbis of our era. For me, he is the most influential.

When he and his wife presented together, it was a joy to see them playing off each other, a dynamic couple who so obviously love and respect each other. I'll share more about them later, including how they met.

Rabbi Waskow's main pitch to ICUJP was that next year will be the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's powerful sermon at Riverside Church. On April 4, 1967, he spoke out strongly against the Vietnam War and US militarism, racism and materialism.
   We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent  co-annihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
A year later, on the very same day (April 4), he was assassinated. Some (including King's family) think the US government had a hand in this tragedy.

Waskow feels that Riverside Church and peace groups around the country should use this opportunity to examine the current moral and political condition of America, especially our addiction to militarism, racism, and materialism. We at ICUJP support his idea and plan to make it part of our agenda in the upcoming year.

Waskow's commitment to peace springs from his deep love of God and of Torah. In fact, his wife told a story about a conference in which her husband was asked about what he loved most. His face brightened, his eyes sparkled, and he said excitedly, "Torah."

Smiling, she said she had hoped for a different answer, one that he gave a few years later. "I love my wife, and I love Torah."

Waskow's heart-felt love for Torah, and the stories of the Bible, is profoundly evident in how he reads and interprets Scripture. He is open to the Light wherever it comes from, whether it is from Rabbinical tradition, a woman, or a child.

During our time together, he told a charming story about the importance of listening to children. His ten-year-old grand daughter asked him what the Bible meant by saying "Human beings are made in God's image." She wanted to know what an "image" was.

"It's like a photo," Waskow replied. "Like the pictures you take on your cell phone."

"Hmm," replied his grand daughter. "How can you take a picture of God? Isn't God invisible?"

Waskow told us that he deliberately refrained from responding to her question. He wanted her to come up with her own answer.

After a while she said, "Well, I guess you could take a picture of everyone on the planet and that's what God looks like."

Waskow said he again remained silent (to which Phyllis said, smiling, "Hard to believe, isn't it?")

The girl continued to ponder this mystery and finally said, "I get it! God is like a big jigsaw puzzle and we are all the pieces."

At this point, Waskow began to choke up. He was so pleased that his grand daughter had such a profound insight at such an early age.

When Waskow told this story with tears in his eyes, I felt his love for people and for Truth and it brings tears to my eyes.

There has always been a special place in my heart for Arthur Waskow. When I was in Philadelphia, I knew him as a friend of the Quakers. I visited him at the Shalom Center and invited him to give a workshop with me on Interfaith Peacemaking at Pendle Hill. He agreed, but for some reason (maybe the cost), we didn't get enough signups for the workshop to fly. I have always felt that Quakers missed a huge opportunity.

Later, as I read the Quran's story of Ishmael, and compared it to the story in the Bible,  I was struggling with the meaning of the story of Abraham. The story seemed to imply that because of their birth, there was eternal enmity between these two brothers who represented the Arab and the Jewish nation.

Waskow had a different take on this story, which he developed in a remarkable book called "The Tent of Abraham." In this book, he tells the story from a Jewish perspective and invites a Muslim and Christian to tell it from their perspective. He honors the fact that we all have different narratives, different pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, and each piece is important.

At another time, I'll share about "Freedom Journeys," his brilliant interpretation of the Exodus story from a feminist perspective. Suffice to say, the Rabbi Waskow has been a huge influence on me and many others in the peace and justice movement.

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