These past two weeks, an ancient and a modern tale of bitter, poisonous waters suddenly rang together as an alarm and an awakening. Right now: We have been learning about the horrifying and disgusting behavior of the government of Michigan, turning off the pipes bringing pure water from Lake Huron to the mostly Black citizens of the city of Flint and instead sending poisonous waters to Flint. (The Governor, Rick Snyder, is no Tea Party type, but a fairly typical “establishment” Republican businessman — anti-labor, anti-choice for women, anti-Syrian-refugees, and contemptuous of pleas from the Black folks of Flint to end the poisoning of their children.)
So the bitter waters came: Waters that stank and were colored brown and green, waters that caused rashes and boils to spring up on the skins of those who had to drink it. Waters infused with lead, which is well-known to permanently and irreversibly damage the brains of young children. Long long ago: The age-old Torah telling that we read this past Shabbat was the story of how ancient Israel crossed the Red Sea while Pharaoh’s power dissolved and his army drowned there. Just a few days later, according to the story, they protested because they had no water fit to drink. What connects these two events?
Rabbi Arthur Waskow of The Shalom Center in Philadelphia writes about our repentance, God’s renewal, and the earth’s regeneration, based on Genesis 21, a traditional scripture reading for the Jewish New Year:
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the traditional Jewish Bible-reading is Genesis 21. In it, Abraham’s second wife Hagar and his first son Ishmael are sent forth from Abraham’s family, with a leather-skin of water that is not enough to meet their needs in the dry wilderness.
In extremis, Hagar gently lays Ishmael beneath a tree and begins to weep as she fears his death. (The Torah uses the word Tashlich for this laying-down, teaching us that in the Rosh Hashanah ceremony of Tashlich we are not casting our misdeeds “away” into the flowing water, but seeking to transform their energies for the sake of Life, as Hagar did.)
Then, says the Torah, Hagar’s eyes are opened, and she sees the wellspring that she names “Beer Lachai Roi, The Wellspring of the Living One Who Sees Me.” It saves their lives. As I try to see this story, it seems to me that when Hagar’s eyes were opened, her tears poured forth so fully that she herself created the wellspring.
Today, all around the world we face the death of trees and the dearth of water, the deaths of many other life-forms and millions of our own Ishmaels. Many parts of Earth are becoming as scarce of water as was the ancient Middle East. As our planet heats and scorches, our Mother Earth is parched. She can no longer pour forth from her breasts the pure water that nurtures and sustains us. …–Rabbi Arthur Waskow (Read the rest here.)
From the evening of Tuesday, June 3, through the evening of June 5, Jews will be celebrating the festival of Shavuot, which in most of Jewish life today is focused on the revelation and acceptance of Torah at Mount Sinai.
And since Shavuot became transcribed in Christian tradition into Pentecost, perhaps Christians as well as Jews might learn from reexamining this holy day.
The Hebrew word “Shavuot” means “Weeks.” Its name comes from the festival’s timing in regard to Passover: It comes after a “week of weeks,” seven weeks and one day, beginning on the second night of Passover.
In Biblical Israel, Shavuot was the celebration of a successful spring wheat harvest. For seven weeks, the community anxiously counted its way into the precarious abundance of harvest. The counting began on Passover as each household brought a sheaf of barley to the Temple, for the barley crop ripened before wheat.
On the 50th day, there was a unique offering at the Temple—two loaves of wheat bread—regular leavened bread, not unleavened matzah, on the only occasion all year when leavened bread was offered.
This agricultural celebration of Shavuot fit into the broad pattern of Biblical Judaism. During the Biblical era, spiritual leadership of the People was held by a hereditary priesthood defined by the body from birth and skilled in the body-rituals of bringing various foods (beef, mutton, matzah, grain, pancakes, fruit) as offerings to a physical place.
“A Hassidic teaching: ‘What is the world? The world is God, wrapped in robes of God so as to seem material. And what are we? We are God, wrapped in robes of God, and our task, our mission is to unwrap the robes – disrobe! – and dis-cover that we and all the world are God.’
Suppose we enrich that way of understanding God with a further teaching: That we hear the God Whose name is YHWH, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Name that only can only be “pronounced” by breathing, as the still small “voice” of Breath that intertwines all life on Earth.
The Breath that we breathe in is what the trees breathe out; the Breath the trees breathe in is what we breathe out. God is our Interbreathing. YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh. Pronounce it: Breathe.
That Breath is also the Air, the “Atmosphere” of Earth. The balance of oxygen that the trees breathe out with the carbon dioxide we breathe out is what makes up the balance of geological history.
Now, we humans have invented ways of pouring far more CO2 into the air than the trees can absorb. With 400 parts per million of CO2 in our air, scorching earth, the “interbreath” is in crisis. What we call the “climate crisis” is a crisis in the very Name of God!
It gladdened my heart to be with Christians, Muslims, Jews, and other people of good will outside the White House on Thursday for the Interfaith Moral Action on Climate’s public witness marking Passover and Holy Week.
Rabbi Shneyer blew the shofar to announce the danger President Obama is putting the planet in by not denying the Keystone XL pipeline. And we prayed together to claim our human right of eminent domain over corporate interests that endanger the earth.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow of The Shalom Center, one of the great Jewish leaders of the justice movement in America, at age 80, was one of the 15 who were arrested and taken to jail in Anacostia.
Here’s an excerpt from Rabbi Waskow’s Huffington Post article describing the event:
“In a circle of 70 people in the midst of Pennsylvania Avenue, we had just completed a religious service. Rabbi David Shneyer had blown the shofar of warning and liberation. We had heard the Muslim call to prayer from the Quran, an invocation of the Four Winds in the spiritual tradition of the First Nations, and a Christian prayer.
Yesterday U.S. top Afghanistan warrior General Stan McChrystal was very publicly called to the carpet in the Oval Office. Sources say his job is on the line. President Obama wants McChrystal to answer for comments he made in a Rolling Stoneinterview (July 8-22, 2010 issue).
The short form is that McChrystal disses the counterterrorism strategy advocated by Vice President Joe Biden, calling it “shortsighted,” saying it would lead to a state of “Chaos-istan.” He outright insults Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, and says he feels betrayed by the US ambassador in Kabul Karl Eikenberry. Overall, McChrystal conveys a deep-seated contempt for civilian leadership.
And, despite the “it’s a tough slog, but we are winning the Afghani hearts and minds” rhetoric from the White House, the civil societies in the countries of our NATO allies have forced their governments to change direction on the failed war policy in Afghanistan. (Having watched The Princess Bride numerous times, they apparently learned the lesson: “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”)
In the Rolling Stone article, author Michael Hastings writes:
Opposition to the war [in Afghanistan] has already toppled the Dutch government, forced the resignation of Germany’s president and sparked both Canada and the Netherlands to announce the withdrawal of their 4,500 troops. …
But facts on the ground, as history has proven, offer little deterrent to a military determined to stay the course. Even those closest to McChrystal know that the rising anti-war sentiment at home doesn’t begin to reflect how deeply f*&^%d up things are in Afghanistan. “If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular,” a senior adviser to McChrystal says. Such realism, however, doesn’t prevent advocates of counterinsurgency from dreaming big: Instead of beginning to withdraw troops next year, as Obama promised, the military hopes to ramp up its counterinsurgency campaign even further. “There’s a possibility we could ask for another surge of U.S. forces next summer if we see success here,” a senior military official in Kabul tells me.
While the White House is debating whether or not to fire McChrystal and what the fall-out might be on U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, Rabbi Arthur Waskow frames the argument differently: “The ‘strategy’ is already a failure, and the ‘civil-military issue’ is the Constitution at stake, not a failed and stupid war.”
Waskow sets Obama’s current dilemma in historical context:
Harry Truman knew what to do: When the issue was insubordination by General MacArthur over whether to escalate a stupid war with China that MacArthur had brought on (beyond defending South Korea), Truman fired MacArthur. (I remember Congress begging MacArthur to address a special joint session. I remember how he ended with a bathetic, bedraggled song: “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”) Right. Despite the resulting furor, the arrogant old soldier did indeed fade away. …
McChrystal’s strategy was arrogant & stupid; it has already failed because it was arrogant & stupid; and many of us, including Biden & Ikenberry, did indeed tell them so. …
The trouble is that Obama accepted the arrogant, stupid advice from McChrystal — and now has to face the consequences in a failing and mistaken war. When John Kennedy came new into the White House, he accepted similarly stupid & arrogant advice from the CIA about the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba — and when he realized how stupid it was, he fired the lot of them and refused to get trapped into more arrogance and more escalation.
Now we will see what Obama is made of: whether he has the guts and good sense of Truman & Kennedy.
But beyond the political power struggles that are as old as the military strategies of Uzziah in II Kings 15, there is a deeply spiritual issue. It is the issue of arrogance. It is always arrogance that hardens the heart and impedes the ability to listen.
“Refusing to listen breeds stupidity,” writes Rabbi Waskow. “Stupidity arising from a spiritual failure, not an IQ failure, breeds political disaster. There is a deep relationship between the arrogance of the Generals and the CIA in their contempt for China, Cuba, Iraq, Afghanistan — and their contempt for civilian leadership. And the contempt of BP for the oceans, the forests, the air. The obsessive belief that Conquest and Control are all that matters.”
The consequence of King Uzziah’s failed military strategy is summarized by a proverb from King Solomon: “Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18).
McChrystal – who carries around a gold, custom-made, set of nunchuks engraved with his name and four stars – has got pride and arrogance in spades. (Read the entire Rolling Stone article to get the full experience of this.)
But Rabbi Waskow reminds that pride and arrogance are not the marks of a great military leader. Instead, he says, the Talmud teaches: “Who is the greatest [military] hero? The person who can master his own impulses … and the person who can turn his enemy into his friend.”
On March 5, 2010, Rabbi Arthur Waskow of The Shalom Center in Philadelphia appeared on Democracy Now! with Palestinian human rights activist Omar Barghouti at U.C. Berkeley to discuss the whether the “Boycott, Divest and Sanction” campaign against Israel is the most effective way to bring justice and peace to Israel, Palestine, and the neighboring Arab countries.
It’s a fantastic discussion between two passionate, nonviolent grassroots activists, who are both pro-Palestinian, and who state clearly their different points of view.
Rabbi Waskow also discussed these issues in Sojourners back in 2005 in an article titled A Question of Tactics where he said, “My own assessment is that the way in which much of the divestment campaign has been conducted bespeaks an exercise in quasi-private purity rather than a serious effort to change public policy.”
OMAR BARGHOUTI: The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, campaign is a call by Palestinian civil society. It’s supported by almost the entire Palestinian civil society, political forces, NGOs, women’s organizations, unions, and so on.
It’s calling upon people of conscience around the world to boycott Israel and institutions that are complicit with Israel, including companies and so on, because of its three-tiered system of oppression against the Palestinian people: its occupation, 1967 occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and that includes East Jerusalem; as well as its system of racial discrimination against its non-Jewish citizens, the Palestinian citizens of Israel; and the third and foremost is its denial of the right of return for the refugees, Palestinian refugees, in accordance with UN Resolution 194. So these three forms of injustices are exactly what we’re targeting. We’re targeting Israel because we want to end its impunity, and we want to end complicity of the world in this system of injustice.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Rabbi Arthur Waskow, could you explain to us why you think this is a wrong approach to the problem?
RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW: So, first let me say shalom and salaam and peace to you, Amy and Juan, and to Mr. Barghouti, and to say, to begin with, that in a sense I think the question, yes or no on BDS, is the wrong question. The right question is, how do we bring about an end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and the blockade of Gaza, and of East Jerusalem? And it seems to me that when you put the question that way, BDS really becomes an ineffective and, in some ways, unethical way of going about it, that the major change that needs to happen is a profound change in the actions of the United States government, and that there were hints of that, more than hints, in the rhetoric of President Obama, but a total failure to carry through in policy on the rhetoric of the Cairo speech and some work since then.
The real question is, can the United States—will the United States—it can, for sure—will the United States use its enormous influence and power to end the occupation, to end the state of war between Israel and the entire Arab world except for Egypt and Jordan? Can the United States bring about a full-fledged peace treaty between a new state of Palestine, the state of Israel, and the Arab states. The Arab states have, in fact, proposed this. The Israeli government and the last US government, the Bush administration, totally ignored the proposal. There are hints that that’s what the Obama administration wants to bring about.
But it won’t happen unless there is a public movement in American society to demand that. It won’t happen otherwise. And when I ask the question, so what’s the most effective way of bringing that about, it seems to me an alliance of the three groups of people in America who care passionately about the peoples of the Middle East—Muslims, serious Christians and serious Jews—an alliance of those in those three camps who are committed to peace is now possible. In the Jewish community, there are now organizations and commitments and human beings ready to act on this, even though the classic, formal, institutional structure of the established Jewish institutional system doesn’t. But the Jews do, and among Muslims and among most Protestant and Catholic Christians—not some of the right-wing fundamentalist Christians, but the rest of the Christian community. But they have not come together in any way to make this happen. And that’s what needs to happen.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia recently posted a Jewish response (Torturing the Image of God) to the Pew Study on White Evangelical and Catholic Christians justifying torture that I blogged about earlier.
I appreciate his provocative teaching. Here’s an excerpt:
One of the central teachings of Torah is that all human beings are made in the Image of God. That teaching and what flows from it are at the heart of Jewish prohibitions on the use of torture — and perhaps at the heart of Christian opposition to torture as well.
Indeed, the Rabbis – living under the Roman Empire – enriched that teaching about the Image as a direct challenge to the power of Rome, the Imperial fount of torture. One of them asked, “What does this mean, ‘In God’s image?’” And another answered, “When Caesar puts his image on a coin, all the coins come out identical. When that One who is beyond all rulers puts the divine image on a ‘coin,’ all the coins [that is, human beings] come out unique.”
Take into account the Rabbinic teaching that Caesar puts his rigid uniformity upon his coins, whereas the Infinite God puts uniqueness into God’s coins: that is, every human being. Surely Jesus, the radical rabbi from the Galilee, knew this teaching.
So I believe there is a missing line in the Gospel story. Either Jesus didn’t need to say it because his first question would reawaken the knowledge in those who were trying to trouble him, or it was later censored out because it was so radical:
“Whose image is on that coin?” he said, and they answered: “Caesar’s.”
And then I think he said, “And whose Image is on this coin?” as he put his hands on the shoulders of the troublemakers.
Only then did he say, “So give to Caesar what is Caesar’s — and give to God what is God’s!”
And of course, as the Gospels say, the troublemakers themselves went away deeply troubled — not because they had failed to trick him, but because he had forced them to think and feel and act anew as they opened themselves to experience the Image of God in themselves. And to understand that the Divine Image stood in radical contradiction to Caesar’s image, so that the world could not be neatly and comfortably divided into two different realms, one “spiritual” and one “political.”
This teaching needs to be renewed in every generation.