Arthur Waskow is the founder of the highly recognized and acclaimed Shalom Center (https://theshalomcenter.org). Waskow was born in 1933 and spent his young life in Baltimore, Maryland. As a young man he got his undergraduate degree at John Hopkins and eventually a doctorate in United States History at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (1963). At the time of his graduation, the United States was in the midst of social and political turmoil revolving around two distinct issues - the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement.
From 1959 to 1961, in the midst of his academic studies, he was passionately involved in disarmament and civil-rights in the role of a legislative assistant for U.S. Congressman Robert Krastenmeier of Wisconson. From 1961 to 1963, he was a Senior Fellow of the Peace Research Institute. This work inspired him to help create the Institute for Policy Studies and acted as a Fellow there until 1977.
Throughout the troubling era of the sixties, Waskow was a vociferous and relentless advocate for world peace and non-violent action against social injustice. He wrote extensively on these issues including literally hundreds of articles and many books. In 1968, he was a part of the Washington DC delegation to the Democratic National Convention of 1968.
Waskow’s interests eventually extended to the use of renewable energy and energy conservation – he began to understand the dangers to humanity of the ongoing reality of climate change. His activism in regards to this issue took the form of his role as a Fellow of the Public Resource Center in Washington D.C.
Although his dedication to social activism remains intact, in 1969, he turned his attention to Jewish life in America. At the time, he felt it needed spiritual renewal. His new journey is reflected in his Haggadah (a traditional Passover text) entitled, The Freedom Seder.
The following excerpts from this masterful peace, show how Waskow incorporated the modern struggle for peace and social justice into the body of a traditional Jewish text in celebration of the Passover –
“For as one of the greatest of our prophets, whose own death by violence at a time near the Passover were member in tears tonight as the prophet Martin Luther King called us to know: "The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But the principle of nonviolent resistance seeks to reconcile the truths of two opposites-acquiescence and violence. The nonviolent resister rises to the noble height of opposing the unjust system while loving the perpetrators of the system. Nonviolence can reach men where the law cannot touch them. So, we will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will not hate you, but we cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws. And in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process."
“And as rabbi Buber said, "The revolutionary lives on the knife's edge. The question that harasses him is not merely the moral or religious one of whether he may kill; his quandary has nothing at all to do with selling his soul to the devil' in order to bring the revolution to victory. His entanglement in the situation is here just the tension between end and means. I cannot conceive anything real corresponding to the saying that the end sanctifies the means; but 1 mean something which is real in the highest sense of the term when I say that the means profane, actually make meaningless, the end, that is, its realization! What is realized is the farther from the goal that was set, the more out of accord with it is the method by which it was realized. The ensuring of the revolution may only drain its heart's blood."
“Or as the rabbi Hannah Arendt wrote, "Man the political being is endowed with the power of speech. Speech is helpless when confronted with violence. Violence itself is incapable of speech. When violence rules absolutely, not only the laws but everything and everybody must fall silent."
“But even the prophet Gandhi, who made his life a call to nonviolent revolution, warned his people, "Where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence. Unless you feel that in nonviolence you have come into possession of a force infinitely superior to the one you have and in the use of which you are adept, you should have nothing to do with non-violence and resume the arms you possessed before."
“So, the struggles for freedom that remain will be more dark and difficult than any we have met so far. For we must struggle for a freedom that enfolds stern justice, stern bravery, and stern love. Blessed art thou,0 Lord our God! who hast confronted us with the necessity of choice and of creating our own book of thy Law. How many and how hard are the choices and the tasks the Almighty has set before us!
“For if we were to end a single genocide but not to stop the other wars that kill men and women as we sit here, it would not be sufficient;
“If we were to end those bloody wars but not disarm the nations of the weapons that could destroy all mankind, it would not be sufficient;
“If we were to disarm the nations but not to end the brutality with which the police attack black people in some countries, brown people in others; Moslems in some countries, Hindus in other; Baptists in some countries, atheists in others; Communists in some countries, conservatives in other it would not be sufficient;
“If we were to end outright police brutality but not prevent some people from wallowing in luxury while others starved, it would not be sufficient;
“If we were to make sure that no one starved but were not to free the daring poets from their jails, it would not be sufficient;
“If we were to free the poets from their jails but to train the minds of people so that they could not understand the poets, it would not be sufficient;
“If we educated all men and women to understand the free creative poets but forbade them to explore their own inner ecstasies, it would not be sufficient;
“If we allowed men and women to explore their inner ecstasies but would not allow them to love one another and share in the human fraternity, it would not be sufficient.
“How much then are we in duty bound to struggle, work, share, give, think, plan, feel, organize, sit-in, speak out, hope, and be on behalf of Mankind! For we must end the genocide [in Vietnam] , stop the bloody wars that are killing men and women as we sit here, disarm the nations of the deadly weapons that threaten to destroy us all, end the brutality with which the police beat minorities in many countries, make sure that no one starves, free the poets from their jails, educate us all to understand their poetry, allow us all to explore our inner ecstasies, and encourage and aid us to love one another and share in the human fraternity. All these!”
In 1982, he became a member of the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and in 1983 he co-founded the Shalom Center (https://theshalomcenter.org/). The Shalom Center’s mission is to revitalize modern Judaism. In keeping with this mission, it works closely with the National Council of Churches, Muslim groups and has aligned itself with teachers and activists in order to find common approaches to world problems including racism, poverty, climate change, the Israeli-Palestine conflict etc.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow works tirelessly in the pursuit of peace and social justice. His generosity of spirit is inspiration to all of those who desire a more peace and equitable human world.