The Wisdom Project at Moment: Inspirational conversations with wise people who have been fortunate enough to live long lives.
Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow, 89, is a public scholar and political activist. Born in Baltimore in 1933, he received his undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Wisconsin, where he studied the 1919 race riots. In 1958, Waskow worked as a legislative assistant to Congressman Robert Kastenmeier with Marcus Raskin and later helped Raskin found the Institute for Policy Studies, a lefty think tank, in 1963. From 1963 to 1977, Waskow wrote numerous books and articles on military strategy, race relations, conflict resolution, and political change. He was also involved in the civil rights and antiwar movements, speaking out against the Vietnam War and participating in the Democratic National Convention in 1968 as a delegate and a speaker at the protests.
His entry into “serious Judaism” was catalyzed by the assassination of Martin Luther King and the resulting unrest, which inspired him to write The Freedom Seder, which put the Exodus story in the counter-cultural and anti-racist context of the 1960s. Over time his involvement with the Jewish Renewal movement eventually led him to found the Shalom Center in Philadelphia. He married Rabbi Phyllis Berman in 1986, and the couple jointly adopted the middle name “Ocean.” In 1993, he co-found ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and others. Waskow himself was ordained in 1995. He has written about twenty books, many with his wife, most recently Dancing In God’s Earthquake: The Coming Transformation of Religion (2020).
What is some of the wisdom you’ve acquired in your lifetime?
Oy. Well, it took me a long time, but I learned how to love people. My friend Marcus Raskin, maybe a year or two before he died, said to me, surprised, “A soft Arthur Waskow?” I realized I had been not-soft, not-loving. I’d been sharp and smart, maybe even partly wise, but not loving. I learned it from my brother, who died 11 years ago, and from my wife, Phyllis Berman. It took a long time. I don’t recommend it. It shouldn’t take so long for people. I think the only way to learn it is to be loved and fully receive it—and then the third stage is being able to be loving.
What do you think of the world today?
I think we’re at the cusp of disaster or transformation, and I don’t know which we’re going to choose. Over and over again, it feels to me like the only model I really know is the Israelite runaway slaves at the edge of the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army behind them. They don’t know it’s going to split. In fact, they don’t believe it’s going to. Why would it split? No sea ever split. They’re poised between surrendering to Pharaoh’s army, going back and be slaves again and getting garlic and onions (which they’re really hungry for) and going into the unknown. And the unknown’s crazy. Why would you go into the unknown?
According to tradition, there’s one guy who decides to take a chance, and he’s up to his nose in the water and on the edge of drowning when the water splits. And the tradition says there were still people who didn’t want to go. I think the whole human race is right there.
Is there anything in your life so far that you would’ve done differently?
There’s one relationship in my life that I think I wasn’t ready for. And I think the other person in that relationship wasn’t ready for it, either. I wish we had both been more mature, more ready, more understanding. I don’t think the society around us wanted people to enter those kinds of relationships with deeper questions, and I don’t think we knew how to ask them. But I’m not saying it was a mistake, or that we should have done something different. I learned a lot.
What advice about living a life generally would you pass along, especially to young people?
I mean, at least in some circles, it’s pretty cliche. Follow your passion. Follow what really speaks to you deeply. When I started graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, I expected I was going to be a history professor at some good liberal arts college like Oberlin or Swarthmore. It never occurred to me that I would find myself a legislative assistant to an unconventional member of Congress, that I would learn about American society much more deeply doing that than as an historian.
I entered the Congress business mostly by accident, because I got turned down for a fellowship that I applied for, and a congressman for whom I had written speeches when he was only a candidate said, “Hey, why don’t you come work for me? I’ll pay you what the fellowship would’ve been, and you’ll still have a lot of time to finish your dissertation,” which is what I wanted to go to Washington to do. So it was an entry by accident, but I loved it. I’ve learned from it. It became a passion.
And then, the fact that Passover came a week after Martin Luther King was murdered changed my life. The only piece of Jewish practice that I had taken seriously as a grown-up was the seder, the Passover seder. And I found myself walking past the occupation army sent by Lyndon Johnson to occupy the capital city of Washington after the uprising by the Black community after King was killed. After a week of getting food, and medical supplies, and lawyers, and doctors into the Black community, I was walking to get ready for the seder and found myself facing a Jeep with a machine gun pointing at the block I lived on in Adams Morgan. And from my kishkes I began to say, “Hey, this is Pharaoh’s army. This is Pharaoh’s army right here.” And that compelled me to write what became The Freedom Seder, that changed my life again. I didn’t abandon my political activism, but it deepened and changed a lot.
So both times I simply followed what began with an accident, and I didn’t shrug and say, “Well, that’s not what I was about.” When the passion happens, follow it. I wasn’t prepared for the passion. I think the one thing I chose was to say yes when the passion exploded.
What experiences should young people really not miss out on in life?
When something happens within you, deep within you, don’t turn your back on it. Open up to it. And it may happen unexpectedly and unplanned. There’s an old Yiddish proverb. It says, “Der Mensch Tracht, Un Gott Lacht,” which I translate as “Human beings scheme, and God scoffs.”
Mostly that proverb is taught as, “Your plans get ruined.” But if you want to call it God, or you want to call it the universe, or you want to call it your own passion, it can very well not just squash your previous plan but open up a whole new one.
What have you changed your mind about over the years, if anything?
Well, I changed my mind about whether Judaism was of deep value to the universe and to me. I changed my mind in a big way on that.
How would you like to inspire others in this life?
I’ve become convinced that the Hebrew letters Yud Hey Vov Hey that is translated by almost everybody nowadays as “LORD,” is instead the breath of life. The word “lord” is not in every human language, nor is “king.” But “breath” is, and it’s also from trees and frogs and squirrels and fish and humans. And it’s all interchanged—we now know that plants and animals interchange breath, and that’s what keeps the world alive. I wish people would find an ecological rather than a hierarchical model for divinity and sacredness.
My most inspiring teaching, my most inspiring Torah about this was taught by my eight-year-old grandchild, 12 or 13 years ago. When I asked them “What do you think about this thing in the Torah that says, ‘God made human beings in God’s image’? What do you think it means, anyway?” They said, “What’s an image?” So I said, “Well, like a photograph.” And they said, “Like a photograph? That’s really strange. God’s invisible. How could there be a photograph of God?” And I didn’t say a word. And they sat there thinking, thinking, and said, “Well, it could be the other way around. I mean, God could be in the image of human beings.” And I didn’t say a word. And they sat there thinking and said, “But we’re all different from each other, and it couldn’t be that one of us got picked to become the image of God.” And I didn’t say a word, and they sat there thinking some more. And then their face lit up, just totally lit up, and they said, “Maybe we’re different from each other the way the pieces in my jigsaw puzzle are different from each other. You got to fit us together. And if you fit us together—” I can’t even tell the story without crying—”If you fit us together, we make the community. And a community is more like God.”
It sounds like you learned the lesson of how to love pretty well.
I hope. I hope.
Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow with Rabbi Phyllis Ocean Berman, his frequent collaborator and—for 37 years—life partner. At their wedding they took “Ocean’ as a shared middle name. Courtesy of Arthur O. Waskow