Throat cancer and the treatments that followed had, two years ago, left Rabbi Arthur Waskow — the indefatigable and iconoclastic Jewish Renewal theologian, social activist and author — unable to speak, hooked up to a feeding tube and, as he tells it, close to death.
“I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t talk. And there came a moment, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, where I said to myself, ‘I’m starving and it is not a big deal,’ ” Waskow told 500 people at a program over the weekend. “It would be easy to go right on and die and I asked myself, ‘Is there any reason not to?’ ”
What gave the man who is both a guru and lightning rod — depending on your world view — the strength to fight on? Love for his wife, Rabbi Phyllis Berman, as well as “love for my kids and grandkids and love for twirling Torah so it turns into social decency and social action,” he said. “So I decided, even though it was hard work, to keep on living.”
Waskow not only recovered and lived to see his 80th birthday on Oct. 12 but he also had the chance to bask in the glow of his supporters, offer a few more words of insight, and be honored for his life’s work during a Nov. 3 program at his synagogue, Mishkan Shalom in Roxborough, called “This Is What 80 Looks Like!”
Waskow was the less famous of the program’s two honorees: The other special guest was Gloria Steinem, the feminist icon, organizer and journalist who is turning 80 in March.
The two had met at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 where Waskow, a delegate, offered words of encouragement to the budding activist who had just had an encounter with the Chicago police and was feeling dejected. The two only reconnected last year after Steinem recalled the conversation during an interview with Oprah Winfrey.
“You never know,” Waskow said, referring to how a single interaction can affect the course of someone’s life. “It is like sowing a seed and who knows whether a seed is going to sprout.”
The honorary event, filled with song and speechifying, was as much about Waskow and his contribution to Jewish and American life as it was about Steinem and how she has reshaped gender politics in this country. The heart of the program consisted of a joint Steinem-Waskow interview conducted by WHYY “Voices in the Family” host Dan Gottlieb in which the pair discussed aging, activism, their hopes for the future and what drives them to keep working so hard.
The evening served as a fundraiser for the Shalom Center, the organization Waskow founded 30 years ago that describes itself as a “prophetic voice” in Jewish and American life. Originally under the auspices of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College — where Waskow taught in the 1980s — the group started out focusing on the nuclear arms race, but later shifted its energy to bringing a Jewish sensibility to ecological concerns such as global warming.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C., told the crowd in his introductory remarks about Waskow that with the 1969 publication of Waskow’s “Freedom Seder” in the radical West Coast journal Ramparts, “the entire course of contemporary Jewish liturgical writing was altered.”
Rather than serve as a new translation for old liturgy, Waskow’s take on the seder completely reimagined a traditional text and raised “urgent moral issues” by focusing on the struggles of African-Americans, said Saperstein.
“He has had a profound impact on the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements and it is time — and then some — that he be acknowledged,” said Saperstein, who in a lighter moment, likened Waskow, with his long, white beard and flowing blue robe, to the wizard Albus Dumbledore, a character from the Harry Potter series.
Waskow has often infuriated the Jewish establishment with some of his actions and statements, such as in 2010 when he decried the Israeli raid on a Turkish flotilla headed for Gaza and helped organize a Jewish fast for Gaza in solidarity with residents there living under Israel’s partial blockade.
On the other hand, he’s argued in print and in speeches that a blanket boycott of Israel wrongly threatens the legitimacy of the state of Israel, though he makes a distinction for a targeted boycott of goods made in the West Bank.
The booklet for the weekend events hinted at some of the controversial allies Waskow has made. There was a full-page ad from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which was listed as an event co-sponsor.
Waskow had spoken at a CAIR fundraiser in 2007, a year after the release of an Anti-Defamation League report that accused CAIR of associating with people who have supported terrorism and of having extremist views on Israel.
But Israel didn’t come up at all during the two-hour program. Instead, both Waskow and Steinem focused on how much they think America needs fixing, despite how much progress has been made since the ’60s.
“The planet is in danger, the poor everywhere are in danger, the folks who thought they were middle class, everywhere are in danger,” said the rabbi.
Trying to make a difference in the world today, he said, is like “moving in the midst of God’s earthquake, all the dimensions of our life are shaking, quaking. We try to dance in the earthquake and come out somewhere new, knowing that the dance floor itself is constantly moving.”