By Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow. Orbis Books, 2020. 232 pages. $25/paperback; $20.50/eBook.
In the advance praise inside the front cover of this book, a reader sees that “[l]ike a true prophet, Rabbi Waskow looks with unapologetic eyes at both Scripture and this historical moment”; that he is a “revolutionary theologian”; and that he takes a “fierce look at religion.” That reader will soon have to admit that none of these claims is exaggerated. The difficulty for a reviewer, though, is that in slightly over 200 pages, Waskow presents such a complex of radically novel ideas that it is all but impossible to summarize his transformed world in a few hundred words.
Waskow’s vision of the coming transformation of religion has a wide-reaching and ambitious scope, and it depends on the three key words of the title. Let us first look (in reverse order) at how he sees these three. An earthquake is any time of catastrophe when all seems to tremble beneath our feet; it is the Wind of Change or even the Hurricane of Transformation. The name of God in the Bible is YHWH, which Waskow calls an unpronounceable breath. All animals and all trees and other plants literally breathe each other into life. One of the wisest metaphors for the Holy One is therefore “the Interbreathing Spirit of all life.” (Waskow goes on to devote an entire chapter to how much insight—with emphasis on the environmental—this metaphor opens up.) Dancing is imagining and learning to live out new possibilities, and dancing in the earthquake is receiving new blessings when the floor itself is shaking.
Waskow frequently uses the word sin, which we might call his fourth key word, to mean a socially accepted wrong. What we once saw as sins may now be blessings danced into as lifegiving, and what was once accepted now increasingly seems sinful. He does not attempt to evade God’s command to be fruitful, multiply, and subdue the earth; his answer to this is Done! What now?
The crucial question of the book is what it might mean to dance with this Great Name of Interbreathing in the earthquake of our lives. How might sins “waltz into new blessings,” as he puts it? It is the fertile interaction of these three (or four if we include sin) that can lead to the coming transformation of religion.
Waskow then turns forcefully to a series of present challenges we can learn to metamorphose into new blessings. He equates each contemporary challenge to an Old Testament story. For instance, in the parable of the Garden of Eden, the root message of which is the unwillingness to restrain our urges, he sees the way we have mishandled the earth. This parable also points us toward a world beyond subjugation of women: he finds the world of equality in the Song of Songs, celebrating the freedom of women and the free and loving interplay of men and women. And again, the real sin of Sodom was not homosexuality but, as shown by the story of Lot and the strangers, widespread violence against foreigners and the poor. He makes the reader take a hard look at the way the Holocaust has led to modern Israel’s treatment of Arabs. Another example is the sin of idolatry, which he defines broadly as our general attitude of pervasive veneration of things and institutions. By this point, we are no longer surprised when he does not shrink from seeing idolatry in the banning of serious criticism of the state of Israel.
Rabbi Waskow preaches in this book that we can learn to dance even when, in our domineering social system, the earthquake itself is so ubiquitous that it is not always obvious. We can think of God as the “Holy Process” by which natural consequences flow from what we do. It dawns on us that we ourselves are both the potter and the clay. In the unfolding of his vision of the transformation of religion, Waskow outlines a new kind of Christianity and of Judaism, going back to the biblical idea of a shmita year, a pulsating economy committed to a Sabbath pause every seven years. His discussion of this rich profusion of thoughts always brings the reader into full partnership with his thinking, with encouraging phrases such as “So I invite you, Reader . . .” and “your conversation with me.” In the book’s afterword he concludes with a Kaddish, a prayer, that asks, “ . . . may we who have gathered just now to breathe together words that aim toward wisdom, as we finish reading this book and open our own hearts and memories to all we have learned and all we have taught, open ourselves as well” to a list of powerful blessings.
Rabbi Waskow is well-known for his previous books but even more for the way he “walks the talk.” He has a lengthy history of activism and a determination to put into practice the views he writes about. He is co-founder and director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, and a prophetic-activist voice in Jewish and U.S. life.
William Shetter is a member of Bloomington (Ind.) Meeting.