Applying Jewish Values To Help Heal the World: Review of Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s book, “Dancing in God’s Earthquake”


Dancing in God’s Earthquake: The Coming Transformation of Religion

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow

Orbis Books, 2020

US $25

     I looked forward eagerly to reading Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow’s latest book, Dancing in God’s Earthquake, for two reasons. First, as one who has long argued that Jews should be doing far more to apply Jewish teachings in response to current environmental and other threats, I was intrigued by the book’s subtitle, “The Coming Transformation of Religion.”  Second, I have been reading many of Waskow’s previous two dozen books and other writings for about 40 years, and I always found him to be a profound and prophetic thinker and his books to be informative, thoughtful,  meaningful, and thought-provoking.

     I was not disappointed at all.  Quite the contrary. Dancing in God’s Earthquake is a culmination and summary of the many years that Waskow has devoted to probing Jewish sources for wisdom relevant to current crises. It is a feast of powerful Jewish teachings that provides a revolution in our ways of thinking and acting that is essential to efforts to avert a climate catastrophe and other environmental threats to humanity.

    To Waskow,  the present Earthquake involves the many current challenges facing the world today: the coronavirus epidemic, climate change, racial unrest, recovering from damage done during the Trump Presidency, for example. Dancing is related to what Waskow has previously called Godwrestling, based on the fact that the word Yisrael (Israel) means Godwrestler. As explained in Waskow’s previous books, Godwrestling and Godwrestling – Round Two: Ancient Wisdom, Future Paths, Godwrestling, means seeking wisdom from Judaism’s eternal truths that can be applied in addressing current societal problems. 

    Waskow very skilfully connects fundamental Jewish teachings to analyse climate change and other environmental threats to humanity. Consistent with the views of almost all climate experts, he is extremely concerned about “global scorching,” a phrase he created, having the potential of destroying human civilization, largely because of humans overreaching to gobble up parts of the earth.

He sees human beings continuing the lack of restraint the first humans showed in the Garden of Eden in eating the forbidden fruit.  He sees models of  the restraint that the world needs to save itself built into Shabbat and Shemita (Sabbatical) year observances and the lesson of the manna, the miraculous food, like coriander seed, that sustained the Israelites in the desert – just enough for every day’s needs and a double portion on Friday, to avoid the need to gather on Shabbat,

     Waskow stresses the urgency of shifting away from fossil fuels to renewal forms of energy, like sun and wind, and “replacing great herds of methane-emitting cattle with other forms of protein.”

     Waskow see the present intolerance and xenophobia as a continuation of the sin of Sodom, where residents cared only for themselves and had no patience with outsiders coming to visit or dwell in their city. By contrast, in various forms, the Torah stresses 36 times, far more than any other teaching, that Jews are to be kind to the stranger because we were slaves in Egypt, and therefore recognise what it is like to be oppressed and denied human dignity and respect.

      Waskow’s manuscript was sent to the publisher before the coronavirus was recognised as a threat, so it is not discussed in the main text. However, he added an introductory section entitled, “Coronavirus: The Eleventh Plague.” He indicates valuable lessons for our time based on the pandemic, including: (1)  “We really are one planet” . . . with Earth and all Humanity intertwined: (2) “governments, businesses, and and families can move swiftly for profound change when sufficiently motivated”: and (3) We must have universal health care.”

     Waskow tells about his own earthquake and the “dance’ that changed his life after the assassination of Martin Luther King, which resulted in riots in many American cities. Approaching his home, he saw a jeep with a machine gun pointing at he block he lived on. He thought, “This is Pharaoh’s army and I am going home to do the Seder.” This moment was a turning point in his life, initially transforming his understanding of Passover and motivating him to write a “new version of the ancient Telling – a freedom Seder.” That earthquake “shook [him] into transforming [his] whole life, from a barely casual relationship with being Jewish to a passionate encounter with Jewish thought and practice.” He began to find deep wisdom in the biblical tradition, wisdom that could lead to a “dance’ that would produce a better future for humanity.

     An example of what Waskow means by applying Jewish values to help transform society is his quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehood. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, and the vision.”

     Waskow raises some challenging questions that have the potential of transforming Judaism. They include:

  • Could religious communities forbid the use of fracked unnatural gas?
  • Could they declare all beef off limits because “Raising multitudes of cattle releases multitudes of methane into our air, helping make the Breath of Life into a global furnace?”
  • Could they require sharing a certain proportion of the food a family eats to be given to the poor?

     I recommend this book unqualifiedly. I hope it is widely read and that its messages are heeded. It has the potential to be transformative, helping to shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.

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