Reb Arthur's Latest Thoughts

The AVATAR film & Tu B'Shvat: the ReBirthDay of trees & The Tree

Dear fellow-seekers for peace and healing of the earth,

[Bottom line for this letter: I urge that multireligious groups together see the new film Avatar this month; learn with me by teleconference seminar on Thursday evening January 21 the connections between this film and the meaning of the festival of Tu B'Shvat that celebrates the ReBirthDay of the Tree of Life; and then gather January 29 to eat together the sacred meal of Tu B'Shvat. Why? See the unfolding below. -- AW]

The film AVATAR is an obvious metaphor for the European-USA destruction of Native America and Africa; for the corporate destruction of the Amazon forest and its tribal human eco-partners; for the US destruction of much of Iraq and parts of Afghanistan.

For the indigenous peoples of the film's quasi-planetary moon Pandora, the most sacred places are ancient living trees that embody the life force of the planet. So for me, the film spoke powerfully in the tongue of Tu B'Shvat, the festival of the Trees' ReBirthDay.

AVATAR is extraordinary. -- Not only for the superficial but powerful technology of the filming/ viewing, 3D and FX, but most of all for its spiritually rooted progressive politics.

See it!

See it in the spirit of its watchword: "I see you." For Pandora's people, these words express what in Hebrew is "yodea," interactive "knowing" that is emotional, intellectual, physical/ sexual, and spiritual all at one – what "grok" is in the English borrowing from High Martian, channeled by Robert Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land.

In the film, the indigenous people of Pandora – the Na'vi – [in Hebrew, this would mean "prophet"] stand in the way of an Earthian techno-conquistador corporation that is hungry to gobble up a rare mineral crucial to an Earth that the human race, or at least its corporations and governments, have desolated.

The Na'vi worship/ celebrate a biological unity of their planet and all its life-forms -- Eywa -- especially focused on great trees that are the most sacred centers of their lives. These great trees embody Eywa, the Great Mother – but S/He is more than even these trees, S/He is all life. Spirit incarnate. (Notice that "Eywa" can be heard as "Yahweh" (sometimes misdescribed as the Hebrew Name of God) turned inside-out.)

Just as AVATAR began appearing in theaters, we began approaching the ecological-mystical festival of Tu B'Shvat. It intertwines celebration of the midwinter rebirth of trees and the rebirth of the Great Tree of Life Itself, God, Whose roots are in heaven and whose fruit is our world. Tu B'Shvat comes on the 15th day (the full moon) of the midwinter Jewish lunar month of Sh'vat. This year, that falls from Friday evening January 29, till Saturday evening, January 30. Its observance was shaped by Jewish mystics –- Kabbalists -– 500 years ago, but the breadth and depth of its sense of God can embrace all religious and spiritual communities -- not Jews alone.

Out of winter, out of seeming death, out of seeds that sank into the earth three months before, the juice of life begins to rise again. Begins invisibly, to sprout in spring.

This is a social and political reality, as well as a biological one. Beneath the official deadly failures of the Copenhagen conference that was supposed to reinvigorate the world's effort to face the climate crisis, the seeds of rebirth were growing. They were growing in the grass-roots activists who will not let our earth die so easily at the hands of Oil and Coal and governmental arrogance as the Crusher tanks and rocket-planes and the robotic Marine generals and corporate exploiters of AVATAR would like to kill Pandora and its God/dess Eywa.

I urge that Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, those who celebrate Manitou/ GreatSpirit in the varied forms of Native practice, join for Tu B'Shvat to celebrate the Sacred Forests of our planet.

I urge that we reach across our boundaries and barricades to celebrate the trees that breathe us into life. The forests that absorb the carbon dioxide that humans are over-producing, the forests that breathe out life-giving oxygen for ourselves and all the other animals to breathe in.

For us, Eywa is YyyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, "pronounceable" only by breathing, the Interbreathing of all life, Great Mother/Father/ Creator of our planet Whose breath, Whose very Name, what we call "climate" or "atmosphere," is being choked and scorched by corporate rapacity and governmental arrogance.

I urge that we begin by going , anytime from now till January 29, in interfaith, multireligious groups to see AVATAR and then -- discuss its meaning in our lives. It is the discussion afterward that will make "seeing" the film into the profound "seeing" God, life, and each other that the film itself calls for. And then I suggest we gather on the evening of January 29 to celebrate the sacred meal of Tu B'Shvat together.

What's to discuss?

1) AVATAR teaches that the war against peoples and the war against the earth are the same war, being incited and fought by the same Crusher institutions. If we agree with this, how do we bring together the so-far separate struggles to end the two kinds of war? If we don't agree, how do we see the relationship? Why does the Torah command that even in wartime, we must not destroy the enemy's fruit trees? (The US Army did precisely this to the forests of Vietnam; the Israeli Army has done this to Palestinian olive trees; in AVATAR, the invading Earthians do precisely this to the sacred trees of the Na'vi. Why?)

2) AVATAR teaches that in the struggle to heal our world, birds and animals and trees and grasses can become our active allies if we "see" them as part of ourselves, part of our Beloved Community. Is there a way to make this true for us?

3) Some knee-jerk leftists have criticized the heroism of Jake Sully as merely another racist case of a "white male Marine" becoming savior of the exploited community. Indeed, some conservatives have stolen that rhetoric to discredit a widely celebrated film that clearly threatens to undermine the corporate-military-conservative alliance. But there are two mistakes in this rhetoric:

First, it is not Sully who leads the Na'vi; it is his Avatar who joins the resistance, a blueskin transformed from his life as a Marine, just as Moses the Egyptian prince remakes himself into a leader of the Israelite slave revolt .

More important, it is Eywa Herself, acting through the plants, birds, animals of Pandora, Who saves all life from depredation. The story echoes the biblical story of Exodus, in which Moses may be a spokesperson but it is the locusts, the rivers, the frogs, the hailstorms – what we call the Ten Plagues, the earth itself rising up as an expression of God's Will to topple Pharaoh -- that triumphs. It is YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh's very breath, becoming the Holy Wind that splits the Red Sea, that drowns Pharaoh's army.

What do we make of these stories? Can the Earth, God/dess Incarnate, defend Herself? What role do humans play?

3. AVATAR describes how some Earthians turn their backs on the military-corporate attempt to shatter the Na'vi and instead join the Na'vi resistance. They become – let's not mince words – traitors. Or rather, they transform themselves into the Avatars that actually become Na'vi, loyal not to oppressive Crushers but to the web of life. What do we Americans, we Westerners -- who have already done so much to crush the life from many parts of our planet and threaten to destroy the rest by choking its Breath, its Climate -- what do we make of that? What do we owe the indigenes of Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Nigeria, Burma?

4. In the climax of the film , it is not only the invading Marines in their Crusher machines who use extreme violence. The Na'vi and Eywa's life-forms use violence too, to defend themselves. There is barely a hint of any attempt to use nonviolent resistance in the mode of King or Gandhi to defend Pandora. Can we imagine an alternative? Why did the film not present one?

Talking together may help us "see" each other; eating together may help even more. On January 29, what's to eat? A sacred meal, a Seder with four courses of nuts and fruit and four cups of wine. Foods that require the death of no living being, not even a carrot or a radish that dies when its roots are plucked from the earth. For the Trees of Life give forth their nuts and fruit in such profusion that to eat them kills no being. The sacred meal of the Tree Reborn is itself a meal of life.

And the four cups of wine are: all-white; white with a drop of red; red with a drop of white; and all-red: the union of white semen and red blood that the ancients thought were the start of procreation. And the progression from pale winter to the colorful fruitfulness of fall also betokens the growing-forth of life. The theme of Fours embodies the Four Worlds of Kabbalah: Action, Emotion, Intellect, Spirit.

There is much more to learn about this moment that so richly intertwines the mystical, the ecological, and the political. I helped bring together the Tu B'Shvat Anthology called Trees, Earth, & Torah (available in paperback from the Jewish Publication Society at 1.800.234.3151) that traces the festival through all its own flowering across 4,000 years of history.

On the evening of Thursday, January 21, I will lead a teleconference seminar on the meanings of Tu B'Shvat All are welcome. To take part, please click here.
I look forward to speaking with you, "seeing" you.

In the Comments section below, please share your thoughts about AVATAR, sacred trees, Tu B'Shvat, violence/ nonviolence, and corporate/ military behavior!

With blessings of shalom, salaam, shantih – peace. -- Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Torah Portions: 


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

Iran: the profound past becomes a volcanic present

What is happening in Iran today is the coming to life on an enormous landscape of an historical event of the past that has become legendary in Muslim – especially Shia – memory.

I have a small taste of what that means from my own experience of Passover in 1968, shortly after the murder of Martin Luther King, when Black Washington rose in rebellion and the US Army occupied the city. My experience of that upheaval was that Passover had risen from the ancient past into the volcanic present. I was not alone in that generation of questing, questioning Jews to sense that coalescence of past / present / future. Out of it came the Freedom Seder and the liberation of the haggadah to deal with many aspects of liberation, not only the ancient Israelite deliverance from Pharaoh..

Or think about Passover of 1943 in the Warsaw Ghetto, when on April 19, the eve of Passover, the Nazi forces tried to smash the Ghetto and were met with fierce resistance. Again, the ancient past and the volcanic present met.

When this happens, both "politics" and "religion" are apt to melt into a new shape, either far more repressive or far freer. If we pay wise attention, we may get a deeper sense of what both those realms really are at their most intense. Those of every faith might wisely reexamine the deepest meanings of "ritual" in our own traditions.

The same thing is happening now in Iran in relation to the holy day of Ashura.

(The word means "tenth," as its cognate "Aseret" does in Hebrew. It is the tenth day of the lunar month of Muharram.)

Muslims consider Muharam, the lunar month in which we are now living, the "New Year" month, connected with the renewal of the mission of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, as he left Mecca under pressure from its power elite and resettled in Medina, where his teachings flourished into the success of Islam.

Accordig to hadith (reports of Muhammad's life), he learned from some of the Jews of Arabia that the tenth day of the Jewish "new year" month, Yom Kippur, was a day of fasting –- some said, instituted by Musa Nebi (the Prophet Moses) as a celebration of liberation from slavery to Pharaoh. Muhammad is said to have remarked that he too could affirm this day.

So in accord with Muhammad's decision, many Sunni Muslims have fasted on Ashura, in celebration of the liberation of the people of Moses .

For the Shia community, Ashura became a formative and central sacred time, imbued with deep grief rather than celebration. On and around that day, in and after the battle of Karbala (in what is now Iraq), the caliph Yazid ordered the deaths of Muhammad's grandson, Hussein ibn Ali, and a little later the surviving members of Muhammad's family. The Shia Muslim community grew from and into an intense belief that Ali, Muhammad's son, and then Hussein had been Muhammad's legitimate heirs, destroyed by a tyrant. The desire for social justice, held by all Muslims to be part of Islam's central teaching, became a burning passion for the Shia.

Ashura itself became a day of grief-stricken pilgrimages to Hussein's grave in Karbala. And the whole month of Muharam became a time for refraining from violence –- even suspending military operations in time of war. This tradition became so strong that even the last Shah of Iran, facing revolutionary street demonstrations, restrained his security forces during Muharam.

And now we come to the volcano of this past week. One of the great religious teachers of Shia islam, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, died just in time to fit ionto the legendry of Ashura. Montazeri was originally expected to succeed Ayatollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader of Iran; but he became more and more critical of the overbearing behavior and power of the clergy as against what he saw as a decent balance of democratic and clerical decision-making. So he had been treated by the prenet Iranian leadership as an outcast. so his role as well as his death fit into Ashura.

Demonstrations against the government that probably would have been Ashura-intensified anyway took on even greater passion in mourning for Montazeri. And now the government has violated the holiness of the day by killing demonstrators, thereby angering even some traditional religious folk.

When a society is heated to this high temperature both politically and religiously, I would expect profound change in both realms. I expect that for this generation of Shia Muslims, and perhaps for many Sunnis as well, Ashura will never be the same again.

And just as the Exodus story has spoken powerfully to many communities that are not Jewish, perhaps Ashura will begin to speak to non-Muslims as well.

Franz Kafka once wrote a very short story, approximately thus: "One day a leopard came stalking into the synagogue, roaring and lashing its tail. Three weeks later, it had been made part of the liturgy."

The leopard of the Karbala massacre that had been ritualized and tamed into Ashura is out of the cage again. God is out of the cage. Expect volcanoes.

A final note on US policy: The push for sanctions against Iran that will bear most heavily on the public rather than the rulers –- like the bill now before Congress to try to prevent sales of gasoline to Iran and thereby raise its price there enormously – seems to me likely, if they work, to blunt the anti-governmental anger of the opposition and redefine the US as the enemy. Some policy-makers keep thinking that if a powerful state imposes sanctions on a weaker one, the people of the weaker society, as their suffering increases, will turn against their leaders as the cause. But almost always, they unite around their leaders against foreign intervention.

Expect volcanoes.


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

URGENT: A Jewish Letter to Sen. Joseph Lieberman on Pekuach Nefesh (Saving Life) & the Health-care Bill

PDF icon Leiberman_ptn_12_23_noon.pdf272.53 KB

Dear chevra, below you will find a letter directed to Senator Joseph Lieberman, concerning his intention of supporting a filibuster to prevent an up-and-down majority vote on the health-care bill.

If you agree with its basic sentiments, please sign onto the letter by clicking here.

We are making this letter public as soon as possible with a sizable number of signatures from members of the American Jewish community, in the hope of bringing him to change his position. [he did not budge. His intransigence forced the Senate to drop the two aspects of the bill he opposed. The issue may return,however, when the Senate and House versions of the bill are woven together for final passage. We are, therefore, still seeking signatures.]

[For a report on the results and a follow-up exploration of whether and how to encourage Jewish communal responsibility for ethical behavior by Jewish public figures, click here.]

(Please click the link at the end of the letter, to download this text of the letter, complete with over 2,000 signatures
Thank you!
Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Senator Joseph Lieberman
United States Senate


We are rabbis, cantors, and other committed Jews. Many of us were delighted in 2000 when you were nominated for Vice-President and proclaimed to all that you were an observant Jew, carrying into the highest level of public service the values of the Jewish people.

Now we see with deep distress that you have announced that you will not support the bill before the Senate to bring health care in America even part way toward the universal and affordable coverage that is assumed in every other industrial country, including Israel. You have announced that you intend to join a quasi-filibuster against even taking an up-and-down vote on the bill if it contains either a "public option" provision or one extending the universally praised Medicare system to some younger people.

Doing this would thwart the will of a majority of the Senate, the majority of the American people, and the majority of the American Jewish community.

In our eyes, this is not the behavior of an "observant" Jew. "Pekuach nefesh, Save Life," is the prime directive of Torah,

and "Tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice justice shall you seek," is among the Torah's most important commandments. And in pursuit of justice, no autonomous Jewish community has ever allowed the poor to go without healing. It is clear that the present health insurance system based on private insurance companies is broken in every aspect except assuring enormous profits to itself. It costs Americans the highest medical costs in the world while providing mediocre health care as measured by life expectancies, newborn death rates, and other indices across the developed world.

We recognize that major health insurance companies are headquartered in Connecticut and that you may view your obligations to them as constituents as an important political responsibility. Yet thousands of Americans die each year unnecessarily because they are refused coverage by or are unable to purchase insurance from these same companies.

So we believe your obligation of pekuach nefesh, saving life, saving the lives of the flesh-and-blood citizens of Connecticut, shaped in flesh and blood in God's Image and subject to damage of that same flesh and blood that requires healing, is an even higher obligation than you owe to your insurance-company constituents. Indeed, two-thirds of your flesh-and-blood constituents support a health-care bill that includes a strong public option.

We therefore call you to do tshuvah – to turn yourself again toward fulfilling the commands of Torah and meeting the needs of the American people. Then we will be happy once again that you are bringing the values of an "observant Jew" to the public service of the American people.


(Please click the link at the end of the letter, to download this text of the letter, complete with over 2,000 signatures!)


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

From Hanukkah to Copenhagen: A Broad-Based Jewish Call to Action

Dear folks,

At the initiative of The Shalom Center, a broad spectrum of American Jewish leadership has issued the following statement about Hanukkah and Copenhagen:
  “Hanukkah for Humanity"

The traditions of rabbinic Judaism have long celebrated the Hanukkah miracle in which one day's oil met eight days' need.  In that spirit,  we join in urging the world community to include in our Hanukkah celebration this year  a call to all the peoples of the earth. We encourage Jewish communities, wherever possible, to gather in public one Hanukkah evening to light their menorahs with this message:  

That the human race deeply reduce our burning of fossil fuels as a step toward healing the climate crisis that threatens our future.  The world's governments are convened in the  Copenhagen conference as we light the lights of Hanukkah at a time of the darkness of the moon and sun. We especially call out  to them, that together all humanity light the lights of a sustainable future in the midst of a  dark and difficult passage through history.

The list of individual signers of the "Hanukkah for Humanity" statement can be found below.

Among the nationally known signers are: Rabbi Dennis Beck-Berman, past president, Ohalah; Ellen Bernstein, Founder, Shomrei Adamah; Evan Eisenberg, author, The Ecology of Eden; Rabbi Steve Gutow, Director, Jewish Council on Public Affairs; Debra Kolodny, Executive Director, ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal; Vivian Lehrer, Co-founder/Director, Eden Village Camp; Rabbi Mordechai Liebling, Recon. Rabb. Coll.; Rabbi David Saperstein, Director, Relig Action Ctr of Reform Judaism; Nigel Savage, Executive Director, Hazon; Richard H. Schwartz, President, Jewish Vegetarians of North America; Rabbi David Shneyer, past president, Ohalah; Nili Simhai, director, Teva Learning Center ; Rabbi Margot Stein, New Legends; Rabbi Warren Stone, Chair, Environment Comm, CCAR; Rabbi Lawrence Troster, Greenfaith; Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director, The Shalom Center ; Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, Inst for Jewish Spirituality; Rabbi Shawn Zevit, Jewish Reconstructionist Federation

Among organizations, The Shalom Center, Hazon, the Teva Learning Center, and ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, have so far joined in endorsing it.

Please share this letter with your friends and coworkers and take the initiative to organize a "Hanukkah for Humanity" event in your own community. For one example, see below.

One example of carrying "Hanukkah for Humanity" into action: The Shalom Center, with support from a wide variety of Philadelphia synagogues, other Jewish organizations, and several interfaith groups and activists, is sponsoring a vigil for action to heal our endangered climate from "global scorching"  --  on the night of December 12 at 6:15, the second night of Hanukkah, near Independence Hall -- at People's Plaza, between 5th & 6th close to Market Street. 
That vigil will be connecting with hundreds of candle light vigils around the  globe on the weekend of December 11-13,  calling on the negotiators in Copenhagen to take the actions needed to save our eco-system. The call to that action came from Bill McKibben. Excerpts follow, below.

Shalom, salaam, shantih -- Peace!

Here are excerpts from Bill McKibben's letter:

"There's a global mobilization coming together for the weekend in the middle of the Copenhagen conference--Dec. 11-13. Our collective message? "The World Wants a Real Deal" -- people all over the planet are demanding a binding global climate agreement guided by the latest science and built upon principles of justice and equity.

"Our main hope is that you will help organize a candlelight vigil at some iconic or strategic place near you on Friday or Saturday night, December 11th or 12th. Around the world people will gather to light lanterns or candles, in solemn solidarity with the citizens of those nations who will be first to face the challenges to their very survival.

"Click here for details about staging a local vigil and to register one in your community:

"The short-term survival of many nations, and the long-term health of the whole planet, rests in the hands of Obama and the United States Senate. Their positions, along with the level of leadership provided by the European Union, China and a few other nations, can make or break a global climate treaty. The decisions made by this small group of people will, in large part, determine whether or not the world forges a real deal--not just any deal, but one that is strong enough to pull us back from the brink of climate catastrophe and put the planet on a path to 350. Their courage--or lack of it--will help set the future of the planet for geologic time.

"The candles we will light are candles of hope."


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

Hanukkah for Humanity: 1 Day's Oil for 8 Days' Need

Hanukkah: Festival of light in a dark time, action in times of despair.  Rededication, reconsecration, in times of desecration and disaster. The Green Menorah: A living, growing Tree Of Light in the ancient Temple, in the sacred temple of the Earth today, and in the hearts of those who join in covenant to heal our climate, the Interbreathing of all life.

Our earth: desecrated. Our governments: fiddling while the planet burns.

What shall we do?

For example: Light Hanukkah menorahs at offices of the Environmental Protection Administration, calling out –-

"One day's oil for eight days' need:
EPA restrain the Big Polluters' greed!"

Last week the governments officially said that the US Senate would not pass a climate bill by year's end, and that the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen would not  come up with a new climate treaty, as originally intended
 Wait till next year, they said.

 Among the many legends of Hanukkah is this: When the just-victorious guerrillas who had defeated a great Empire tried to rededicate the Temple, they found only enough consecrated olive oil to last one day. They lit the Menorah anyway, and – according to the legend – it stayed alight eight days until new oil could be consecrated.

God's conservation of oil was, according to the ancient rabbis, the miracle we celebrate on Hanukkah. But I think the most important miracle happened on the first day:  It began with an act of stubborn affirmation in the face of a hopeless reality. There was only enough olive oil to keep the Menorah alight for one day. Why take the trouble to light it and then see it flicker out? What a bummer that would be!

They did it anyway. Those stubborn guerrillas lit the Menorah anyway.  They had no hope – just a stubborn determination to act on the side of life and sacred truth. To reconsecrate, rededicate, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

We have not just one sacred building of one sacred community to reconsecrate, but the whole round earth that Empires and Corporations have been  desecrating and despoiling for generations.

 According to the legend, God responded when the people acted.

 Today, it is clearer than ever that our governments and our corporations will respond only when the people act. What would it mean, in these days of dark that yearn toward light, of determination that goes beyond despair, to act?
Hanukkah is not only the festival of energy conservation; it is when we honor grass-roots action that transformed society despite elephantine top-down power-centers; it is when we celebrate "Not by might, not by power, but by My Spirit, YHWH/ Breath of Life."
 We encourage you to take action – before, during, and after Hanukkah -- rooted in Seven Principles that should underlie Jewish and interfaith efforts to shape US and world policy on healing the climate crisis.

 Besides the Seven Principles, we propose a policy Yardstick to measure the proposals that come before Congress (and by extension, the other governments assembled in Copenhagen). (Click here to see the Seven Principles and the Yardstick:  )

If the Jewish community undertakes this effort, not only Hanukkah, which means “Dedication,” and originally focused on Rededication of the desecrated Temple in Jerusalem, but our lives as a whole can become a practice of Rededication and Reconsecration of the universal temple of God’s Presence: Earth.

Please read "Seven Principles and a Yardstick"on this page and comment on both essays at the bottom of the "Seven Principles" article:

Shalom, salaam, shantih –- Peace!


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

"To Bigotry No Sanction"

In the ears of American Jews, among the golden words of American history are those of George Washington to a synagogue: "To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

God knows these words have rung false about many different communities in the dark-light-checkered history of our Republic. (Blacks, Mormons, the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese, the Japanese, gay people ---- )

There have even been moments in American history when those words seemed not so clearly truthful, about Jews. (See Philip Roth's amazing alternate-history novel, The Plot Against America, and its roots in real history.) But in this generation, in regard to Jews these seem engraved on American reality – not only in stone, but in glowing beams of light.

But in the wake of the Fort Hood murders, it is not so clear that these words apply to American Muslims.

Every sizeable Muslim organization in America has condemned those murders, and some have taken proactive steps to aid the families of those killed. These are ethically responsible actions.

I wish that Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and other religious communities could also come forward along with Muslim groups to say truthfully, "In the fabrics of ALL our different traditions are both broad spaces of peaceful and peace-seeking wisdom, and some bloody strands. These we need to address forthrightly and to explicitly reject or reinterpret so they cannot be used to justify violence."

The Shalom Center is now working on such a statement, and will seek support across the spectrum of American religious life.

I applaud spokespersons of the Army and other officials who say they do not intend to treat Muslims as suspects. Doing that would be just as reprehensible as treating all American Jews as suspect of espionage because Jonathan Pollard did spy for Israel.

And in that light, I denounce those radio and TV personalities and some politicians who have indeed blamed Islam and Muslims in general for Major Hasan's actions.

Fort Hood's aftermath is a reminder of how easy, and how mistaken, it is for many of us to focus on EITHER individual responsibility OR social responsibility when we assess either blame or causation of some upsetting event.

The “dichotomy” between individual and social responsibility — in which conservatives typically salute the first and liberals the second — is a false dichotomy. BOTH are necessary to a moral order.

In this case, the US war against both Iraq and Afghanistan, plus added attacks on Pakistan and dire threats (probably also covert attacks) against Iran, plus strong US support for the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, all comprise an illegitimate and immoral and self-destructive war against major aspects of the Muslim world. There is plenty of reason for serious Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus to oppose each piece of this umbrella war -- not only Muslims for "tribal" reasons of "their own" being under attack, but all religious communities for universalist reasons rooted in all these spiritual traditions.

Just to deal with some expectable objections:

(a) The ethically correct US response to 9/11/01 would have been a police action to arrest and try, or if they resisted arrest, if necessary to kill, the actual perpetrators of the murderous attacks on the Towers. Making war on Afghanistan was analogous to responding to cop-killers on the streets of Newark by bombing the whole city of Newark.

(b) In 2003, the pre-Ahmedinajad government of Iran asked the US for a wide-ranging negotiation on all outstanding issues, including US sanctions, Iranian aid to Hezbollah, and the Iranian nuclear program. The Cheney-Bush Administration rejected the whole idea out of hand and even condemned the Swiss intermediaries who communicated this proposal. The rejection helped Ahmdinajad come to power. Imagine how different Iranian, American, and even Israeli history could have been!

These pieces of the umbrella war against many aspects of Islam were and are socially irresponsible actions by the US, and they helped contribute to the Fort Hood murders.

So also is the Army medical system that has enormously overburdened too few Army doctors in dealing with the war-wounded, especially with those wounded in soul by post-traumatic stress. This is irresponsible to the wounded, and to the doctors.

And so is the difficulty that the Army places in the way of soldiers who seek on grounds of conscience to leave.

All these are acts of SOCIAL irresponsibility.

(The Torah orders that men of military age be required to refrain from military service under a number of circumstances — including if they are afraid of being killed or are too gentle-hearted to kill. See Deut 20: 1-9 and for my own essay on the meaning of this passage and its interpretations in later Jewish/ rabbinic thought and practice, click here.)

And in the Fort Hood case, Major Hasan also committed acts of INDIVIDUAL irresponsibility.

He could have pursued a number of nonviolent paths for opposing or resisting the war he considered illegitimate. Suing the Army. Or public, principled civil disobedience. Or flight as a deserter.

Instead, he chose mass murder rather than the nonviolent forms of resistance he might and should have chosen. It is no excuse that he followed the logic of the institution he was "resisting." Indeed, worse than "no excuse" -- because he replicated the violence of the war he abhorred–- replicated the violence instead of resisting it in a deeper way.

The sense that he broke under enormous social pressure — that our nation failed in meeting its social responsibility toward him and other soldiers — does not mean that he is absolved of personal, individual responsibility.

The nation could have met our social responsibility by ending the endless, useless, self-destructive Afghanistan War, or at minimum, by letting Major Hasan leave the Army when he asked to.

But even if the society failed to meet our responsibility, each individual still is obligated to make responsible choices. Murder was the most irresponsible, most unethical choice he could have made.

Now it is up to us to choose how we respond. As a society and as individuals, do we make ethically responsible or irresponsible choices?


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

Ft. Hood, Armistice Day, and the Burial of Abraham

Photo of he American Friends Service Committee's "Eyes Wide Open" tour, displays

When I was a kid, at 11 a..m. on November 11, in every school and workplace in America (and Canada, France, England, elsewhere) everybody paused. We took a silent minute or two to remember the dead of World War I and to honor the Armistice that went into effect and stopped the killing at that moment on 11/11/1918.

Even during World War II, we did this --and teachers mentioned the hope that it would have been "the war to end all wars." I don't recall honoring just the American and Allied dead; I think the terrible slaughters of Germans, Russians, Austrians, were also part of it.

This week, the Torah reading includes the story (Gen 25) of how Ishmael & Isaac, Abraham's two long-estranged sons, came together to bury him -- though, or because, he had endangered both their lives. By mourning him together, they dissolved their hostility, and came to live together at the Well of the Living One Who Sees Me.

This week we have been mourning the American soldiers killed by another American soldier at Fort Hood, and sorrowing for their families. Elsewhere in the world, other folks are mourning Afghans and Pakistanis who were celebrating weddings when they were killed by US Predators flinging lightning bolts of death from the sky.

Could we bear to mourn their dead as well as "our own"? Could they bear to mourn our dead as well as "their own"? In Israel & Palestine, there is actually a Circle of Bereaved Families who do exactly that.

What difference might it make? If each "side" mourns only "its own," it is likely that rage and hatred at "the others" will increase. If we can mourn all our dead, perhaps we can make an Armistice. Or even Peace.

So I propose that at 11 am on November 11, we pause to mourn the dead of Fort Hood, of the Pashtun lands, of all the bloodied battle fields.

Shalom, salaam, peace! -- Arthur


Fort Hood and the Prophetic "IF"

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One reader wrote me to ask: " "What effect will the Ft. Hood shootings have on the American public's perception of Islam?" That question asks us to be foretellers, fortune tellers, to predict. But The Shalom Center has had the holy chutzpah to call ourselves a "prophetic voice," and that voice is about "forth-telling," not foretelling. About “If,” not “will.”

The Prophets spoke always with an "If" -- "IF the community chooses to oppress its workers into slaves, then the owners will themselves become slaves to Babylonia; IF the slave-owners will free their slaves, they will be freed from the yoke of Babylonia." (That was Jeremiah, as the Babylonian Army besieged Jerusalem, speaking forth a challenge, at once a warning and a promise, to the conventional practices and power structures of his society.)

From that perspective, the Prophetic question today should be a challenge to power and convention: "What effect should the Ft. Hood shootings have on the American public's perception of the Afghanistan War?"

For anyone who lived through the Vietnam War, Fort Hood recalls the epidemic of "fragging" late in the war -- that is, enlisted men throwing fragmentation bombs at the officers who were ordering them into hopeless, senseless battle.

In Fort Hood, if the reports and claims from the police and military are correct (we already know that a number of falsehoods were reported as facts), an officer, a physician, trained to heal traumatized people from the maiming of their souls, was refused an exit from the soul-destroying prison he begged to leave.

If the reports are accurate, it seems that he broke, choosing murder rather than the nonviolent forms of resistance he might and should have chosen. In that sense he replicated the violence of the war he abhorred and the violence that kept him in the Army against his will –- replicated the violence instead of resisting it in a deeper way.

The sense that he broke under enormous social pressure -- that our nation failed in meeting its social responsibility toward him and other soldiers -- does not mean that he is absolved of personal, individual responsibility.

What could we, and he, have done? The nation could have met our social responsibility by ending the endless, useless, self-destructive Afghanistan War, or at minimum, by letting Major Hasan leave the Army when he asked to.

(The Torah orders that men of military age be required to refrain from military service under a number of circumstances -- including if they are afraid of being killed or are too gentle-hearted to kill. See Deut 20: 1-9 and for an examination of its meaning by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, click here. )

But even if the society failed to meet our responsibility, each individual still is obligated to make responsible choices. For the Major, there were a number of nonviolent choices. Suing the Army. Or public, principled civil disobedience. Or flight as a deserter. Murder was not a responsible choice.

The "dichotomy" between individual and social responsibility -- in which conservatives salute the first and liberals the second -- is a false dichotomy. BOTH are necessary to a moral order.

And an attempt to diagnose or analyze whether bad behavior flows more from one or the other or equally from both should not be dismissed as an attempt to "justify" bad action. Diagnosis is necessary to both prevention and cure. To understand all is NOT to "pardon" all. It is the first step toward healing both individual and social irresponsibility.

One of the reasons that "fragging" came near the end of the Vietnam War is that the epidemic of fragging signaled to the higher officer corps that they had better end the war. Coming on top of more and more evidence that the US and NATO military presence in Afghanistan is itself multiplying the violent resistance it claims to suppress, the Fort Hood murders should signal the American public and its military and civilian leadership to take off the hoods we have put over our own eyes, see the truth, and take our soldiers out from Afghanistan.

If --- IF, the Prophetic word --- If we seriously want to help grow a grass-roots democracy there, we might send teams of women from American community banks to provide grass-roots micro-loans to those who are prepared to use them , especially including women, while abandoning the self-destructive effort to impose democracy with Predators. Then Fort Hood might help Americans grow into a new relationship with the hundreds of millions of Muslims who seek to shape their own futures in peace.

IF instead the American public chooses to define Fort Hood as proof that Islam is a world of hatred, then the cage of violence that some Muslims, some Christians, some Jews, some Hindus are helping build will clang shut upon us all.


Finally, we must let what happened at Fort Hood enter our hearts, not only our minds. Thirteen people are dead and others are seriously wounded because Major Hasan chose violence instead of nonviolence to protest the war and his orders to take part in it. Our country's social irresponsibility and his individual irresponsibility colluded to make a macabre massacre.

So it is the suffering friends and families of the dead and wounded to whom our hearts must turn. Violence creates not only a disaster for the perpetrator but much deeper, longer, broader disasters for its victims.

In this week's Torah portion, two estranged brothers –- Isaac and Ishmael –- survivors of their father's violence -- come together to mourn their dangerous father, Abraham. From their shared grief they are able to shape a life of sharing. May we, no matter what is our religion or our politics, learn to grieve together the dead of the Pashtun country and the dead of Fort Hood. May we learn to create the context of shared responsibility in which each one of us will find it easier to choose a life of individual responsibility.

To take action to end the US military presence in Afghanistan, click to the Take Action section on our Home Page.

Shalom, salaam, shantih --- peace, Arthur

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Write Your Senators: Support the Climate-Healing Bill

Photo of US Capitol framed by the Capitol Power Plant

Dear shalom-seekers,

We are at a great choice point for healing the planetary climate crisis -- the most dangerous crisis in all human history, but one we can still heal. 

Before I expain why and how, let me say right away that we have made it possible and easy for you to write your Senators to support climate-healing action. Click here to write your Senator.

And I also want to say right away that in accord with next Shabbat (October 23-24, the story of the Flood & Rainbow) having been proclaimed Climate Healing Shabbat, and in the light of calls for world-wide action on Oct. 24 by many environmental leaders, I hope you will urge your own synagogue, church, or masjid board or social action committee; your havurah,  local chapter of the PTA or teachers union or AJCommittee  or National Council of Jewish Women;  your local Jewish or church newspaper, to take a stand urging strong climate-healing action by your Senators. 

Why is it so important to act NOW?

Because the US Senate is now considering a major, flawed, but useful bill  to heal our plant from global scorching.

And why is that so important?

Because the US contributes far more per capita to global scorching by our over-use of fossil fuels than any other country. So the first turning point will be getting the US government to define this as a great issue by passing a major bill, even if it has important flaws.
IF that happens, other major governments (outside Europe, which is well ahead) will have good reason to move as well, and the Copenhagen conference may point forward instead of bogging down in despair.
And if a major bill is passed, that COULD – it depends on us, the people – energize instead of lulling major public action by Americans. (The early civil rights bills and court actions in the 1950s were inadequate, but they encouraged widespread committed public action, and that in turn moved Congress to do much more.)

The US Senate now has before it a flawed but useful bill co-sponsored by Barbara Boxer of California and John Kerry of Massachusetts, with unexpected and important strong public support from Lindsey Graham, a  Southern Republican   --  offered on some conditions.  His support is important because it may well open the way for other Republicans, who will be necessary to reach the 60 required votes.

In the view of one of the wisest and most knowledgeable analysts of Congresssional enviro policy, David Roberts of Grist on-line enviro magazine, there is now reason for cautious optimism about the Senate's passing a bill.  Roberts, though he views Graham's conditions as odious (allowing but not mandating  off-shore oil drilling and nuclear power) thinks they will have little actual ecological down-sides because few companies expect to make money from drilling or nukes, whereas the finances of wind and solar energy are much more attractive.

For David Roberts' full analysis of "Seven Reasons for Optimism about the Senate Bill," for our own "Seven Principles for Jewish & Interfaith Action on Climate Policy," and items on prayer, model sermon materials, songs,  and stories for use on Shabbat Noah, see our section on Shabbat Noah at –

I don't  want to blind-side you, our faithful Shalom Center members, readers, supporters, and activists. There are many environmental activists – and we agree! -- who think the crisis requires much more vigorous action than is set forth in the Kerry-Boxer bill and its House-passed counterpart,   the watered-down Waxman-Markey bill. (Interesting that in each House there is one Jewish co-sponsor from California and one Christian from Massachusetts.)

Some of these critics even oppose these bills. They seem to think that if the bills pass, the public will relax; that if they fail, there will be massive demands for much more radical action. My own experience both as an insider on Capitol Hill and as a street activist outsider leads me to a different sense – that utter Congressional failure will lead to despair, but half-success  will lead to public action, action to more success, more success to more action, and then to even more effective law.

So I urge you, our members, readers, and activists, to act NOW, especially using the momentum of the Shabbat of Noah (October 24) and its proclamation as Climate Healing Shabbat --  to work hard for the Senate bill.

I urge you to write this week to your Senators to urge them to support the Kerry-Boxer bill,  and to keep it strong.

Click here to find a model letter and an easy way to fax your Senators I hope you will add your own words.

And I hope you will follow up by getting your own clubs, organizations, newspapers, and friends  to take a stand supporting the bill and letting your Senators know. You could do this easily just by forwarding this letter to your friends, co-workers,  and key local leaders.

With blessings of shalom, salaam, peace! --
--  Arthur


What is "the Image of God"?

Dear seekers of shalom, Last year at this time -- the time of Shabbat B’reshit, the Torah portion in which the world and human beings are created -- I was visiting my daughter Shoshana and her family in Evanston, Illinois.

My granddaughter Yonit Slater was then eight years old. I said to Yonit,

“You know, according to the Torah this week, God created human beings in God’s Image. What do you think that means?”

Yonit: “What’s an image?

Arthur: “Ummmm, Like a photograph.”

Yonit: “That’s strange. God is invisible. How could there be a photograph of God?”


Y: “Maybe it’s more like God is in the image of human beings.”


Y: “Only it couldn’t be just one human being, it would have to be lots.”


Y: “And they are all different. Each one is different, like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. So you would have to fit all the pieces together.”


Y: “Then they would be a community, and a community is more like God.”

For me, this teaching is worthy of standing alongside two ancient midrashim about the Image.

One was from the ancient rabbis, living under the Roman Empire, who said: "When Caesar puts his image on a coin, all the coins come out identical. When the Holy One Who is beyond all rulers puts the Divine Image on the 'coins' of human beings – each of the coins come out unique." {Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 38a (Soncino transl., p. 240]

Already this is a teaching about the irreducible dignity and worth of every human being, and how limited is the power of Caesar – of governmental authority -- even when it seems most tyrannical, most absolute.

And in this light, I honor a new understanding of what many have thought a puzzling teaching by Rabbi Jesus, reported in the Gospels:

Some of his more conventional colleagues who were troubled by his radical vision demanded whether Jesus thought the people should pay taxes with a Roman coin. When he asked, "Whose image is on this coin?" his accosters answered, "Caesar's!" According to the written story, he responded – "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's!"

Puzzling? Yes, until you set this in the milieu of the rabbinic teaching I have just reported, which Rabbi Jesus certainly would have known.

What the story does not mention -- but may well have happened, it might have been too radical to report -- is that he may have put his arm on the shoulder of his questioner and said, "And whose Image is on this coin?"

When they realized he was reminding them that God's Image was on them and of course on every human being, that they and all the people should give their whole selves to God and only dross to Caesar, they went away to think again. Perhaps we too should think and feel more deeply about the limits on our responsibilities to Caesar. Or Pharaoh. Or any Prime Minister or President or Congress or Knesset or Supreme Ayatollah.

Is it chutzpadik of me, or simply the family pleasure of kvelling, to set Yonit's teaching of the jigsaw puzzle alongside the Rabbis (including Rabbi Jesus)? I think Yonit intuited their point about the uniqueness of every individual –- and then took one more step. They had celebrated the human individual vs. Caesar. She is pointing toward the necessity of connecting those individuals in community; the Divine Image is not truly fulfilled by all those unique Images until they fit together.

Put the Talmud, the Gospels, and the wisdom of an eight-year-old Yonit side by side. They intertwine. The sacred individual, the sacred community, sacred resistance to the tyranny of a Caesar. We think again about God, the Image, the community, the jigsaw puzzle of humanity and earth.

For a further discussion of the "Image" teaching and other aspects of the Creation story, please click to other essays in

Shalom, salaam, shantih -- Peace!
-- Arthur

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