Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Wellstone, Wellsprings, & We OurselvesA Letter from Arthur Waskow
This past Friday afternoon, I took part in a meeting in the Washington DC suburbs about plans for a campaign to "Take Back Your Time," freeing Americans from the economic and cultural pressures for super-overwork that undermines our ability to have good friendships and a decent family life, to be effective grassroots citizens, to learn and create new ideas and thoughts and art and music, to reflect upon our lives and celebrate the Spirit.
As the meeting ended, our host's son came in with the news that Paul Wellstone, zichrono tzaddik l'vracha, may the memory of his just & upright life survive as a blessing to us, had been killed in an airplane crash.
Three of us in the room, including me, had known him one of us, very well as an important campaign organizer. She utterly dissolved in tears; the rest of us were utterly stunned, shaken, grief-stricken.
At the personal level, Wellstone was a mensch, a fully human human being. At the political level, he was a mensch in the fullest way, compassionate for human beings, outraged by the arrogant use of power to feed the endless appetites of greed and to oppress those who stood against that arrogance, courageous. Gutsy.
He understood his passion and his compassion as flowing from the wellsprings of his Jewishness, though he did not explicitly define that wellspring as religious. As in the best and most authentic of Jewish wellsprings, the water must ease the thirst of all the world and all the earth.
At this moment when our Republic is in great danger of becoming the Empire of the Bush-Rumsfeld-Cheney-Wolfowitz dreams, a nightmare to its subjects at home and overseas, Wellstone was one of the great pillars of the Republic and of Democracy. How deep our loss is can be seen in a most poignant radio conversation on Washington's NPR station that I happened to hear on Friday all the more poignant because the conversation happened before Wellstone's death and was broadcast afterward.
The conversation I tuned in in the middle, so I never even learned who the usual journalistic "experts" were was about the Iraq War. What was Bush after, what would the French and Russians do, was there an antiwar movement of any strength here in the US, etc.
One of the "experts" said, Well, tomorrow we should know better how large and deep the antiwar movement is. There will be a demonstration its numbers could be important."
Another said, "But so far all the leaders are 'outsiders.' Jesse Jackson, for example."
And then one said, "But that could change. If Paul Wellstone wins in Minnesota, he has stood up even when the liberal Democrats did not, he could become a kind of Gene McCarthy or even Bobby Kennedy for those who oppose the war."
Oh, God. Paul Wellstone, if he wins. Not him OR Sen. Barbara Boxer of California (who also voted No on the war resolution) OR Russ Feingold of Wisconsin OR . Just Wellstone.
Bobby Kennedy. Thanks a lot. Murdered at just the moment he was at last articulating not only opposition to the Vietnam War but the kind of broader passionate compassion that Wellstone had been acting on.
And the degeneration of American politics since that moment.
Indeed, I have not felt this way about the death of a public official since the murder of Bobby Kennedy in 1968.
Or another example, a presumably "different issue." I was talking with a very close friend of mine who is on the Washington staff of a key envirnomental organization. He was talking about their effort to put together 41 Senators to make a filibuster work, to insist on the Senate's addressing a particularly important piece of eco-protective legislation that the corporations and the Bush Administration particularly hated.
"Actually," he said, "It was Wellstone plus 40 others. We knew he would stand up tall with us. The others we had to lobby and cajole."
Yesterday morning, Phyllis & I decided to make part of our Shabbos in a Jewish contingent of the antiwar rally before visiting my son, daughter-in-law, and two-year-old grandson (who live in Washington) for the rest of it.
The rally was about 100,000 people. We saw two or three signs attacking Israel, though we had been worrried that there might be many.
We saw at least a dozen homemade signs remembering Wellstone "Paul, we know you are with us," "Wellstone, we are standing here with you," and one that was just his green campaign placard: "Wellstone." The platform speakers called for a minute of silence in his memory.
Late last night we came back home and I found in the mail three more checks sent for the Wellstone campaign by people who had responded to my Email letter a week ago, imploring especially Jews who cared about his courage and cared about stopping this war to send money that we could put in a bundle to send to Minnesota as "Jews Against the War, Jews for Wellstone." The mail had already brought a bunch, including one very sizable check. I had sent them on. The new ones I will return to their contributors.
So far as I know, not a single other Jewish group or person, "established" or "maverick," tried to mobilize that kind of support for Wellstone. I am in my grief joyful that I did. (Since The Shalom Center as part of a 501c3 tax-exempt organization can't support candidates, that effort had to be, and was, totally personal.)
Last Wednesday I spoke at an anti-war teach-in at Hunter College, and I was haunted by the memory of having spoken at the very first antiwar teach-in at the University of Michigan in 1965. Then I quoted Thomas Jefferson, assessing the meaning of the slavery in which he was himself entangled: "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just."
He was right. The Civil War was just one proof of it.
I trembled for my country in 1965, as I reflected that God is just. We lost some 45,000 of our own dead and a million Vietnamese, we lost many many more wounded and traumatized, we lost the "war on poverty" and the chance to transform our society for goodness' sake, we lost a generation to cynicism and contempt for government itself.
I tremble for my country now when I reflect that God is just. I tremble the worse for not having Wellstone with us.
But I affirm the Mourners' Kaddish: In "the Great Name," shmei rabbah the only Name that God has in the Kaddish in the Great Name are all the names of all the beings in the universe, all the names of everyone who ever was or will be, all those names whether or not we can touch the people who carried those names, all the names of the people who continue to touch us.
Including Wellstone. "Paul Wellstone, present and well accounted-for!" in our continuing roll call of the menschen among whom we are trying to enroll ourselves.
Our names are also in that list. We ourselves are also among the names within the Great Name.
What are our names doing there? The Great Name connects us all. The Great Name is potentially the name in which bare connection turns to love and to compassion. As Rabbi Heschel taught, "The opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference."
Later today I will Email you about the major project a Multi-religious Call to a Fast for Peace that for the past month The Shalom Center has been pursuing as a way of addressing through reflection and through compassionate action the reckless rush to war in which we are now swept up.
If this Multi-religious Call to a Fast for Peace is to make a difference, all of us who read this will need to help. Even if you do not feel the specific spiritual language of a fast or the specific words of protest in the Call befit your own language, we implore your help in moving forward this effort.
I hope you will keep Paul Wellstone in mind. I hope you will act, with passion and compassion, so that we ourselves can fill in not any empty space he leaves behind, but the new space he has opened up for us.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director
The Shalom Center (www.theshalomcenter.org)