Arthur Ocean Waskow Papers, 1943-1977 (bulk 1961-1977)


Arthur Ocean Waskow was born Arthur I. Waskow in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1933. He took his bachelor's degree at Johns Hopkins University in 1954 and his doctorate in American history in 1963 at the University of Wisconsin, where he studied with Merle Curti. From 1959 to 1961 Waskow worked as a legislative assistant to Representative Robert Kastenmeier, a Democrat from Wisconsin. Waskow edited the controversial Liberal Papers for Kastenmeier and other like-minded members of the House of Representatives.

In 1961 Waskow became a research fellow at the Peace Research Institute (PRI), a grant-funded institute devoted to the study of world peace. In 1963 PRI merged with the newly-organized Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), and Waskow joined Richard Barnet and Marcus Raskin, the senior fellows at IPS, as a peace research fellow, later becoming a senior fellow. Because of his leadership experience at PRI, Waskow was influential in shaping the programs and structure of IPS. Waskow remained with IPS until 1977 when he and other IPS staff left to establish the Public Resource Center (PRC). During the next five years Waskow led a PRC research project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy on renewable energy and conservation.

During the 1960s and early 1970s Waskow was a national leader in the movement against the war in Vietnam. He participated in the first anti-war teach-in at the University of Michigan and was a member of the national steering committee of the New Mobilization Committee Against the War in Vietnam. As a result of their association at IPS, Waskow and Raskin, one of the defendants in the Boston 5 Conspiracy case, co-authored “A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority,” which urged support for draft resisters. During this period Waskow was widely criticized for allegedly radical political views, although his activities within the Democratic Party and the National Conference for a New Politics demonstrated his commitment to working for change within the political system. As a result of his organizing for the New Mobilization Committee in 1969, seven years later Waskow was a successful plaintiff in Hobson v. Wilson, an important Supreme Court decision concerning infringement of free speech rights by the FBI.

During this phase of his career Waskow wrote extensively on subjects related to peace and the war in Vietnam. Among his books are The Limits of Defense (1962); America in Hiding (1962), The Worried Man's Guide to World Peace (1963); and From Race Riot to Sit-in, 1919 and the 1960s (1966), an expansion of his dissertation. He was also a prolific writer of letters to the editor and articles for such magazines as Commentary, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Survival, Scientific American, Liberation, New York Review of Books, and Dissent. Waskow was a contributing editor to Ramparts, which published his Freedom Seder article in 1969. This article was the first widely-published Passover Haggadah that connected the liberation of the ancient Israelites with modern liberation struggles.

Although raised in a non-observant Jewish family, beginning in 1969 Waskow began a search to find meaning in his religious heritage. He organized or participated in left-wing Jewish organizations such as Breira, Jews for Urban Justice, and the National Jewish Organizing Project, and through organizations such as Fabrangen, Tzedek Tzedek, and the kibbutz Micah, Waskow worked to create a better community life for Jews in the District of Columbia. Eventually Waskow became a leader in the Jewish Renewal Movement, and in 1995 he was ordained as a rabbi.

Because the Waskow Papers at the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives contain no material on which to base a biographical sketch, the following information for Waskow's post-1977 career, the following is taken from website of the Shalom Center, which he established in 1983:

Since 1969, Waskow has taken a leadership role in the Jewish Renewal movement. He founded The Shalom Center in 1983 and serves as its director. In its inception the Shalom Center primarily confronted the threat of nuclear war from a Jewish perspective, emphasizing the story of Noah and the imperative to save the world from “a flood of fire”. As the Cold War abated, the Shalom Center turned its focus toward ecology and human rights issues. The chief concerns of The Shalom Center are:

The Iraq War and related issues, including the growing use of torture by the United States and unchecked presidential power; American addiction to over-use of oil and the danger it poses to the planet through global warming; the creation of deeper connections among Jews, Christians, and Muslims; an interfaith effort to identify and encourage the use and marketing of “Sacred Foods”; Peace in the Middle East; lesbian and gay rights, especially in marriage and other sacred contexts; and the rights of immigrants.

From 1982 to 1989, Waskow was a member of the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where he taught courses on contemporary theology and practical rabbinics. He has also taught in the religion departments of Swarthmore College, Temple University, Drew University, and Vassar College.

In 1993, Waskow co-founded ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Between 1993 and 2005, he performed research, wrote, and spoke on behalf of ALEPH. Waskow was ordained a rabbi in 1995 by a beth din (rabbinical court) made up of a rabbi with Hasidic lineage, a Conservative rabbi, a Reform rabbi, and a feminist theologian. Waskow's best-known books [written during this phase of his career] include Godwrestling (1978), Seasons of Our Joy (1982), Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life (1995), and Godwrestling — Round 2: Ancient Wisdom, Future Paths (1996).

Some of Waskow's positions on religious and political issues, and his interpretations of Jewish traditions, have drawn criticism from more conservative quarters of the Jewish community and from some parts of the American Left. Pointing to the implications of the Jubilee year for the peaceful and meditative redistribution of land, Waskow has argued that prophetic Judaism contains elements of social vision that have reappeared in some aspects of Marxism and some aspects of Buddhism. Waskow has been a strong critic of Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza. He is opposed to the Second Iraq War, citing what he describes as Jewish religious grounds. He has supported the positions of Cindy Sheehan. Waskow has said he has found no evidence of Sheehan making anti-Israel statements attributed to her. Waskow has supported full rights and full presence of gay and lesbian persons in the Jewish community and in American life, including supporting the right to same-sex Jewish and civil marriage.

Since his first visit to Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in 1969, he has supported a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has strongly condemned such actions by some Palestinians as terrorist attacks on Israel and acts of the Israeli government such as the invasions of Lebanon in 1982 and 2006. He became one of the founding members of Rabbis for Human Rights/North America and served on its board and steering committee. When some parts of the U.S. anti-war movement demonized Israel, he publicly criticized their behavior and the Shalom Center sponsored alternative actions that strongly criticized the Iraq war while affirming the legitimacy of Israel and the importance of its achieving peace with a Palestinian state.

Though a critic of the environmental policies of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, Waskow has disagreed with claims that Chávez is anti-Semitic, pointing out that his critical comments on “...some minorities, descendants of those who crucified Christ, descendants of those who threw Bolívar out of here...took the world's riches for themselves...” were referring not to the Jews but to the heirs of the Roman Empire that crucified Jesus and of the Spanish empire that attacked Bolivar -- that is, to the U.S. empire of today.

In 1996, Waskow was named by the United Nations a “Wisdom Keeper” among forty religious and intellectual leaders who met in connection with the Habitat II conference in Istanbul. He was presented the Abraham Joshua Heschel Award by the Jewish Peace Fellowship and in 2005 was named by the Forward newspaper one of the “Forward Fifty” leaders of American Jewry. In 2007, Newsweek named him one of the fifty most influential American rabbis. In that year also, the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement of Philadelphia presented him its Reverend Richard Fernandez Religious Leadership Award, and the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation presented him its Peace and Justice Award.

Waskow has taught as a Visiting Professor in the religion departments of Swarthmore College (1982-1983, on the thought of Martin Buber and on the Book of Genesis and its rabbinic and modern interpretations); Temple University (1975-1976 on contemporary Jewish theology and 1985-1986, on liberation theologies in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam); Drew University (1997-1998, on the ecological outlooks of ancient, rabbinic, and contemporary Judaism and on the synthesis of mysticism, feminism, and social action in the theology and practice of Jewish renewal); Vassar College (1999 on Jewish Renewal and Feminist Judaism); and from 1982 to 1989 on the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (contemporary theology and practical rabbinics) .