Waskow, Arthur

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WASKOW, ARTHUR (1933– ), founder of the American movement for Jewish Renewal. As the leading proponent and founder of the American religious movement for Jewish Renewal, Waskow's midrashic interpretations of Jewish texts have sparked a renaissance of interest in the connection between Jewish spirituality and social justice in contemporary America.

Born in Baltimore, Md., Waskow received his bachelor's degree from Johns Hopkins University in 1954 and a master's degree (1956) and doctorate (1963) in U.S. history from the University of Wisconsin. From 1959 to 1982, he worked in Washington, d.c., on public policy concerning military strategy and disarmament, race relations, nonviolent action, the Vietnam War, and renewable energy sources. He also served as a founder and fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies from 1963 to 1977.

Throughout the 1960s, he was active in writing, speaking, electoral politics, and nonviolent protests against racism and the Vietnam War. In 1981 and 1986, along with eight other plaintiffs from the Washington area, he won a lawsuit against the fbi for illegal and unconstitutional harassment of his antiwar work, under its cointelpro program.

In 1969, Waskow's life took a new turn, toward leadership in the renewal of Jewish life in America. This work first began when Waskow wrote The Freedom Seder, a Passover Haggadah that wove together the traditional text with passages from leaders of social justice movements, such as Martin Luther King. Waskow continued to work as a writer, teacher, and organizer in the movement to renew Judaism. His other notable titles include These Holy Sparks: The Rebirth of the Jewish People (1983), Tales of Tikkun: New Jewish Stories to Heal the Wounded World (1997), and A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven: The Jewish Life-Spiral as a Spiritual Path (2002), the latter two coauthored with Phyllis Berman.

In 1982, Waskow moved to Philadelphia to become a member of the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where he founded The Shalom Center, a think tank concerned with Jewish thought and action in response to the dangers of the nuclear arms race and other global environmental threats. During this era, he founded the journal Menorah: Sparks of Jewish Renewal, of which he was editor since its inception. In 1993 The Shalom Center left the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and merged with P'nai Or, founded by Rabbi Zalman *Schachter-Shalomi, to form aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. In 1995, after five years of directed study and writing, Waskow was ordained privately as a rabbi by four individuals (three rabbis – one ḥasidic, one Conservative, and one Reform – and a feminist theologian) in the custom of Jewish renewal. In 2005, The Shalom Center became an independent organization, with Waskow as rabbinic director.

Waskow devoted his life's work to raising questions of social justice in the Jewish community. In addition to his pioneering work on eco-Judaism and public opposition to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, Waskow may be best known for his writing and teaching on behalf of a two-state solution for peace between Israel and the Palestinian people. He was among the leaders of Breira in the 1970s and of New Jewish Agenda in the 1980s, and was one of the peace activists invited to the White House to witness the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles in September 1993.

[Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]