Nearly fifty years ago Lyndon Johnson sent the army into Washington to quell unrest in the days after the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. and– seeing the soldiers with guns on his street as the Pharaoh’s army, Arthur Waskow wrote the Freedom Seder, which venerated Eldridge Cleaver and Allen Ginsberg and Hannah Arendt and, published in Ramparts, became an inspiration to the antiwar and civil-rights movements.
Last night Rabbi Waskow was at the Center for Jewish History to commemorate that work and talk about his “MLK+50 Interfaith Seder” haggadah (or guidebook), which aims to “reawaken” King’s prophetic spirit. Nobody on the panel mentioned Israel and Palestine, but in the Q-and-A, Robert Herbst of Jewish Voice for Peace asked what Waskow’s Seder says to Jews and African-Americans about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. “A lot of the people who are drowning these days are Palestinians, and there’s a lot of silent agony and callousness over there,” Herbst said.
Waskow said he’d decided not to touch on Palestine in his new seder. “Between taking on the big empire and taking on the little empire, I think the Shalom Center [his organization] should take on the big empire– that is the United States,” he said.
But he had often written about Palestine, including an article for Tikkun on the 50th anniversary of the occupation last year. And he went on:
“I did a whole series of attempts to bringing Torah to bear. I said, what is the line between loving the state and making it an idol?
“I quoted two passages from the Talmud about what makes something an idol. One is, they were living, you remember, under the Roman empire. One tells the story: A Jew goes to a rabbi, and says, I just bought a house from a Roman. It’s a wonderful house, it’s got a wonderful pool, and at the end of the pool there’s a statue of a naked lady. I really worry it might be Venus. In which case I guess it’s an idol. Do I have to tear it down, destroy it?
“The rabbi says, Well it depends. If the statue was built to make the pool still more beautiful, it’s a statue. If the pool was put there to venerate the statue, it’s an idol.
“The second story from the Talmud is this. The rabbis decided to go hunt for yetzer hara for idolatry, the evil impulse for idolatry. They thought if they could find it they could kill it and then idolatry would end. So they hunted and they hunted and they hunted and they hunted, and they finally found it in the holy of holies, in the center. That’s where the impulse to idolatry was. So I take it as a warning that it may be the most sacred thing you can nevertheless turn into an idol. And I ask myself, what makes the difference? It seems to me, the ability to criticize the living god, as Abraham did, as Jacob who wrestled I think with God. ‘Why did you set up the world so that the only way I could get to be who I was supposed to be was to rob and steal and lie? What kind of a God is that?’ Wrestling!
“When you can’t wrestle with something you think is sacred, when you can’t criticize it, when you can’t call it into account, it’s an idol.
“And for huge chunks of American Jewish life, but not for all– for huge chunks, Israel has become an idol.
“Our tradition teaches us that’s the most dangerous disastrous thing in the world. The Psalm says, what are these things, they have noses but they can’t breathe. they have legs and they can’t walk, they have arms and they can’t touch. And those who make them will become like them.”
Waskow went on that in his seder he was “dealing with the Pharaohs of Washington, of corporations,” but that’s not to say that this is not a moral question.
“I talk about the carbon pharaohs who not only killed human beings, but are bringing plagues upon the earth, disastrous plagues that are also killing human beings…
“My own view is there are two serious tests for the Jewish people in the most basic sense, in this generation. One is to treat Israel not as an idol. If it could be, it has to be made to be the creative center for Jewish thought and culture and action. But that center could not possibly, could not possibly!– expel people who are looking for asylum… Not possibly. The Torah says if somebody comes to you fleeing his master, a runaway slave comes to you, then you must let him live wherever he wants within your gates. You must not expel him. How could a people that sees itself as a band of runaway slaves act any differently from that? Well, the present government of the state of Israel absolutely does act like that– about the Palestinians and the asylum seekers.”