‘Dancing’ through our challenges

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow has turned 87, and by way of celebration, has written a new book — an addition to a good-sized library of previously published volumes with such provocative titles as “Godwrestling” and “Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus.” This one is “Dancing in God’s Earthquake” — a quick product of today’s pandemic, less than 200 pages. But its importance for today is not in size; rather, in ideas. As always, his cutting-edge thinking will thrill some, while pushing others over the edge themselves. 

That Waskow is controversial comes as no surprise; he’s well-known as an unreconstructed activist who has worked for years on issues still in the forefront, and certainly core parts of our recent election: civil rights, nonviolence, renewable energy and the like. He’s a leader in the Jewish Renewal Movement, founder of the peace-promoting Shalom Center, and author of “The Freedom Seder,” a Passover ritual bringing today’s civil rights and social justice issues into traditional text.

This new book is no different, but perhaps even more challenging than his others, because of its attention-attracting title and the question it immediately raises: What could “Dancing in God’s Earthquake” possibly mean? Read just a bit, and you’ll understand: From time to time, since Creation, God has sent us challenges to deal with, to make us overcome. We can see them in the Garden of Eden, in Egyptian slavery, in the Holocaust — and today, in COVID-19. How can humanity — most particularly, our Jewish humanity — survive them? Yet history shows that we have done just that in the past, and Rabbi Waskow fully expects us to do it again in our present. His suggestion for action is what he calls “dancing” — the ability to envision these challenges through an understanding of God that involves breath: God breathes with breath that is sometimes harsh; to live with it, through it and after it, to somehow do so, we must learn to “dance” with it — not in the ways of traditional dancing, but with understanding that God’s breath can shake the world with destruction, yet as the source of all, can and will also bring promises of peace afterward. This is “dancing to God’s breath, in God’s earthquake” — whenever one comes, and whatever it may be. The new book’s subtitle is “The Coming Transformation of Religion”: the author believes that after every such upheaval, including this one, new possibilities emerge for us, as the believers we are, to find and embrace. 

This is a daunting challenge when looked at it from its center, as circumstances force us to do now: masked, often sadly alone, distancing from others. But after this passes, which it will, when we look back, we can find new truth in it: Judaism was born in the “earthquake” of Eden…has survived the “earthquakes” of Egypt and Rome and Germany…and from each of these, and others, has come back greatly changed, yet stronger than ever.

Somehow, when I was very young, I picked up the idea (without ever being formally taught) that we Jews had been put on this earth for the job of proving, over and over, the very existence of God. And since that is a belief too often tested, and sometimes discarded altogether, our job — and therefore our own existence — can never end, because the world itself would die without us. I can read much of such belief into this small book, this idea that we must, in times of difficulty and actual peril like our present, breathe deeply, feel in ourselves the creative breath of God, and keep on keeping on. 

Rabbi Waskow is certainly all of these things: creative — controversial — confrontational. He is ordering us: if we want life on earth to continue, to breathe deeply, to “dance” along with the powerful breath of God through this latest of earthquakes, as we have had to do many times in our Judaic past. Ours is the challenge like no other…

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