Dancing at an Earthquake

September 1, 2007
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Devorah Zlochower: Let’s begin with the notion of kedusha, usually translated as holiness. When I think about kedusha, as portrayed in many of our traditional texts, it seems to deal with separation. One is commanded to separate some things: certain sexual behaviors, certain foods, work on the Shabbat, and through these separations we become kadosh. God is kadosh. How do you react to this notion of holiness and separation?

Arthur Waskow:
I don’t think it’s adequate; it’s a piece of the truth but not all of it. An ecological understanding of kedusha suggests being very precise about the differences between different species and very precise about their interconnection. An ecosystem is made up of very separate beings but what makes them all livable and what makes them all alive and sustainable and survivable is that they interconnect with each other. The honeybee and a flower are really different and neither one could survive without the other. So I understand kedusha as the process of being precise about one’s own specific identity and yet knowing how it links with others’ identities.

For example, what makes the four cornered garment kadosh is the fringes on the corners, the tzitzit. The fringes remind us of the corners of a field. One can’t establish ownership of the field unless you’re willing to let the corners of the field grow food for the poor, for the landless, for foreigners. At the edges of your ownership (it’s only semi-ownership because God actually owns all the fields) your ownership blurs into the community. The same is true with the corners of myself; my identity fades into the identity of the universe. So what makes the fringe a fringe is that it’s a mixture of my cloth and the universe’s air, God’s air, the world’s air. And if I don’t allow that to happen, if I claim ownership of my cloth to its furthest edges and don’t let the edges get mixed with God’s air then this garment I’m wearing is not sacred and it’s not kadosh.

Zlochower: What’s the connection between kedusha, holiness, and mitzvah, commandment?

Waskow: A mitzvah can be a connection. The world is like a jigsaw puzzle all jumbled and each one of us is a piece in the jigsaw puzzle. To do a mitzvah is to take ourselves and the other pieces in the jigsaw puzzle and begin fitting them together to begin making the connection, sacred connection. While it may have been a mitzvah to affirm the energy associated with men—action, agentic energy—and the energy associated with women—receptivity, compassion, connection making—in our generation it’s far more of a mitzvah to understand that we are not determined solely by biology. Mitzvot change. The mitzvah to be fruitful, multiply, fill up the world and subdue it, may have governed human history up to this point. But now the human race has in fact filled up the planet and subdued it. Today, it’s no longer a mitzvah to multiply the actual number of human beings on the planet because that’s now disruptive. We have to reexamine what the meaning of that mitzvah is. Grow greater, you might say with (inaudible) and all those words as beneath (inaudible). This reflects God’s own change in the world. Ehiyeh, the God who will be, who is transforming.

I want to comment on the question of language, how we use words and the definitions we give to words and concepts. The embedded meaning of terms in Judaism for you are fluid; they have an evolution. Not only do mitzvot evolve over time, but the very terminology itself seems to change. I’m wrestling much more with words and ideas as they’ve been interpreted; those interpretations hold authority for me. And the question is how to fit myself in or how to react to that terminology.

While we would both want more fluid roles for men and women, I would not have used the term mitzvah to describe those roles ever. I would have described them as a social construct that fitted a particular time although there are certain mitzvah implications—like which mitzvot women are obligated to perform and which mitzvot they are exempted from. I’m curious about the various parameters that each of us might draw around mitzvot and acts of holiness.

What role does the tradition play and what authority does it carry? In other words, what are the boundaries of this evolutionary process? When are we still within mitzvah, within God, and within Judaism and when do we leave those realm?

Waskow: I understand the dangers of fluidity but we’re in a period of Jewish history when fluidity is both inescapable and desirable. Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi teaches that we’re encountering a second revolutionary paradigm shift that might be comparable to what happened in the shift from biblical to Rabbinic Judaism. In his book, The Ecology of Eden, Evan Eisenberg argues that the western Semitic tribes who were shepherds, hunter-gatherers, and small farmers on rocky hillsides were transformed, forced into transformation by the invention of mono-crop irrigation agriculture in Sumeria. Faced with this dilemma, they drew on and integrated Sumerian culture into their own spirituality. For instance, in the sabbatical year they became hunter-gatherers again rather than farmers. Once in seven years they reaffirmed their contract with God, which helped them survive and transformed them. And the same thing happened about 2,000 years ago when the Roman Empire shattered biblical Judaism by burning the Temple, which eventually resulted in Rabbinic Judaism.

We are convinced that what we did was respond, but Rambam teaches that animal sacrifices were never intended to be done forever; they were only an educational process to get us to grow up. Rambam is imagining a God who looks beyond the original rules toward new rules. We need to respond to God’s own inventiveness and creativity by being invested in creativity ourselves.

I’m not sure that Rambam would buy that interpretation of what he was doing.

Waskow: It’s my understanding. We’re in a crisis today—the whole planet is in a convulsion, an earthquake. Politics, economics, and the relationship to the earth and sexuality and violence are all in convulsion. So we need to learn to dance in an earthquake. It’s hard to do and it looks chaotic at first. It looks like you’re breaking all the rules because who knows the dance steps for dancing in an earthquake. I mean, you can look up everything from the samba to the fox trot to the Hasidic shuffle. The moves for all those dances are different in an earthquake; the rules don’t work. In this situation, fluidity is life giving.

Zlochower: What are the criteria for determining if this is such an earthquake?

Waskow: There is no way to know—in the moment. Looking back it always seems clearer. So we try hard. I pay attention to as much of the tradition as I can, I try to affirm what seems to be underneath some of the text, affirm what is actually in some of the text, and who knows.

Zlochower: So we’re dancing in this earthquake and we need to balance out all the forces that are at play. Are there all sorts of paths, then, that could possibly be taken and whether the tradition speaks to someone, or not, determines if one still feels mitzuva, commanded in some way. Does that raise the possibility of all sorts of different dances?

It does. And that might crystallize into a new path; how much crystallization there will be, I don’t think we know. It’s like the trek from the Red Sea to not yet Sinai. But in that trek I imagine the people walking single file. The only thing that’s holding them together is I’m in touch with the person in front of me and I’m in touch with the person behind me. And maybe I can even see three or four up and three or four back and what’s holding us together is each one being in touch that way. At Sinai, it becomes not a single file line but a community, a circle centered on God.

Kedusha is not just about being separate; it’s being conscious of your distinctiveness in connection with the distinctiveness of others. Kedusha requires community. As my wife and rabbi, Phyllis Berman, teaches, kedusha/tahara is one kind of holiness and tuma is another type — a spiritual state of inward, laser-beam focus arising from acts such as giving birth, touching death, or menstruating. It takes one not out of holiness but out of a communal version of holiness (so someone who is tamei cannot enter the heart of communal holiness, the Temple).

Zlochower: It’s very hard to map the Hebrew language onto English. Holiness is a larger concept than just kedusha. Is there anything mundane or is everything holy?

My friend and teacher Rabbi Max Ticktin teaches that in havdallah we move from kadosh to chol. Chol is from the same route as halil, a wind instrument like a flute that is hollow. It appears also in “chillul haShem.” When we take what looks like the living tree of God and hollow out all the insides, it’s not living anymore although the tree still looks like a tree and looks like it’s living. Max teaches that chol is not profane or ordinary. It is the hollow open possibility place. And on Shabbat we are filled consciously and aware of kedusha and then we move into weekday time when the open hollow time space is there for us to decide what to fill it with. The workaday week is, therefore, potential kedusha rather than actual, immediate kedusha. The world is full of the possibilities of holiness. I’m curious about how you struggle to transform Judaism.

Zlochower: I don’t think that gender roles are mandated. I’m a woman of the late 20th century and very much a product of the women’s movement and the feminist revolution. And therefore those values and my own values are definitely influencing what I’m looking for and what I’m seeing. I’m drawn to the power of a reverent critique from within. Because I draw heavily on my own biography, I was impressed by how your writing weaves your vision with your biography. That honesty is critical to me. I very much value watching how people struggle with different boundaries, how they define the areas of fluidity or flexibility.

Waskow: So let me ask you, was the move to Rabbinic Judaism a revolution or an evolution?

Zlochower: The beauty of the oral tradition is that it’s a joint Divine-human enterprise; human beings in a particular context — historical, social economic, gendered. I’m coming out of a historical and social context, which is critical to the way I look at Judaism but I haven’t put it all together as a whole system in the way that you are pushing. You’ve put together a theology but I don’t see why we must take the values of environmentalism and ecology that don’t necessarily come from Judaism, and transfuse them into a Jewish understanding.

Waskow: Our different biographies and social location influence how we approach the notion of change and seeing the world. I speak primarily to people whose connection to Torah is minimal, so I try to show them how what they thought was just nice and secular is, in fact, rooted in Torah. But you don’t have to argue that fundamental values are Jewish.

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Rabbi Arthur Waskow has been one of the creators and leaders of Jewish renewal since writing the original Freedom Seder in 1969. In 1983, he founded and has since been Director of The Shalom Center (www.shalomctr.org), and a voice in Jewish, multi-religious, and American life, drawing on Jewish and other spiritual and religious teachings to work for justice, peace, and the healing of our wounded earth. A prolific author, his latest book, The Tent of Abraham: Jewish, Christian, & Muslim Stories of Hope and Peace, is co-authored with Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, OSB, and Sufi Murshid Saadi Shakur Chisti. Waskow has pioneered Eco-Judaism as well as the synthesis of spiritually-rooted ceremony and prophetic political action in celebrating festivals and lifecycle transformations. A recent project, Beyond Oil, helps religious communities address personal and household addiction to oil and the political and economic structures that feed and intensify that addiction. He is a founding member of Rabbis for Human Rights and was instrumental in urging it to work on human rights issues in the U.S. (especially torture) as well as in Israel and Palestine.

Devorah Zlochower is Rosh Beit Midrash at Drisha Institute where she teaches Talmud and halakhah in the full-time programs. Zlochower graduated Drisha Institute’s Scholars Circle, a three-year program in Talmud and halakha. She holds an MA in political science from Columbia University. She lives with her husband and two sons in Riverdale, New York.

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