Saturday, October 4, 2008

Arthur Waskow's "Down-to-Earth Judaism": Book Review.

Over the High Holidays, the Days of Awe mandated for reflection and recouping, I figured I'd finally read a book on my shelf at least a dozen years, by a pioneering leader in the Jewish Renewal movement, an antiwar activist who turned his concern for social justice into his faith and his action. Waskow writes with a predictable mix of insight and utopianism. He's not a skilled synthesist of the many strands from three thousand years of the tradition, nor could he be. He simply adds his voice to those preceding him, if with an emphasis upon raising at least as many questions as he answers. This is a compendium of his thoughts more than a blueprint for particular remedies to what Waskow diagnoses as the malaise afflicting many Jews today. Modernity, from Columbus to the Holocaust has faded; we live in a gap between what was for Judaism and what will be, perhaps not shown fully until three centuries or so from now.

Meanwhile, Jews must reconstruct what works for them from the previous centuries. The Biblical period he characterizes as body-centered in ritual, gesture, agriculture, herding, and the land of Israel. The Rabbinical period brought a shift forcing the Jews into the diaspora, into money rather than land as their source of livelihood, and into a word-based reliance upon debate, exegesis, and Talmud that expanded upon Torah. Modernity moved Jews into confrontation and incorporation with the wider Christian ethos and capitalist hegemony, into political, social, and economic actions that assimilated many of the tribe, forced others into retreat, and left many caught between giving in and holding out.

Where are Jews perched today? At the cusp of a new age, one that Waskow suggests can finally provide women a role that they have been not allowed before; sexual practitioners a variety of commitments and expressions denied them by a Leviticus-centered, primitively male-based system of control over women's bodies; and one that asserts an eco-kosher awareness of the ties between labor, ecology, and what we eat, wear, and consume. He offers level-headed proposals for sanctifying sexual relationships outside of marriage that he labels "zug." He's confident when he examines how kosher should be based on much more than the rules governing slaughter; the effects of his model can be seen bearing fruit thirteen years later in the current widening in the Jewish Conservative movement of kosher certification into moral corporate policies and adherence to ethical treatment of workers.

Mixing food, money, sex, and the necessity for "the rest of life" modelled on Shabbat as a mirror of the divine day of recuperation after work, Waskow raises hundreds of possibilities that we may, or may not, consider in integrating these aspects of Judaism. By studying the biblical and rabbinical texts, peppering them with contemporary scholarship and interpretation, Waskow presents what would be a valuable resource for study groups, philanthropists, havurot, and those who wish less formal and more energetic ways to make their Jewish identity matter in the microcosm of their ethnic and religious realms as well as the global macrocosm.

However, these goals being set, does Waskow, as Jews consider when translating "sin" as "missing the mark," always hit his target? He does score some bullseyes. His discussion of the interpenetration of the Shekinah feminine with the masculine "sky-god" presence, his explanation of how Lurianic kabbalah conceives the primordial fall from purity into shadow, and his pithy metaphor show his rapport at his best. Speaking of disenchanted Jews tired of institutions but still partaking of its ceremonies in hope for a rebirth of wonder, he notes how: "They are startled to hear that what tastes dry and empty may be freeze-dried food-- delicious, once some living juice, some heat, a pinch of spice are added." (2-3) This revigoration he tries to spark.

Yet, I sensed often he may be preaching not only to the converted but the coddled in a cocoon of petit-bourgeoisie liberal comfort in some gentrifying urban district. Speaking of cutting back on our toil so as to open up space for "the loving, murmuring, sacred kitchen," he suggests how "we may need to explore some wider social changes: shorter workdays, less commuter time, a four-day workweek (what a delight for making Shabbat holy!), less overtime-- one or more of these life-style modifications, with little drop in salary, or a broad rescaling of how much money each household needs to make." (87)

Part of me agrees completely, and I understand how so much of what we consume comes from the excuses that it will make our lives of toil easier, even as we work harder and longer to pay for such luxuries away from home and family. He's right. But another part of me wonders how many people practically will be able to make these modifications given parlous financial situations.

Waskow and those whom he addresses appear more than once here to be rather removed in their comfort zones from the rest of us. At another representative point, he provides an example that I suspect many will find unrealistic in reordering what we spend our money on vs. the advantages gained for our spirit:
"Are you considering spending the next six months at a Zen retreat?" He brings up thoughtful advice, and this is admittedly one of hundreds of scenarios-- still, I wonder about the alternatives he invents: "What will be the comparative advantages for [others] and for you if you play the sax in a nightclub jazz quartet, if you give every cent you have to an AIDS hospice, if you spend every Shabbat in a neighborhood shtiebl?"(236-37)
I doubt if many "down-to-earth" readers a decade later agonize over such options. As an aside, many such Yiddish terms aren't explained, and despite the everydayness, such as it is, of much of his spiel, he does appear to be writing this for quite an educated audience of his peers.

On the balance, the previous reactions posted to this book have been sharply negative or uncritically positive. Mine's appropriately in the middle. It's all over the scriptural map and cultural record. Much gets raised without closure, but those familiar with how Jewish thinkers and doers wrestle with Torah should be encouraged. I wearied of him dancing in earthquakes and mooning over rainbows, but it may be a generation gap and an understandable indulgence. He certainly highlights many recondite passages, erotic poems, and academic findings you'd never hear at the usual Yom Kippur sermon.

Many readers may find their own prejudices against such counterculturally-inspired experimentation with the rabbinic and biblical precedents reconfirmed. And, many others may delight in how Waskow in true yeshiva fashion keeps asking away whatever comes to mind. He's boldly plowing on without waiting for solutions, striving to continue a vigorous and unpredictable conversation that's lasted three thousand years.

(Nearly all of this posted today to Amazon US.)

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