Author or editor of twenty books on US public policy and on religious thought and practice. Public advocate on behalf of peace, civil rights, full equality for women and gay people, freedom for Soviet Jewry, and healing for the wounded earth.
He has had two somewhat distinct (though overlapping and interwoven) life-careers. From 1959 to 1982, he worked in Washington, DC on public policy concerning military strategy and disarmament, race relations, nonviolent action, the Vietnam War, and renewable energy sources. From 1969 to the present, he has been one of the pioneers in the movement to renew the liturgical, intellectual, spiritual, and political life of the American Jewish community.
Waskow was born in 1933, grew up in Baltimore, and took a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University and a doctorate in United States history (1963) from the University of Wisconsin (Madison). From 1959 to 1961, he worked on disarmament and civil-rights issues as a legislative assistant for a U. S. Congressman. From 1961 to 1963, he was a Senior Fellow of the Peace Research Institute, working on issues of world disarmament and critically analyzing official approaches to nuclear deterrence and civil defense. In 1963 Waskow joined in founding the Institute for Policy Studies and was a Fellow there until 1977.
During the years from 1959 to 1970, Waskow wrote The Limits of Defense with Marcus Raskin (Doubleday, l962), several major monographs, hundreds of articles, and five other books on nuclear strategy, deterrence, disarmament, conflict resolution, and violence and nonviolence in American social change, including From Race Riot to Sit-in (Doubleday, l965) and Running Riot(Herder & Herder, l970).
Through the l960s, he was active in writing, speaking, electoral politics, and nonviolent action against racism and against the Vietnam War. He was elected to the DC delegation to the Democratic National Convention of 1968, and was co-author of “A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority” in support of young men who were refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War.
From 1977 to 1982, Waskow was a Fellow of the Public Resource Center in Washington, D.C., where he led a long-term research project, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, on economic, environmental, technological, and public-policy aspects of community-based generation and use of renewable energy and energy conservation. In 1969, Waskow’s life took a new path, toward leadership in the renewal of Jewish life in America, which has continued to be at the heart of his work.
He took his first steps on this path by writing The Freedom Seder, a Passover haggadah that wove together the traditional Passover text with passages from Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Allen Ginsberg, Nat Turner, Henry David Thoreau, Emanuel Ringelblum of the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt, and other exemplars of liberation in several cultures and societies. It was the first Passover Haggadah to address contemporary issues and reach out beyond the Jewish community in this way. After being published in Ramparts magazine, The Freedom Sederbecame famous, and the model for many renewals of the traditional Haggadah since then.
Waskow continued as a writer, teacher, and organizer in the movement to renew Judaism. Among other books and hundreds of articles, he wrote Godwrestling (Schocken, l978); Seasons of Our Joy (Bantam, l982; revised eds., Beacon, 1991, and Jewish Publication Soc, 2012); and These Holy Sparks: The Rebirth of the Jewish People (Harper and Row, l983). In 1978 he joined in founding and became a member of the Board of the National Havurah Committee. He founded the journal Menorah: Sparks of Jewish Renewal, which in 1985 as New Menorahbecame the quarterly journal of P’nai Or Religious Fellowship and later of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, with Waskow continuing as editor.
In 1982, Waskow moved to Philadelphia, to become a member of the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He taught practical rabbinics and contemporary theology there until 1989. In 1983, working closely with President Ira Silverman z’l of RRC, he founded The Shalom Center, to gather Jewish thought and action in response to the dangers of the nuclear arms race and later of other global environmental threats.
He co-authored The Shalom Seders (Adama, 1984), Passover haggadot that explored themes of peacemaking in the Middle East and throughout the world. and with his children David and Shoshana wrote Before There Was A Before (Adama, 1985), a book of midrashic children’s stories about the Creation. From 1985 to 1987, he was a member of the liturgical committee of the P’nai Or Religious Fellowship that created Or Chadash /New Light: A New Resource for Sabbath Prayer and Celebration, and has continued to write a number of prayers and celebratory practices for Sabbath and festival use.
In 1993, The Shalom Center merged with P’nai Or, founded by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, to form ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Waskow became a Pathfinder of ALEPH. In 2005, The Shalom Center became once more an independent body with its own transdenominational board.
The Shalom Center sees itself as a prophetic voice in Jewish, multireligious, and American life. It has worked on issues of overwork in American society, the need for action toward global environmental healing, Israeli-Palestinian peace, and the dangers of resurgent militarism and out-of-control top-down corporate power. The Shalom Center has sponsored a number of gatherings to bring together younger and older generations of Jewish social-action activists.
The Shalom Center has worked closely with the National Council of Churches, Sojournersmagazine, and several Muslim groups. In 2004 it initiated “The Tent of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah” a gathering of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim clergy, teachers, and activists to explore what common approaches to world problems the three Abrahamic communities might undertake.
Out of this gathering, which met each year for nine years, came the book The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Peace and Hope for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, made up of new interpretations of the Abrahamic saga in the Bible and the Quran, written by Waskow, Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB, and Murshid Saadi Shakur Chisti (Beacon, 2006)
Rabbi Waskow has spoken and taught in hundreds of synagogues, campuses, interfaith conferences, and a variety of Christian and Muslim venues: Episcopal Cathedrals in Cleveland and Boston, two Unitarian Universalist national conferences, Quaker meetinghouses, the Chautauqua Institution, the national convention of the Islamic Society of North America,, two major interfaith conferences sponsored by the Muslim World Conference and King Abdullah of Saudia Arabia, the World Interfaith Summit on the Climate Crisis (in Uppsala) called by the Church of Sweden, the Edinburgh Peace Convocation; UNESCO in Barcelona, etc.
In the years since 1993, Waskow has written Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life (William Morrow, 1995) and Godwrestling – – Round 2 : Ancient Wisdom, Future Paths (Jewish Lights, 1996; recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award for a book on religion).
Together with Rabbi Phyllis Berman, he wrote Tales of Tikkun: New Jewish Stories to Heal the Wounded World (Jason Aronson, 1997); A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven: The Jewish Life-Spiral as a Spiritual Path (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2002); and, also co-authored with Rabbi Berman, Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness across Millennia (Jewish Lights Publ, 2011). It included chapters by Muslim and Christian scholars on the continuing religious implications of the Exodus story.
After five years of study guided by a transdenominational rabbinic committee, Waskow was ordained a Rabbi in 1995. The committee, acting under the auspices of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, was made up of four people: one Rabbi whose lineage is in the Hassidic tradition, one Reform Rabbi, one Conservative Rabbi, and one feminist theologian. Two of the four were women.
As one of the pioneers in creating Eco-Judaism, in 1982 Waskow called attention in his book Seasons of Our Joy to the long-forgotten truth that Jewish festivals were deeply rooted in the dance of Earth, Sun, and Moon. In 1995, he wrapped years of study of the importance of ecological understanding in Jewish life into his book Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life. That same year, he initiated The Shalom Center’s programs “Beyond Oil” and the Green Menorah Covenant, to make global oil companies accountable to democratic oversight and to seek alternatives to oil as energy-suppliers that do not stimulate climate disaster, war, political corruption, and devastation of indigenous communities. He was the managing co-editor of Trees, Earth, and Torah: A Tu B’Shvat Anthology (Jewish Publication Soc., 1999) and the editor of Torah of the Earth : 4,000 Years of Ecology in Jewish Thought (2 vols, Jewish Lights, 2000). He wrote “Jewish Environmental Ethics: Adam and Adamah,” for the Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics and Morality (Elliot N. Dorff and Jonathan K. Crane, eds.; Oxford University Press, 2013).
He has been a major teacher at six annual Leadership Training Institutes sponsored by COEJL (Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life) and at seven similar gatherings of the Teva Learning Alliance. Waskow and Rabbi Phyllis Berman led a week of teaching on Eco-Judaism at Kibbutz Lotan in Israel. Waskow taught the first course on Eco-Judaism given at any rabbinical seminary, at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. In 2010, he became a founding member of the Stewardship Committee of the Green Chevra, a coalition of 16 Eco-Jewish organizations. Since 2012, he has been a member of the Steering Committee of Interfaith Moral Action on Climate. He led, spoke, and took part in a series of IMAC protest religious services at the US Capitol and the White House in 2012 and 2013, culminating in an arrest at the White House on March 21, 2013, as part of an interfaith group calling for more vigorous action on the climate crisis. The Shalom Center in 2013 initiated a campaign to Move Our Money/Protect Our Planet (MOM/POP)
Waskow has also taught as a Visiting Professor in the Departments of Religion of Swarthmore College, Temple University, Drew University, and Vassar College.
He has been active since 1969, when he first visited both Israel and the West Bank/Gaza, in working for peace between Israel and the Palestinian people through a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict. He was among the leaders of Breira in the 1970s and of New Jewish Agenda in the 1980s, both of which put forth and pursued this vision in the American Jewish community. He was one of those peace activists invited to be present at the White House for the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles in September 1993.
In 1998, responding to the paralysis of the Oslo peace process under the Netanyahu government, he joined in organizing Break the Silence, a network of US Jews who spoke out publicly for renewed peace efforts, and in 1999 wrote a widely used pro-peace Passover Haggadah, “The Seder of the Children of Abraham, Hagar, and Sarah.” In 2001, he worked closely with Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel and with Break the Silence in creating the Olive Trees for Peace Campaign. In 2002 he helped to organize Rabbis for Human Rights/North America, of which he was a Board member, and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom/Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace.
Waskow has often worked to help organize and support inter-religious efforts for spiritually rooted social action. He was a member of the steering committees of the International Coordinating Committee on Religion and the Earth and of the steering committee of Choose Peace: Religious Leaders in Defense of Creation. He was a Fellow of the Churches Center for Theology and Public Policy at the Wesley Theological Seminary and was named to the 1996 Gamaliel Chair in inter-religious work for peace and justice by the Lutheran community of Milwaukee. In 1999 he organized an inter-religious working group on “Overwork in America: Freeing Time for a Free People.” He has written often for such progressive Christian journals as The Other Side and Sojourners.
He was one of the pioneers and key leaders in organizing Jewishly-rooted opposition to the Iraq War.
Waskow has been a member of the editorial boards of Tikkun, Social Policy, and The Other Side magazines. He has appeared a number of times on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and on other national and international radio and TV programs, and has published Op/Ed articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Daily News, and Philadelphia Inquirer.
In recognition of this work, in 1996 at the Habitat II conference in Istanbul, the United Nations named him one of forty Wisdom-Keepers from around the world. In 2001 he was presented the Abraham Joshua Heschel Award by the Jewish Peace Fellowship. In 2007, Newsweek magazine named him one of the 50 most influential American rabbis. The Forward (America’s leading Jewish newspaper) named him one of the “Forward Fifty,” leaders of American Jewish community and later as one of the “most inspiring” US Rabbis. He has been honored for interfaith work by the Neighborhood Interfaith Movement in Philadelphia, the Germantown Mennonite Church, the Muslim American Society, and the Association of African-American Imams in New York City.
He was named by Truah: A Rabbinical Call for Human Rights its first Lifetime Achievement honoree as a “Human Rights Hero.” In 2011, Waskow became one of the founding members of the US Council of Elders – veterans of the mid-20th-century movements for peace and justice who are renewing their commitment by connecting with the 21st-century movements for social change — “Sharing the torch, not passing it.” In 2017 the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College conferred on him the honorary degree of “Doctor of Humane Letters.”
With his brother Howard, z’l, he wrote Becoming Brothers (Free Press, 1993), a “wrestle in two voices” about their process of conflict and reconciliation.