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From Jewish Radical to Radical Jew

Revisiting Arthur Waskow and his Freedom Seder

Shaul Magid
March 25, 2021
Courtesy Arthur Waskow
Arthur Waskow, at center, at the first Freedom Seder, Washington, D.C., April 1969Courtesy Arthur Waskow
Courtesy Arthur Waskow
Arthur Waskow, at center, at the first Freedom Seder, Washington, D.C., April 1969Courtesy Arthur Waskow

Arthur Waskow (born 1933) is one of the most active survivors of a radical Jewish past that began in the early 1960s and has experienced a resurgence in a new generation of Jews in America. Groups such as Occupy Judaism, IfNotNow, Truah, Bend the Arc, Judaism Unbound, Jewish Currents magazine, Resetting the Table, New Israel Fund, and others—groups proudly left wing, even radical, on Israel politics, domestic politics, or both—carry on a tradition now half a century old: a peacenik, social-democratic tradition in an American context, with a diasporic attunement to the suffering of other groups. Waskow was one of the creators of this Judaism in the late 1960s, and his involvement continues with his Shalom Center. And the story of his Jewish radicalism can be fairly dated to his Freedom Seder, in 1969—an event that remains emblematic of the mix of social radicalism and Jewish protest ritual that continues until today. I want to revisit the Freedom Seder as a watershed moment in American Jewish radicalism that has been far more influential than it’s given credit for. And I want to revisit Waskow, still causing what John Lewis called “good trouble,” not as an elder statesman but as a significant figure in this present moment.

Waskow was born and raised in Baltimore, graduating from Johns Hopkins University and then receiving his Ph.D. in American history in 1963 from the University of Wisconsin. He had little Jewish education, and he began his activist career working on nuclear disarmament and civil rights, first at the Peace Research Institute in Washington, D.C., from 1959-61. Very much a product of the nascent New Left, Waskow became part of one of the first Jewish social justice organizations, Jews for Urban Justice, founded in 1966, integrating political radicalism and protest with Jewish ritual innovation and experimentation. One of JUJ’s first protests was on Yom Kippur of that year, protesting during Kol Nidre outside a D.C. synagogue against a congregant who refused to rent apartments to African Americans. Waskow and his comrades at JUJ were also part of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign and the Delano grape strike in 1966, among many other New Left political causes. Yet still he was a Jewish radical but not yet a radical Jew (a locution he coined a few years later).

So Waskow’s road (back) to Judaism through the Freedom Seder was not preordained. Many Jews stayed on the left without becoming part of a Jewish left. But many other Jews did migrate back to their Jewish roots. Of the many reasons for this migration, two are worth noting. First, Black militant Stokely Carmichael gave an influential speech on Black Power on June 16, 1966, in Greenwood, Mississippi; he argued that Black Liberation was a movement for Blacks, by Blacks, thereby showing many of its white supporters, some of whom were Jews, the exit. Second, the New Politics Conference in Chicago in August 1967, just two months after the Six-Day War, condemned “Zionist imperialism” in its platform. Many New Left Jews were offended, even though many shared the general political inclinations of those who adopted it. For Waskow, this tension led to his migration from “Jewish radical to radical Jew”—and to the Freedom Seder, which drew 800 people to the basement of a Washington church in April 1969, the first anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. Hastily organized by Waskow and the JUJ, this Seder became a moment of commemoration of King’s murder and also a protest against the injustices of racial inequality, all structured around the exodus story. The Freedom Haggadah, composed by Waskow for the occasion, would be revised, emended, and published a year later. Passover thus became a moment where radicalism and Judaism met in the throes of the culture wars of America in transition. Liberation for one became liberation for all.

Today Jews often make a point of welcoming new friends, including non-Jewish friends, to their Seders. Historically the meal was a more exclusionary affair. Due to a rather arcane rabbinic law that gentiles are forbidden to eat of the paschal sacrifice (korban pesach), there is a tacit halachic prohibition, for observant Jews, on gentiles participating in Passover Sedarim. The celebration of freedom was thus a highly particularized one. Your desire for liberation was not a welcome voice in our celebration of freedom. Waskow’s Freedom Seder was an open repudiation of the exclusionary nature of Passover and Jewish ritual life more generally. He was a novice in the tradition when he wrote his Haggadah, barely knowing the meaning of the word “midrash.” And yet despite his limited knowledge, or perhaps because of it, a creative energy pulsated through his radical intervention.

Of course, Waskow was not alone in reinventing the Passover Seder as a radical expression of contemporary issues of servitude and liberation. Other innovative Haggadot were written, in multiple languages, long before The Freedom Haggadah—among Eastern European Marxists and Bundists, in pre- and post-state kibbutzim in the land of Israel, etc. Many Haggadot celebrated the story’s humanistic implications and the call for universal workers’ solidarity. Haggadot commemorated the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Closer to Waskow’s time, The Movement for Soviet Jewry borrowed the name “Freedom Seder” for its Passover rituals and held a “Symbolic Seder of Redemption” in April 1969, about a week before Waskow’s event. Meir Kahane composed a “Liberation Seder” for Soviet Jewry in 1970. In 1974, Aviva Cantor-Zukoff, then editor of the radical Jewish Liberation Journal, published a Women’s Haggadah that was modeled on Waskow’s original Freedom Haggadah. Ma’yan: The Jewish Women’s Project held women’s feminist Seders from the 1990s to the present.

The notion of inventing and revising Jewish rituals became a subject of scholarly attention decades later in Vanessa Ochs’ Inventing Jewish Ritual (2007) and Sonia Zilberberg’s Ph.D. dissertation, “Transforming Rituals: Contemporary Jewish Women’s Seders” (2006). But in the heady days of the late 1960s, ritual innovation was a free-form exercise, part of a larger revolutionary importation of radicalism into Jewish life that perhaps saw its most popular expression in the ubiquitous The Jewish Catalog (first edition, 1971). But Waskow’s Freedom Haggadah hit a specific nerve because it included radical, contemporary non-Jewish figures, some of whom were not necessarily friendly to Jewish causes, as heroic advocates of the Passover spirit of liberation.

Writing at the time, in the lefty publication Ramparts, Waskow noted that he wanted the Haggadah for the Freedom Seder “to assert a unity—in the form of a Haggadah—between the historic imperatives of Jewish liberation and the urgency of today’s black rebellion.” In many ways, Waskow’s Haggadah illustrates the Jewish Liberation Project’s mandate that being “Jewish” necessitated being involved in revolutionary struggles for all peoples. In Waskow’s case, this involvement now took the form of formalized Jewish ritual, reinvented to express that solidarity. “The Freedom Seder tried to develop a liturgy in ways that asserted the liberation of the Jewish People alongside the liberation of the other peoples,” Waskow wrote in his 1971 book The Bush Is Burning, “not theirs against ours, or ours against theirs. Thus it celebrated the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943 alongside the Black Uprisings of the 1960s …” It included references to Rabbi (Henry David) Thoreau, Rabbi (Hannah) Arendt, Prophet (Bob) Dylan, and Eldridge Cleaver.

Waskow’s inclusion of these revolutionaries was not intended to erase the particular nature of Jewish liberation, only qualify it. “The Freedom Seder does not dissolve all Jewish history in a universal liturgy,” Waskow wrote. “It is instead what might be called ‘multi-particularist,’ following the form and content of the Seder of the Exodus, and then showing how that history has a universally particular meaning …”

In many ways, the Freedom Seder was one part of a larger JUJ protest program involving Jewish rituals. That summer, JUJ held a Tisha B’Av service at the U.S. Capitol, combining a reading of Lamentations with protest readings against thermonuclear war. On Kol Nidre 1969, the JUJ held a protest fast at a D.C. synagogue, to raise awareness of homelessness, poverty, and hunger. In the late 1960s this was all quite innovative, part of a revolutionary program through radicalized ritual innovation, moving New Left activism into Judaism.

Freedom Seders began popping up on college campuses the following year. Of note is a Seder at the Cornell University field house that Waskow attended in the spring of 1970. Dan and Phil Berrigan (known as the Berrigan brothers) were Jesuit priests known for their antiwar activism. On the run from the FBI for avoiding the draft, Dan Berrigan, who once worked as a chaplain at Cornell, went underground. As the Seder began at the packed Cornell field house, rumors spread that he might be in attendance. The reader at the head table began the Seder with the words, “This is the bread of affliction … let all who are hungry come and eat … as the door is open not only to the hungry but also the spirit of the prophet of Elijah.” At that moment, Berrigan suddenly emerged from the crowd and joined the assembly. As Waskow tells it in The Bush Is Burning, the thousands in attendance burst into a combination of laughter and tears, and people quickly formed a human shield around Berrigan to protect him from any FBI agents who may have been there. Berrigan remained through the entire Seder. “That night [at Cornell] I faced the choice between Woodstock Nation and the Jewish People,” Waskow wrote, “and I learned that thirty-five years of struggle, of knowing that the wine of freedom accompanied by the Bitter herb, had more to teach me than the plunge into Now. In that night, and the few weeks following, I crossed the frontier from being a committed Jewish radical, to being a committed radical Jew.”

The Freedom Seder got a lot of media attention. The progressive New York radio station WBAI carried it live, and it was covered by The Village Voice and The Washington Post. Ramparts published the entire original text. One can imagine the swift and critical reaction in the Jewish world. Perhaps the most vicious critique came from a young assistant professor of Hebrew literature at Berkeley, Robert Alter, who would become an internationally renowned scholar of literature and translator of the Hebrew Bible. In 1971, he wrote a review of the Freedom Haggadah, in Commentary magazine, calling Waskow’s Haggadah “in a very literal psychological sense a perversion, because it is a document of self-loathing and self-abasement masquerading as an expression of self-affirmation.” I think Alter alleged three particular offenses: the mixing of “milk and meat”—placing Eldridge Cleaver beside Rabbi Akiva, comparing Jewish liberation to Black nationalism; the lack of Jewish solidarity similar to what Gershom Scholem said of Hannah Arendt for her Eichmann in Jerusalem, “a lack of ahavat yisrael,” love of Jews; and Waskow’s critique of Israel, which today looks quite tepid but which was then shocking. Alter also opposed Waskow’s claim that being Jewish meant fighting for the liberation of others. “We have had a Marx and a Trotsky, but there is not the slightest indication of a consensus on revolutionary politics in ‘the Jewish tradition.’” That is indeed a strange thing to say when speaking about the Exodus story. What exactly is more revolutionary than that?

While all this was serious stuff, Alter missed the true playful nature of some of these provocations. Let us recall these were times of political theater, when Allen Ginsberg and friends in 1967 tried to levitate the Pentagon (at least they didn’t try to destroy it), and Yippies threw $5 bills on Wall Street just to videotape men in Brooks Brother suits dive for free cash. Waskow’s Freedom Hagaddah was dead serious and yet was also playful and performative, as a Seder should be. Alter, far too young to be so curmudgeonly, was insulted, first by Waskow’s ignorance of the tradition at the time (this was true) but more so because he thought Waskow was selling the Jews down the river of radicalism. But Waskow was certainly not alone in using provocative rhetoric to make a political/spiritual point. In a 1963 speech published as “Religion and Race,” Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “At the first conference on race and religion, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses … The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but it is far from having been completed. In fact, it is easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.” If anyone but Heschel had said such a thing, certainly in 1963, the swords of the Jewish establishment would have been hastily drawn. Provocatively universalizing the Exodus was not solely the domain of the radical left.

Waskow responded to his critics without venom or vitriol. “Some Jews have called the Freedom Seder anti-Semitic,” he wrote. “To me it seems that only can be asserted by someone who believed that the liberation of the Jewish and other peoples is incompatible; that celebrating the liberation of Blacks and Vietnamese ipso facto means opposing the liberation of Jews; that self-hatred is the inevitable result of loving others … the Freedom Seder does not dissolve all Jewish history in a universal liturgy …” Elsewhere, Waskow stated his position more succinctly, “Radical Jews cannot, either as a matter of tactics or one of principle, ignore issues that affect non-Jews.”

The Freedom Seder was an early expression of what would become in the 1970s a more programmatic reassessment of Jewish ritual, in the Havurah and Jewish Renewal movements. It also played a significant role in the popularization of the movement for Soviet Jewry. But what of the sense that, by the 1970s, the Freedom Seder’s radical political edge had largely given way to more New Age spiritual concerns. Did political protest morph into narcissistic spiritual questing? Did radical Jew become New Age Jewish seeker?

I don’t think so. Waskow’s audacious attempt to take Passover beyond the Jewish experience, while also including that experience, expanding the Haggadah’s canonical figures such as Rabbi Akiva and his circle to include the likes of political radicals, social justice heroes, and artists, has not passed away. In fact, even as Waskow’s late-60s, in-your-face radicalism may have morphed into a gentler and even more corporate form of protest culture, its influence remains. The impromptu Kol Nidre service at Occupy Wall Street; Occupy Sukkot; and subsequently Occupy Judaism seem to me more Waskow than Alter. Alter’s critique today seems more like get-off-my-lawn-ism than a serious takedown of ritualized political theater.

Yes, suburban synagogues today house yoga classes and meditation sessions, and they host Shabbat nature retreats where congregants can pray in the woods. And how many bar and bat mitzvah students today have social justice projects as part of their training? The annual countercultural Rainbow Gathering has numerous minyanim and Shabbat tents, and Jewish Renewal has its own rabbinical program. But the radical roots of each remain. Waskow was ahead of his time, and now time has arguably caught up to him. And he has lived to see it, becoming a major Renewal rabbi, the founder of the Shalom Center, a prophetic voice who surely knows “midrash” now.

Once Judaism is reframed as a template of the struggle for justice more generally, its rituals and texts invariably reach beyond the Jewish people. This is because the Jewish experience, while distinctive, inspires many who seek to overturn all the destructive pharaohs of human history. The sharp criticisms of Waskow’s Freedom Seder in 1969 only confirm the tension Jews feel about their own fate and its universalist implications. Waskow wanted to take the Seder and offer it as a gift—a Jewish gift—to all suffering people.

Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.