America: Celebration and Heartbreak in One Breath

 Last week, Phyllis Berman and I taught at the Chautauqua Institution, one of the great multireligious American educational centers, founded in the 1880s.    --  During the summer, it becomes an amazing small town of 10,000 people that is entirely a retreat center.

On July 4, I was invited to read the Declaration of Independence from the steps of the Chautauqua Library; on July 5, to deliver my own Declaration for today. That evening, Phyllis and I met with a group of Abrahamic young people, and the next morning we led a Jewishly-rooted morning service of chant and prayer and Torah-study that was accessible to people of all communities.

On July 6, The Daily Chautauquan ran an article by Kelly Powell on my new Declaration. Here it is, with a few emendations to more fully unfold what I said.

Shalom, salaam, peace, Earth!  --  Arthur

Arthur Waskow calls for simultaneous “celebration and heartbreak” in America, for America

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder and director of The Shalom Center, speaks on The Declaration of Independence on Wednesday, July 5, 2017 in the Hall of Philosophy.

On July 6, The Daily Chautauquan ran an article by Kelly Powell on my new Declaration. Here it is, with a few emendations to more fully unfold what I said.

Shalom, salaam, peace, Earth!  --  Arthur

Arthur Waskow calls for simultaneous “celebration and heartbreak” in America, for America

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder and director of The Shalom Center, speaks on The Declaration of Independence on Wednesday, July 5, 2017 in the Hall of Philosophy. 

Rabbi Arthur Waskow opened his talk with a song.

He sang the final verse of “America the Beautiful” to begin his lecture, “The Declaration of Independence: What Would Jefferson Write Today?” as part of Week Two’s Interfaith theme, “The Genius and Soul of a Nation,” Wednesday in the Hall of Philosophy.

This verse includes these lyrics: “O Beautiful for patriot dream/ That sees beyond the years/ Thine alabaster cities gleam/ Undimmed by human tears!/ America! America! God mend thine every flaw/ Confirm thy soul with self-control / Thy liberty in law.”

“I think that song, that verse of the song, which was written by Katharine Lee Bates in 1893, carries within it two attitudes toward life that we mostly treat as if they’re separate,” said Waskow, founder and director of The Shalom Center. “One is celebration, and the other is heartbreak.”

During that particular year in American history, he said, “a real populist party” of farmers and workers who were struggling against “corporations that controlled practically all of America’s economic and political life.” And a new great mass immigration  had begun, into cities whose streets were rarely paved with gold and often drenched in human tears. Bates saw this, Waskow said, and these injustices broke her heart.

“At the same time, she celebrated the America that was beautiful for a dream,” Waskow said. “It was easy to say it was beautiful for prairies, for oceans; it was harder to say it was beautiful for a dream, not then and not yet achieved.”

This year, this week of July Fourth, Waskow said, many members of the Chautauqua community have approached one visiting minister with heartbreak, asking how to “cope with their grief about our country.” Waskow suggested people could respond to this grief through “celebration and heartbreak in the same breath, in the same heart.”

Waskow took note of the 13-star Revolutionary American flag on the speaker stand [see photo above], not the flag “of a great imperial country stretching across the continent with two of those 50 states in the stars, one of them in the middle of the Pacific, the other one way beyond on the continent, but a flag made by a dressmaker, a seamstress in a tiny little house in Philadelphia. It was a flag that envisioned and embodied something new. That newness needs renewing now.”

While we need to celebrate the July 4 of old, we also -- heartbroken by its faiings -- must envision something new. Waskow discussed imagining what the “best possible (Thomas) Jefferson,”  could write as a Declaration of Independence today -- independence from corporate subjugation as well as governmental despotism. 

“I am not willing to stop celebrating Jefferson as one of the great, forward-looking persons of not only American but world history,” Waskow said. “And yet, it breaks my heart that he held slaves.”

One method of “encoding celebration and heartbreak,” Waskow said, is the Jewish practice of  midrash -- the reinterpretation of a sacred text.  “We transform the text we celebrate as life expands,  as we learn both from that text and from life beyond that text.”

Waskow read the Declaration of Independence — the first paragraph as it was in 1776 and the following paragraphs with his own midrash applied, as he views the document as a sacred text.

His new Preamble read, “     When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to reconnect with all other peoples and with all the life-forms of this planet, our common home,  and to transform their own political, economic, and cultural arrangements to better celebrate and serve the laws of nature and of nature's God, a decent respect to the opinions of humankind and to the life-needs of our planet requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the transformation.

There followed a number of new “unalienable rights” -- the right to a life-giving planet where our climate is renewed as it was for our forebears, the right to jobs and leisure and health care and truly democratic elections -- and this assertion:

“We now face a political and economic system contrary to these values -- destructive of democracy and dangerous to the lives, the liberty, the prosperity, the happiness of a free people and to the web of life necessary to all these.” [For the remainder of his version of a Declaration for 2017, see 


Following the reading, Waskow asked the audience to participate in five minutes of sharing with one other person their “grief and grievances” about the current American political climate. His goal was for this to model the civil dialogue Americans could experience by “bringing our grief out to each other, to the public (and) to the community.”

He discussed three major moments when grief and grievances inspired change in American history —the time of the Declaration, Constitution, and Bill of Rights; the cluster of Constitutional  amendments after the Civil War; and the cluster of amendments during the Progressive Era. With those ideas in mind, Waskow described several amendments he would implement today.

He urged making the rights to a livable planet, decent jobs at livable incomes and hours, and universal health care equal to those in the Bill of Rights.

He called for a Constitutional amendment requiring a review of businesses “to ensure and enforce that they are meeting the needs and balancing the interest, not only of their stockholders, but also of their workers, their customers, the earth and society as a whole.”

Waskow also proposed amendments guaranteeing the right to vote for all Americans 18 or older in all elections, providing  public  funding of all election campaigns and prohibiiting all other contributions except limited amounts by actual human beings, and requiring that presidential elections be determined by the popular vote.

“But the letter of the law is never enough,” Waskow said. “It’s necessary, but it’s not enough. We face a crisis at this moment in our society because there are very large clumps of people who feel excluded or marginalized in American culture and American society.”

He listed a few of these “clumps”: the black community, Latinos, “independent-minded women,” Muslims, immigrants and the LGBTQ community.

[And he named one other large group  who now feel marginalized, and are bitter  about that status: those "old Americans" ----  white, often rural, often working-class or lower middle class in small businesses, often educated in ways other than college, who now feel themselves or their children economically  and culturally -- even spiritually -- marginalized.

[“We might call them the newly marginalized, as distinct from the "old marginalized" who have begun to insist on full participation in America -- the Black, Latino, Muslims, and LGBTQ, communities and independent -minded women, “ he explained.

[“For some but by no means all of the newly marginalized, racism or disgust with minority religions or with immigrants has become a way of affirming their own dignity by looking down on others who they think of as "beneath" them.

[“That response pits those who hold it directly against what might be called the "old marginalized" who are now insisting on being marginalized no longer.

 [“The hardest question for us all is how to act so that none of these groups is marginal, and so none of them  needs to look down on the others for the sake of their own dignity.”]

 “Spiritually, it’s just not legitimate to marginalize any human being, and politically, in the United States of America, it’s a political disaster to marginalize any group of human beings,” Waskow said.

He said the solution is “not to turn away, but to broaden” involvement with these marginalized groups – all of them.

“We are facing a horrifying attempt to impose despotism by corporations allied with the present government --  not only on America but on the whole Earth, burning our common home for the sake of hyper-profits. They benefit from this collision between the two great "clumps" of the old and the new marginalized.

“Often in the past, when the powerful have turned to despotism, there has been a Great Transformation to create new forms pf community. In response to cruel Pharaoh,  the Red Sea and Sinai – a new kind of community. In response to cruel Caesar, both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. In response to oppression in Mecca, Islam. In response to King George III, the Declaration of Independence.

“Now if ever, with American democracy and Earth itself in danger, we need a Great Transformation.

“April 4, 2018, is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death--  really, his murder.

“Dr. King was killed as he was working to create a Poor People’s Campaign to bring together people across boundaries of race, religion, and place. Perhaps that was why he was killed – so challenging would that alliance be to those who ruled America then – and still do.” 

“Could we make that day a national Day of Atonement?” he asked. “Not only atonement for our sins of exclusion, marginalization, subjugation, violence.  Also a day of — the pun is important — a day of ‘at-one-ment’ in American society, and ‘at-one-ment’ with the One beyond all organized religions Who is invoked as “’Nature’s God” in the Declaration of ‘76”?

Waskow closed his lecture by playing through the microphone “Democracy is Coming to the USA” by Leonard Cohen.

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“That song is not an easy, sweet celebration of a democracy that already exists,” he said. “It talks about how hard it was to get this far, and says that democracy is still coming, not yet here. It brings celebration and hearbreak into one breath.”


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