The Spiral Dance of God

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 9/2/2003

The festivals we are entering are both unique to the Jewish people and universal in their meaning. For the peoples of the Northern Hemisphere, it is the time of harvest in the solar year, time to reflect upon our efforts: Have all our hopes and deeds brought fruitfulness, or emptiness? And since they have probably brought forth both, how do we celebrate what good we have wrought and turn from our mis-doings into renewed joy and dedication?

This need to pause to reflect uopon our selves, our deeds, our souls, is one we share with all humanity: Ramadan, Lent, and other times throughout the year that are set aside for quiet meditation.

Yet Jews of course shape this time in our own way. By our count, this is the seventh "moonth," the month in which our counting of the seven days of rhythmic, restful time arises to the seventh spiral of the moon.

So this seems a good time to draw on what the history of the Jewish people can offer as possible wisdom to other great communities of earth and to the planet as a whole, in this moment of our planetary crisis.

Not just the wisdom encoded into Torah as a crystallization of that history, but the history itself, seen from just outside its own boundaries.

There are three such wisdoms that to me seem especially important today:

One is the sheer fact that the Jewish people lived through an earthquake of change two thousand years ago, as Hellenistic-Roman civilization shattered Biblical Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and several centuries later Islam emerged out of spiritual searchings in the midst of that earthquake.

Even more important, Rabbinic Judaism especially was able to see itself as continuous with what had gone before. A Martian might have compared the Rabbis to Leviticus and said "You are not the same culture at all!" but the Rabbis evolved a way of thinking and doing that preserved the Jewish people sense of its continuity.

The key to this transformational continuity was the practice of "midrash": taking an ancient text or practice and twirling it into a new configuration. Not bowing down to the ancient wisdom, not turning away from it. Reinterpreting it and understanding that it is a sacred task to reinterpret. A sacred task to change the meaning of the sacred text.

Not a closed circle to repeat the past, not a straight line into the future, but a spiral. Always going back, in order to go forward.

A second Jewish teaching that could be of benefit to all communities is the sense of time as a rhythmic pattern of Doing and Being, Making and Loving, Acting and Reflecting. In its simplest form, this is embodied in the Sabbath day of pausing and in the sabbatical month and the sabbatical year and the sabbath of sabbatical years, the Jubilee.

In a more complex form, Judaism embodies this in Ten Days of Reflection in the fall of every year, stretching from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. And in the teaching that as we move through every workday, we should pause at least one hundred times to bless the Unity that gives us bread, or lightning, or a decent job and income, or the reconnection with a long-absent friend, or even a brush with death.

This second gift is connected with the first. For it is through this rhythm of Acting and Reflecting, this spiral in time, that the spiral of midrash and the renewing of a people becomes possible. We pause from repeating our behavior, from doing the same act over and over and over pause to reflect, to feel, to think anew.

From this time of gazing into the quiet pool of our own self-awareness to see the changed face we wear this morning, this week, this month, this year, this generation from gazing into the pool, we understand our tradition, our wisdom, our world and our selves differently. We can act anew.

The third gift is that the Jewish people has united in its consciousness the sense of being an "indigenous people," connected to the rhythms of a specific piece of earth, and a "world people," scattered around the planet. This synthesis has not been smooth or easy, and it is being reshaped at this very moment.

(With more intensity in both directions: Some Jews are feeling more than ever before connected with and agonized over that piece of earth that they have yearned for, this past two thousand years; and some are feeling more responsible than Jews have ever felt before for the healing of the planet as a whole.)

Yet in all its fits and starts and awkwardness, the very attempt to unite a landed, earthy consciousness with planetary awareness is something the other religious traditions, both "indigenous" and orld-wide," might explore in their own terms.
Part of what enabled the Jewish people to do this is that it is a small people. A few millions, compared to the billion and more that make up Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, the Chinese amalgams of Buddhism and Confucianism and Marxism.

One advantage of a small people is that perforce it sees itself as part of a much larger, complex whole. It is drawn by necessity toward affirming what might be called a "cultural ecology," toward affirming its intertwinings as well as its uniqueness.

The religious and spiritual communities that have become inured to their own gigantic size might learn to look within and beyond, for delicate differentiations.

We can we must — draw on analogies from past events and previous teachings. But never before have we been able to reshape the genetic substrate of the human race, to take charge of our own evolution. Never before have we been able to destroy all life upon the planet. Never before have we been able to weave together the genetic legacies of a spider and a goat.

These powers have before now belonged only to a God Who was utterly beyond us. Yet now the God Who held these powers has placed them in our own hands. As the nuclear scientuist, Oppenheimer, said as he watched the first atomic bomb explode, "We are become God, shatterer of worlds." Now we must become God, Nurturer of worlds.

That is the real God speaking to us, in us, on us. The God Whom Torah and Gospel and Quran tried to give us. The real God does not live encased within those teachings. Those teachings live and breathe in the real God.

Mountain Sinai is whirling over our heads again, ready to fall and crush us, ready to fill with light and guide our way.

Our crisis is that we are living in the midst of a great dance of God. The dance spirals from greater Control to greater Community — from greater mastery over our planet and each other to a deeper sense of the Mystery that calls on us to live together.

This process began long before the human race was born. One way to describe evolutionary and human history is as a spiral from generation to generation: From greater Control (over the earth and then other human beings) to deeper and broader Community (bringing together the earth and then other human beings), followed by new advances in forms of Control that bring on deeper and broader forms of Community.

For example: The amoebae that mastered control over nearby nutriment-bearing water needed to learn to interact with other forms of life, if they were not to use up all the nearby nourishment and die. They "invented" a way to become multi-celled cooperative creatures — a new form of community.

Once these cooperative creatures emerged, they learned to master more of their environs. The level of control advanced. Control, I-It, bred Community, I-Thou; and then Community bred Control. And so on.

A spiral of change.

We have the great fortune and the great misfortune to be living in the moment when the human race, through what we call Modernity, has leaped further forward inthe direction of control than has any other species ever on our planet. And now we must dance the other step, the one that draws Being, Mystery, Community into the world.

We ARE the other step. Jewish renewal, Christian renewal, Muslim renewal, Buddhist renewal, Pagan renewal — we are this era's second step in the dance of God. We are the step of Community that must dance well, if our peoples and our planet are not to be consumed by Control that is out of control, by Making that makes a mockery of making.

The world has become an earthquake. There is no way to stand still upon it, for the earth itself is leaping. Our only hope is to join the dance.

This year at harvest time when we reflect upon our lives, we are called to dance more deeply, more joyfully, more creatively, in the very midst of earthquake.

* Rabbi Waskow is Director of The Shalom Center,, a division of ALEPH; author of Godwrestling — Round 2 and Seasons of Our Joy; and co-author of A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven.

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