Subversive Prayer in Time of War – to Shatter Pyramids of Callousness by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

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Updated:  1.12.09 added a video; see below

Reposted with permission from Rabbi Arthur Waskow from the Shalom Center

From the latest email:

by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Two weeks after the outbreak of carnage and war in Gaza and in Southern Israel, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, as children die from bombs made with our money, as the present government of the United States refuses to act to end these wars — our communities gather for Jumat, for Shabbat, and for the Lord’s Day.

We gather to pray and to learn what God teaches.

We are sending you several prayers and several passages of wisdom about war, peace, and the fearful silence that refuses to confront them, from Dr. Martin Luther King and from his close co-worker Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

They are Torah and Prophecy in the broadest sense. We encourage you to use them in all our communities.

This is no time for solidarity with governments – American, Palestinian, or Israeli. It is a time for solidarity with God — the God Who is Compassion and calls for compassion, Who demands that we seek peace and pursue it even when it is running away from us, Who reminds us that in the suffering of a human being mangled and killed, God’s Own Self is mangled and killed.

Rabbi Heschel taught that prayer, which he called the song the universe sings to itself, is useless unless it is subversive — shattering pyramids of callousness. He also taught that some kinds of political action – not all – could become a form of prayer, as when he said after marching for voting rights alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, “I felt that my legs were praying.”

May our prayers this weekend be subversive, shattering our own callousness; may our political actions become forms of prayer, undertaken for peace; may our prayers of grief for the maimed, the dying, the dead become acts of determination to end these wars.

Our first offering is a passage from Dr. King’s greatest speech, given on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his death at Riverside Church in New York City. He speaks about breaking the hush of obedience and conformity that surrounded the Vietnam War, and about the vision of a world committed to hope and love.

There follow two stories from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a friend and close co-worker of King’s — one on “The Meaning of This War [World War II],” written in 1943 as he knew his own family and millions of others had been killed by the Nazis — and the other on Vietnam. Heschel’s yohrzeit (death-anniversary) falls on January 14; King’s real birthday is on January 15 and the national observance on January 19.

After that come a Mourners’ Kaddish In Time Of War & Violence (in Aramaic, Hebrew, & English), and a special prayer for the safety of the children of Gaza – the children of Hagar and Ishmael.

— Rabbi Arthur Waskow


[From “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” a speech given by Dr. King to the assembled “Clergy and Laymen [sic] Concerned About Vietnam,” at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967. ]

Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.

Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement well and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.


I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.”

Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept — so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force — has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John:

Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late.

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.


[From Abraham J. Heschel, “The Moral Outrage of Vietnam,” in Vietnam: Crisis of Conscience, edited by Robert McAfee Brown, Abraham J. Heschel, and Michael Novak (Association Press, Behrman House, & Herder and Herder), p. 51-52, 56.]

Gathering at prayer in Washington DC in 1967 for a multireligious vigil to protest the Vietnam War, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explained why he was protesting the war by telling a story about a child learning Torah in a Hassidic cheder. It is not entirely clear whether the story is literally about his own childhood experience or was a story known in the Hassidic community:

Heschel told how a seven-year-old for the first time read the Torah story of the binding of Isaac, of Isaac’s near death at the hand of Abraham as the knife came flashing down. He recalls that the child began to weep in fright and compassion.

” ‘Why are you crying?’ asked the Rabbi. ‘You know that Isaac was not killed.’

“And the child said to him, still weeping, ‘But, Rabbi, supposing the angel had come a second too late?’

“The Rabbi comforted and calmed the child by telling me [sic!] that an angel cannot come late.”

And then Heschel added his own comment as an adult, explaining why he needed to take part in this protest against the war: “An angel cannot be late, but man, made of flesh and blood, may be.”

And he continued, “Has our conscience become a fossil? Is all mercy gone? If mercy, the mother of humanity, is still alive as a demand, how can we say Yes to our bringing agony to the tormented nation of Vietnam?”

[From “The Meaning of this War [World War II],” in Moral Grandeur & Spiritual Audacity (Schocken), ed by Susannah Heschel. Written in 1942. ]

EM B L A Z O N E D O V E R the gates of the world in which we live is the escutcheon of the demons. The mark of Cain in the face of man has come to overshadow the likeness of God. Ashamed and dismayed, we ask: Who is responsible?

History is a pyramid of efforts and errors; yet at times it is the Holy Mountain on which God holds judgment over the nations. Few are privileged to discern God’s judgment in history. But all may be guided by the words of the Baal Shem: If a man has beheld evil, he may know that it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent; for what is shown to him is also within him.

Let Fascism not serve as an alibi for our conscience. We have failed to fight for right, for justice, for goodness; as a result we must fight against wrong, against injustice, against evil. We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war

Indeed, where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation? When raving madmen were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed?

Tanks and planes cannot redeem humanity. A man with a gun is like a beast without a gun. The killing of snakes will save us for the moment but not forever. The war will outlast the victory of arms if we fail to conquer the infamy of the soul: the indifference to crime, when committed against others.


A Jew’s prayer for the children of Gaza

By Bradley Burston

If there has ever been a time for prayer, this is that time.
If there has ever been a place forsaken, Gaza is that place.
Lord who is the creator of all children, hear our prayer this accursed day.
God whom we call Blessed, turn your face to these, the children of Gaza,
that they may know your blessings, and your shelter, that they may know light and warmth,
where there is now only blackness and smoke, and a cold which cuts and clenches the skin.

Almighty who makes exceptions, which we call miracles, make an exception of the children of Gaza.
Shield them from us and from their own.
Spare them. Heal them. Let them stand in safety. Deliver them from hunger and horror and fury and grief.
Deliver them from us, and from their own.
Restore to them their stolen childhoods, their birthright, which is a taste of heaven.
Remind us, O Lord, of the child Ishmael, who is the father of all the children of Gaza.
How the child Ishmael was without water and left for dead in the wilderness of Beer-Sheba, so robbed of all hope, that his own mother could not bear to watch his life drain away.
Be that Lord, the God of our kinsman Ishmael, who heard his cry and sent His angel to comfort his mother Hagar.
Be that Lord, who was with Ishmael that day, and all the days after.
Be that God, the All-Merciful, who opened Hagar’s eyes that day, and showed her the well of water, that she could give the boy Ishmael to drink, and save his life.
Allah, whose name we call Elohim, who gives life, who knows the value and the fragility of every life, send these children your angels.
Save them, the children of this place, Gaza the most beautiful, and Gaza the damned.
In this day, when the trepidation and rage and mourning that is called war, seizes our hearts and patches them in scars, we call to you, the Lord whose name is Peace:
Bless these children, and keep them from harm.
Turn Your face toward them, O Lord. Show them, as if for the first time, light and kindness, and overwhelming graciousness.
Look up at them, O Lord. Let them see your face.
And, as if for the first time, grant them peace.

With thanks to Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman of Kol HaNeshama.


Yitgadal V’yit’kadash Shmei Rabah

May Your Great Name, through our expanding awareness and our fuller action, lift You to become still higher and more holy.

For Your Great Name weaves together all the names of all the beings in the universe, among them our own names,
and it is we who give You the strength to lift us into holiness — (Cong: Amein)

B’alma di vra chi’rooteh v’yamlich malchuteh b’chayeichun, u’v’yomeichun,
u’v’chayei d’chol beit yisrael, b’agalah u’vzman kariv, v’imru: — Amein.

— Throughout the world that You have offered us, a world of majestic peaceful order
that gives life to the Godwrestling folk
through time and through eternity —- And let’s say, Amein

Y’hei sh’mei rabbah, me’vorach, l’olam almei almaya.

So may the Great Name be blessed, through every Mystery and Mastery of every universe.

Yitbarach, v’yishtabach, v’yitpa’ar, v’yitromam, v’yitnasei, v’yit’hadar, v’yit’aleh, v’yit’halal — Shmei di’kudshah, —

Brich hu (Cong: Brich Hu)

May Your Name be blessed and celebrated, Its beauty honored and raised high, may It be lifted and carried,
may Its radiance be praised in all Its Holiness — Blessed be!

L’eylah min kol bir’chatah v’shir’atah tush’be’chatah v’nehematah, de’amiran be’alma, v’imru: Amein (Cong: Amein)

Even though we cannot give You enough blessing, enough song, enough praise, enough consolation to match what we wish to lay before you –
And though we know that today there is no way to console You
when among us some who bear Your Image in our being
are slaughtering others who bear Your Image in our being –

Yehei Shlama Rabah min Shemaya v’chayyim { aleinu v’al kol Yisrael, v’imru Amein.

Still we beseech that from the unity of Your Great Name
flow a great and joyful harmony and life for us and for all who wrestle God; (Cong: Amein)

Oseh Shalom bi’m’romav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol yisrael v’al kol yishmael v’al kol yoshvei tevel — v’imru: Amein.

You who make harmony in the ultimate reaches of the universe,
teach us to make harmony within ourselves, among ourselves —
and peace for the Godwrestling folk, the people Israel;
for the children of Ishmael;
and for all who dwell upon this planet. (Cong: Amein)

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Gaza Shalom Salaam


January 9, 2009


A Time to Break Silence By Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967)

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence By Rev. Martin Luther King (video; transcript)

Send a message to the new Congress asking for a ceasefire (action alert)

Racism Against Jews Is Not Acceptable

Take Action: Enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1860 Now!

7 thoughts on “Subversive Prayer in Time of War – to Shatter Pyramids of Callousness by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

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  5. Once again the Middle East has exploded into violence, and US taxpayers are paying for the bombs. The US government squanders hundreds of billions of dollars each year on militaristic policies that are not making anyone safer. True security comes from living peacefully, within the Earth’s limits, and ensuring that everyone’s basic needs are met.
    Sign the petition for a Secure Green Future from We’re telling President Obama to cut military spending at least 70% and invest the money saved in education, health care, preventing home foreclosures and developing green energy.

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