Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Friday, March 18, 2016

The New Jewish Angle in the Presidential Campaign

You knew it had to come to this.

The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) has invited, as it does every four years, all the presidential candidates to speak at its national convention next week.  Among them is Donald Trump, who has accepted the invitation.  And thankfully, among many of my rabbinic colleagues, there is a plan for a protest at that appearance.  You can see some of the angst through their words at this website:  www.cometogetheragainsthate.com/#!press-1/emvb4.  The Reform movement has also been thinking about what to do, and you can see their thinking by clicking here.

It is usual for presidential candidates to present their pro-Israel bona fides to this group, and for Aipac implicitly to say to candidates that a pro-Israel position could garner them Jewish monetary support and votes in the campaign.

But this is clearly not a normal election year.

The leading GOP candidate has unbelievably gained strength among his followers through the hateful use of racist, misogynist, and derogatory language against the press and anyone whom he does not like.  He has bombasted his way toward his party’s nomination mainly on the backs of Mexicans, Muslims, and women.  And the pro-Israel community now provides this bigoted blowhard a platform from which potentially to lob insults and ignorance?!

News of this invitation to speak at Aipac came with no explanation or disclaimer about the organization’s feelings about Trump’s unusual campaign methods or irresponsible use of hateful rhetoric.  It is no surprise that groups of Jews are terribly concerned about the image of Aipac, the sense that the American Jewish community somehow endorses Trump’s hateful methods and conclusions, and the future of the relationship of Jews and the two major political parties.

Keep listening, my friends.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Muslims and Jews Celebrating Christmas Eve Together

This past Thursday evening, our Temple observed Christmas Eve by participating in the age-old Jewish tradition of Chinese food and a movie.  Well, two movies, actually.  An early film for youngsters (which drew a lot of adults, too) and a later film for a more mature crowd.  Although the event seems stereotypical, it serves a worthwhile purpose for our community and, by the sound of email and Facebook posts from colleagues, many other communities as well.

During dinner, which took place during the intermission, we hosted as our guests members of the Madina Community Mosque of Madison.  Their imam came as well, and enjoyed his vegetarian egg roll, among other great foods.  Among many other similarities, Muslims and Jews have comparable dietary customs, and everyone seemed to like Chinese food.  So it was an easy and fun evening.  But it also had a serious side and origin.

You see:  Over the last few weeks, I have been speaking to Saad, a member of the mosque and owner of a local coffee shop, about the incendiary and bigoted comments about Islam by the racist and xenophobic presidential candidate Donald Trump.  We spoke about Trump's ignorant rantings and the great number of followers that Trump has inspired.  Another notable Wisconsin example of prejudice included Bruce Hagen, the mayor of the city of Superior, who made anti-Muslim statements about President Obama over the last few weeks.

But most of our recent concern, and our conversation on December 24, focused on Trump.  The fact that most of Trump's fellow candidates, as well as many in the Republican leadership, refuse to directly and forthrightly call him out for the bigot that he is, is disappointing enough.  What is more disturbing is the degree to which, perhaps, millions of other Americans align with his views and make no excuse for it.

I recall stories my parents told me about Father Charles Coughlin, Catholic priest and radio broadcaster of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, who became rabidly anti-Semitic in his messages.  Through his broadcast speeches he brought to thousands, perhaps millions, a message of hate of Jews analogous to that of Trump's anti-Muslim mania.  The fact that Trump strives to be the next president has meant that his populism has grown broader than Coughlin's, and his meager and his followers appear oddly well-positioned for making a significant impact on the election.

Our Muslim guests welcomed our support, and we all vowed that we would meet again.  The imam and I will find ways to bring about more knowledge and understanding.  We look forward to the opportunity of getting to know one another better.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Jacob the Heel becomes Israel the God-Wrestler: Transformations in Action

(These remarks are excerpted from the D’var Torah I delivered to my congregation on Friday evening November 27, 2015.  After this service, four worshipers asked me to post this sermon online, so here it is.  Some may consider these remarks to cross the line between the pulpit and electoral politics.  I disagree.  But I further believe that irrespective of the political personalities that one may hear referenced in my comments, people of good will must call out the recent remarks of those running for the highest office of our land for what they are: racism, xenophobia, and prejudice.  And the sooner we provide them with their proper labels, the healthier a society we will have created.)

In this week’s Torah portion of Vayishlach, we witness a unique kind of transformation, as Jacob our Patriarch emerges from his birth-heritage of competition, trickery, and deceit, to the world of human relationship.  And in return for acknowledging his human frailty and for making an act of repentance, our tradition records that his name and persona are changed to reflect his new status.

In the initial part of this parashah, Jacob returns to Israel after a 20-year stay with his father-in-law Laban, and sends emissaries to Esau in hope of reconciliation.  But Jacob’s messengers return and report that his brother is marching toward him with 400 men, presumably armed. Jacob prepares for confrontation, worships, and sends Esau a gift of livestock to appease him.

That night, Jacob ferries his family and possessions across the Yabok River; he, however, remains behind and encounters a mysterious man with whom he wrestles until daybreak.  Jacob suffers a dislocated hip but still vanquishes the supernatural creature, who bestows on him the name Israel, which means “he who struggles with creatures human and divine - and is successful.”

Eventually, Jacob and Esau meet, embrace, and kiss, and go their separate ways.  Yet each one is changed; each one is transformed.  Each one expected something different from this confrontation, and each one received a sincere blessing for his future.

For Jacob – and for us – Yisrael becomes not only a place designation or a simple given name.  Yisrael becomes our identity as people who strive for meaningful purposes – and even with God – and prevail.  As we hope and pray for transformation in our own day, we too should, at the same time, anticipate a struggle: We know that nothing comes easy.  And indeed we may have to face a struggle against those who would divide our country along racial or ethnic lines.

I say this because there are some who wish to transform our nation back into a chauvinistic and xenophobic society that supports paranoia and bigotry.  These are the politicians and pundits sullying the reputation of our nation as a compassionate haven for political refugees, as they advocate for identification cards for Muslims, or the monitoring of what transpires in mosques.

Such ideas degrade our nation’s history and tradition of compassion, justice, and freedom of speech and fairness.  Nothing could be farther from what our nation stands for.

The New Colossus, our “Mother of Exiles”, which is the nickname of our Statue of Liberty, is bowing her head in shame; her torch is extinguished, for she, as a ‘mother of exiles’, knows that parents who treat their children in the manner in which candidates such as Donald Trump and Ben Carson suggest should lose their credentials as mothers and fathers.

We Jews know well the bitter sting of bigotry, and we should be in pain and despair over their outrageous proposals to establish a national registry for Muslims, or to have them carry special identification papers, establish a religious test for elected office, or to turn our backs to the refugees who desire nothing more than to come to our shores and find freedom.

The suggestion that Muslims require special documentation echoes pre-World War II Germany, when Jews were compelled to wear yellow stars, to have their genealogy noted on their identity cards, and to suffer the boycotts of their businesses.  Such proposals also sadly imitate the American paranoia of World War II, when we placed Japanese-American citizens into prisoner and work camps in this country.

Politicians attempting to score political points through the fears of our era are engaged in an obscene pastime, and we need to say “Dayeinu” to that kind of pornography.  And Americans – and other politicians – who are able to call out the bigots for their odious remarks must speak out loudly and identify the hatred for what it is.

To remain silent would mean that we have neither learned the lessons of history nor understood the message of compassion for which our country is famous, which our nation has – admittedly – not always practiced, but toward which we strive in each generation.

It is understandable for us to be fearful of terror, of being injured or killed in a battle that is not of our own making.  But when society's values are threatened, we must stand up and fight back regardless of the price.  As Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, has said, "The victims of terror are not only the dead and injured, but the very values on which a free society is built: trust, security, civil liberty, tolerance, the willingness of countries to open their doors to asylum seekers, the gracious safety of public places."

These are casualties that we must prevent.

I hold out the promise that someone – that many someone’s – will stand up to the Trump’s and the Carson’s of the world, and tell them that ‘enough is enough’, that their attitudes and comments are unwelcome.  Perhaps this is my struggle, and that of my clergy colleagues, and that of every person in America who believes in fairness and right.  It is our task to transform our national attitude, to a time when we think well, and not ill, of another person.

Similar to the Jacob story in this week’s Torah parashah, Jacob came to see in his brother not a threat, but as part of his own flesh and blood, someone who needed compassion and caring.  Jacob was able to transform his anger and fear into constructive ways of living.

Our challenge is to wonder whether we can do the same in our day and era.

[1] This is an incident reported by Rivkah Lambert on http://jewishvaluescenter.org/jvoblog/a-little-hat-story

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


Children of previous and current generations have imagined a world that John Lennon envisioned in his song “Imagine”: No heaven or hell, no national boundaries, no religion, no desire for possessions.  The message of his visionary words and lilting melody is that eliminating the primal, distinguishing desires of humanity will yield a more peaceful world.

Perhaps it was quite natural, then, that in the wake of the IS terrorist attacks of the last few weeks, residents of Paris used John Lennon’s song as a prayer, a paean that longs for a world with no religiously-inspired violence, meaning no religion.  In makeshift shrines and informal gathering places around the city, Parisians offered Lennon’s tune and words, swaying and praying for a better future.

John Lennon was correct in one aspect: As religious believers become radicalized, they come forth with hubris, threats, and eventually lethal violence against non-believers to achieve their distorted visions.  Sadly, you can find these ideas among the philosophies of some of our religious texts, which the radicals deform and misrepresent.

And further, sadly, each of the three Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism – these are the ones with which I am most familiar – can ‘boast’ its radical fringe of adherents and activists.  Fanatics who claim faithful Abraham and Sarah as their ancestral parents have used those holy scriptures to justify xenophobia, usurpation of territory, and destructive violence.

One solution would be to flee from religion altogether, as in Lennon’s vision.  Taking no risk means receiving no potential bad results.  In this view, eliminating religion means taking away motivation for aggrandizement and radicalization.

But we must not throw the baby out with the baptismal font.  Let us examine and NOT overlook the core human values of these religions' ideas.  Each one contains seeds of peace and love and humanity which can be sown and nurtured in the soil of the mind and heart.  Let us not blindly and completely abandon the wisdom of ages.

Rather, let us discover, in each faith, the statement that directs us to ‘love our neighbor as ourselves’.  Let us direct our kavannah (Hebrew for ‘intention’ or ‘devotion’) toward the preservation of life and the potential of progress for humanity.  When we can accomplish these difficult but important tasks, we will have prevailed over the radicals.  Not only that, we will have actually moved closer to John Lennon’s vision of a world “as one.”

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 5776 -- Realizing the Real and Original American Dream

 L’shanah Tovah!
I love todays Torah portion, for it recounts truly momentous events from the experience and wisdom of our people:
God’s remembering, and then acting upon, the divine promises of a son made to Sarah;
the large celebration on the day Isaac was weaned;
Sarah’s summary banishing of Hagar and Ishmael to a possible death in the wilderness;
and their eventual restoration to the human community.
What baffles me about this chapter, however, is the autocratic superiority that Sarah displays toward her hired help.  What could possibly have given her the privilege not only to get rid of Hagar her handmaiden, but also to banish this Egyptian servant to a life of homelessness and possible death?
To discover the answer to this question, wed have to review some background of the story.  Like one of those television voice-over announcers reviewing with the audience the incidents that took place before the start of the current episode – and with no apologies to my previous profession –  “Previously…in the book of Genesis…”
We first must look at the incident that took place in the Torah just before the start of todays reading.  Abraham and Sarah have just helped cure the infertility of King Avimelech, his wife, and his maidservants, foreshadowing the miraculous pregnancy of Sarah and the birth of Isaac.
Why did this occur? Well, Abraham and Sarah had journeyed to the region of Gerar, and lied to King Avimelech when informing him that Sarah was Abrahams sister and not his wife.  As penance for being caught in this lie, Abraham beseeches God for reproductive healing for this king and his retinue.
For Sarah to become the matriarch of our people, we realize that she has to emerge unscathed from this and other thorny situations, and we think that maybe there is something unique in her background that sets the stage for such privilege.  So, we return to chapter 11 to search for Sarahs lineage…but we find the Torah mute on this subject.
So now we require a “deus ex machina”, or an outside consultant.  We jump ahead in time and place to medieval France, into the study of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi, the most prolific of Torah commentators, to discover his insights.
He would turn to the camera – sorry, to us – and first note that, according to the Talmud, Sarah was the daughter of Haran, Abrahams brother.  So, at first blush, we would have to call her Abrahams niece, a relationship that could not, in ancient Israel, result in marriage.
But in a seemingly xenophobic way, Rashi would indicate that since Haran – Sarahs father – was a gentile (there were no Jews yet, after all), technically speaking Sarah has no father for purposes of Jewish genealogy.  So Sarah could be married to Abraham even though she was, by blood, his niece.[1]
From this exhausting excursion through text and time, we might come to understand something about Sarahs sense of “Israelite privilege”.  Sarah was part of Abrahams prestigious family long before Israelite religion was in vogue; along with Abraham she was an original monotheist!
So she was of high status in Israelite society from a philosophical point of view.  And by virtue of her marriage to Abraham she possessed plenty of wealth and property.  In that society, she could do whatever she wanted.
So getting rid of a servant who did not fit into the household?  Done before completing the thought!  No problem!
*     *     *     *
As we might imagine, there were significant responsibilities to being an Israelite: a life of fealty to a mysterious and unseen god; the need to follow all of this Gods commandments; a fate of becoming a race of slaves to many of our host nations; and a life of wandering and existence subject to the whims of others.
But the privileges of being an Israelite were also substantial.  Our ancestors had:
A destiny guided by a respected and superior god;
We had entree “on demand” to that god;
We had wealth and property that could be bequeathed to future generations;
And we had the feeling of belonging to a growing and dominant nation.
In consideration of these privileges, and in thinking about todays Torah portion, again it would be completely consistent with Sarahs status to dismiss a disrespectful and racially inferior servant – and her son – because of some perceived slight, even though the son was an offspring of Abraham.
Maybe she read “The Game of Thrones”; its best to marginalize the bastard son and never let him forget the stigma of his birth.
*     *     *     *
In Sarahs era, this kind of hierarchy was commonplace.  Such behavior adheres to the customs, and probably the demands, of these early years of civilizations dawning.
However, wed think that attitudes would change in the subsequent almost-4,000 years when it comes to the way we treat one another today.  Wed hope that wed have arrived to a place where the color of ones skin, or the selection of one's clothes and music, would simply represent differences in DNA and personal taste, and not be flashpoints for possible incarceration or some kind of violent culture clash.
Making such presumptions is a phenomenon referred to as “white privilege”, and it is much in evidence today.  White privilege was described most interestingly, I think, by Dr. Peggy McIntosh, senior research scientist and former associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, who oversees the Gender, Race, and Inclusive Education Project.
Of white privilege she once wrote, “I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege…So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege.  I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meantto remain oblivious.  White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”[2]
Another author brings this point home more pointedly.  Jennifer Holladay, a former director of Teaching Tolerance, a publication of the Southern Poverty Law Center, relates this incident which expanded her thinking on this subject.
“Two years ago”, she writes, “I was driving down Rosa Parks Boulevard, a street that runs through an all-black and impoverished area of town, at night.  I was looking for a house that I had never been to before, so I was driving slowly, stopping and moving as I searched for numbers on residences.
“Out of nowhere, this large police van pulled me over, blue lights flashing and sirens blaring, and a handful of well-armed police officers jumped out of the van and surrounded my car.
“I did as I was told, and got out of my car.  ‘Hands above your head; move slowly!’  I then succumbed to a quick physical pat-down, as well as a search of my car.  The officers had pulled me over – not only because of my erratic driving – but also, because, in the words of one officer, I was ‘a white woman driving down Rosa Parks after dark.  They thought I was looking to buy drugs.
“When I went to the office the next day, I relayed my story to several white colleagues. They shared my sense of violation, of anger, of rage.  These co-workers encouraged me to call our legal department and report the incident.  I later told the story to a colleague who is black and who lives on Rosa Parks.  ‘You just never have to worry about those things, do you, Jennifer?she said, and then walked off.”
In that response – in those twelve words – her black colleague starkly revealed this authors sense of privilege.[3]
Most of us might never realize it, but it is white privilege to go shopping in any retail establishment and not have to worry about being followed and observed.
And it is white privilege to not have to be concerned about educating ones children about the gang bangers that are waiting out there to pounce on unsuspecting young black children and teens.
And it is white privilege to swear aloud, or dress in second hand clothes, or not comport as society expects, without having people attribute these behaviors to the bad morals, or the poverty, or the so-called “illiteracy” of ones ethnic or racial group.
*     *     *     *
Perhaps the good news is that we have not consciously created this state.  It has come about through the complex history of our nations relationship with slavery and the passive effects of living in a majority/minority culture.
But the problem with white privilege is that it insidiously maintains and strengthens the racism that is prevalent in our nation.
You might wonder why were talking about racism and classism when those issues are, well, so 1980s.  Well, the signs which tell us these matters are still of great concern are obvious:
the problems of violence arising between police and African Americans;
Wisconsin’s incarceration of African Americans as being the highest per capita in the nation[4];
or that some fail to recognize the negative effects of food deserts on minority populations, as well as other disabilities of living in unofficially segregated communities.
These attitudinal realities demonstrate that we have far to go to alleviate the problems of race in our society.
*     *     *     *
Writing in the early years of the Great Depression, entrepreneur-turned-historian James Truslow Adams coined – in 1931 – the term “American dream”.  It is, he writes, “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement…It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”[5]
This is a beautiful dream, and its especially poignant to me that, as originally stated, it looks beyond the material success of those who survived the economic vagaries of the 1930s.
Sadly, we Americans today usually associate the term “American dream” with only personal economic success; we seem to have neglected the optimistic social imperatives of the original version of this dream.
*     *     *     *
In his recent book “Between the World and Me”, black journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates provides us a slightly different view of the American dream, and his understanding of those who choose to slumber with this idealized vision in their minds.
He writes, “I have seen that dream all my life.  It is perfect houses with nice lawns.  It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways.  The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts.  The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.  And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket.  But this has never been an option because the dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies.”[6]
Throughout his book, Coates offers a candid rendering of black perceptions of the injustices emanating from “American dream” America.  There are vignettes of:
his frightening childhood in Baltimore’s ghetto;
his understanding of school not as a place of academic possibilities but rather a refuge from the dangers of the street;
an account of the death of a friend from Howard University at the hands of Virginia police, who believed the victim had stolen his own car;
and many other confrontations with American life as a black man and parent.
It is important for white Americans to read and digest his anger, his disappointment, and his conclusions.
He comes to offer few clear prescriptions for the illnesses brought on by this so-called “American dream”.  He hopes that the reader will ‘get itand, at least, think about it.
He closes with advice: for members of the Black community in relation to the Dream and, indirectly, for those white Americans who dream this Dream with any regularity.  He says to Black America:
“Struggle for the memory of your ancestors.  Struggle for wisdom.  Struggle for the warmth of The Mecca [the academic world of Howard University].  Struggle for your grandmother and grandfather, for your name.  But do not struggle for the Dreamers.  Hope for them.  Pray for them, if you are so moved.  But do not pin your struggle on their conversion.  The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.  The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.”[7]
So be it.  If we in the white community need to struggle, then let us do so because it is the right thing to do.  And let us think of it this way:
Struggling against white privilege: is to volunteer in places like Emerson Elementary School and strike out against illiteracy and poverty.
Struggling against white privilege: is to support our African American brothers and sisters and be able to articulate proudly with them that ‘black lives DO matter’.
Struggling against white privilege: is to engage in dialogue with members of any racial or national minority, so that we can better empathize with and understand issues of poverty, inadequate employment, and fair compensation.
And struggling against white privilege: is to ensure, to the extent possible, that our employers – or the businesses that we own – provide living wages, safe work environments, and benefits that address the true needs of families in any stage of life.
Look, we cannot change the consequence of American history, or easily reverse more than three centuries of anti-Black sentiment.  But as Jews we are still required:
  • to address the question;
  • to empathize with all those who face racism and poverty in our day;
  • and to engage in the tasks of correcting injustice.

In the New Year ahead, let us seek out and find opportunities for renewing an “American dream”, a vision that now takes only a limited number of Americans into account.  For on this holy day of the New Year, we are required to imagine a different dream, one in which we can, unlike our matriarch Sarah, learn to treat others as we would like to be treated.
We can envision a world in which we resurrect the fullest possible definition of James Adamsdream, where “each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”[8]
Im tirtzu, ein zo aggadah.”  If we truly desire this, it will remain a dream for only a bit longer before we turn it into a reality.
Lshanah Tovah.
(Sermon Anthem – “Aint Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round”)

[1] Rashi’s comment on Genesis 20:12: "My sister, the daughter of my father": And the daughter of one’s father is permitted to a Noahide [for marriage], because a gentile has no father [his lineage is not traced from his father]. And in order to justify his words, he answered him in this way. Now if you ask: Was she not the daughter of his brother? [The answer is that] grandchildren are considered like children (Tosefta, Yev. 8:8; Talmud Bavli, Yev. 62b); therefore, she was (considered as) Terah’s daughter [and would, therefore, be Abraham’s sister]. And so did he say to Lot, “For we are kinsmen” [lit. men, brothers], from Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 36.
[2] “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, Peace and Freedom Magazine, July/August, 1989, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Philadelphia, as cited at http://amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html
[5] The Epic of America, Little, Brown, and Co, 1931, p.214-215.
[6] Coates, Ta-Nehisi, “Between the World and Me”, Spiegel and Grau, New York, p. 11.
[7] Ibid., p. 151.
[8] The Epic of America, Little, Brown, and Co, 1931, p.214-215.