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!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Orlando Memoriam and Action Plan

This is a letter I sent to my synagogue community yesterday about the horrendous events that occurred in Orlando this past weekend.

Dear Temple Beth El Family,

I am heartbroken over the senseless loss of life that has occurred at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. I am also angered by the overt and ongoing prejudice that this act represents.  Together with all Americans of good will, I am moved to ask you to join me in standing up to hatred and bigotry wherever we find it.

This grim and horrible terrorist attack on an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando leaves me shocked and stunned, and we as a nation must acknowledge the tremendous pain that we feel: as individuals mourning with families who have lost loved ones and as a nation again brutally wounded by anti-LGBTQ violence. And at the same time, we are again perplexed as to why we cannot find an answer to the scourge of gun violence.

We must support members of the LGBTQ community, across the nation, in our city, and in our congregation. At a time when they hoped to observe and celebrate Pride Month, they confront grief. At a moment when the LGBTQ community is emerging from the fearful shadows of prejudice, they face disaster. We must let them know that we support them against homophobia, racism, and the fear of the stranger. Like our ancestors who wandered through the desert, we, too, sometimes wander through the wilderness, trying to discover the way toward social harmony and tolerance.

Let us begin to take strength in the teachings of our tradition, that each of us are made in the image of the Divine, and therefore each of us deserves respect, dignity, and honor. Then we can respond as people who decry such violence and prejudice, and do what must be done.

Further, let us respond by offering more than prayers and thoughts. Let us pledge to stand up and speak out against racism and homophobia wherever it appears: whether at work, in our families, in letters to the editor, and in any other place where we observe those afflictions. This is how we begin to make our stand for anyone who suffers from the hate and fear of others.

Please call or write me if you have any questions or concerns.


Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Thank You, Donald Trump

(The following message represents my opinion only, and in no way reflects the synagogue for which I work, nor any non-profit organization with which I am affiliated.)

Thank you, Donald Trump.

Yes, though some have expressed great concern over the candidacy of Donald Trump for President, I think Mr. Trump deserves our gratitude for many lessons he has taught us in the past twelve months or so.

Thank you, Mr. Trump, for helping expose how much more progress our country needs to eradicate racial, religious, and ethnic intolerance. We thought we had advanced in the struggle against hatred, bigotry, and xenophobia. After all, since the moment, 90 years ago when the United States once decided to close its borders to large waves of immigrants, our nation nonetheless found ways to welcome the stranger and increase its acceptance of religious, ethnic, and foreign minorities. Seeing the mindless anger and passions among the people whom you have incited at your rallies with anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican speech, however, has demonstrated that nativist and xenophobic passions still rule the hearts and minds of many Americans, and that our work in the realm of tolerance is nowhere near complete.

And thank you, Mr. Trump, for bringing forth the same prejudicial emotions about Native Americans as well. We see your audiences decrying those who proudly possess Native American ancestry, and it is recalled to us how the struggle for rights of this beleaguered minority must be continued.

Thank you for reminding us that gender equality in America is still a goal to be achieved.  Your sexist insinuations, your degrading of women, your betrayal of the notion of a truly egalitarian society, your willingness to accept women earning 20% less than men, your willingness to endorse the sexual objectification of women: all these have moved many in this country to rededicate their efforts to bring equality to our land.

Thank you for helping us remember the reasons our nation finally entered, fought, and won the second World War.  World War II was, in part, a struggle against authoritarianism, which we sought to overthrow.  You know, as messy as democracy may be, we adopted it as our nation’s system of government 240 years ago. Since then, our country has fought against fascism many times, and thanks to your authoritarian rhetoric and dictatorial approach in your public demeanor and your campaign, you remind us once again of the values that led us to choose to be ruled in democratic ways, and to follow the rule of law.

Thank you for encouraging us to advocate for increased voter registration, convenient and early voting, and ‘getting out the vote’ efforts on election day.  By erecting virtual and real roadblocks to polling places, you and fellow extremists across the nation have energized Americans to widen the voter rolls and bring disenfranchised people to the polls.

Between now and election day, I feel confident that there will be many ways to offer our gratitude to you for enlivening our passions and bringing people together to engage in social justice and social action activities. I am sure we’ll will thank you many times for impressing upon us the preciousness of democracy, the need for citizen involvement, and the preciousness of all of Earth’s children, not simply the ones who look like you.

(The preceding message represents my opinion only, and in no way reflects the synagogue for which I work, nor any non-profit organization with which I am affiliated.)

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