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!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Black Men, Police Violence, and the Urgency to Act

When our sage Hillel writes, “If not now, when?” he underscores the immediacy of addressing pressing issues in a timely way.  For our society today, it is imperative that we resolve the manifest problem of violent police attitudes and behavior toward young black men.  The disproportionate incidence of police mistreatment of black youth, leading to violence and death, is an offense to our civilized society, and bespeaks a certain prejudice that still inhabits the hearts and minds of some law enforcement personnel.

Our tradition instructs that each person has been made in God’s image, and we must, accordingly, treat each of God’s creatures with equality, dignity and worth.  The disproportionate occurrence of violent death of unarmed black youth at the hands of police, from Staten Island to Oakland, and even in our own state of Wisconsin, clearly demonstrates that we have great difficulty actualizing this value in our nation, and that we must not permit such tactics to continue.  We must, as a nation, cure the illnesses of mistrust and bigotry that plague us.

The protest demonstrations that have been occurring regularly address the apathy of our nation that prohibits us from resolving this problem.  They emphasize the urgent need to recognize our shortcomings and solve them.  And they echo the sentiment of Hillel, who directs us not to tarry when a need is so immediate and vital.

We pray that, in our day, we can work to repair the human divisions that still estrange one group of people from another.  May God give us the strength to do so!

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Jewish Values Viewpoint on Collective Punishment: A D'var Torah for Vayishlach

The Torah portion for this week, Vayishlach, cautions us against the practice of collective punishment,  a form of retaliation whereby a suspected perpetrator's family members or acquaintances are punished, even though they may have no direct association with actions and motivations of the perpetrator.  This is a lesson for us all, regardless of where we live, or where our loyalties lie.

As our parashah begins, Jacob is on his journey away from his father-in-law: He has left Laban’s employ a wealthy man.  And although we read this week that he assumes the noble name Yisrael – striving with God – this designation seems still to be one of potential rather than one of accomplishment (see Gunther Plaut).

Jacob’s sons disappoint him because of their wanton destruction of Hamor’s town, on account of the rape of Dinah.  They perpetrated the murder of every male in the city, and they seize the town’s women and children, and all its property, as the spoils of battle.  And all this as retribution for the crimes of two of the town’s citizens.

The description of the booty taken by Jacob’s sons includes a word that could be seen as redundant.  Therefore it is ripe for interpretation!

In addition to the ‘flocks and herds,’ the ‘children and their women,’ and ‘all that was inside the town and out’ – phrases about the spoils that imply that they took everything that wasn’t fastened down – they took also what the Torah calls “kheilam” (Genesis 34:29).  Many translations render this word as “their wealth.”  But this word can also be translated as “their strength” or “their vigor;” I suggest, in this context perhaps, even “their dignity.”

The implication:  Jacob’s sons purloined the very humanity from the population of an entire town because of the crimes of two boorish perpetrators.

There is no doubt that Shechem’s rape of Dinah, and his father’s willingness to keep her hostage during these negotiations, are crimes worthy of punishment.  But our Jewish conscience is offended at the collective punishment of the entire city.

Our traditional revulsion at this act, however, has not prevented something similar from happening in our time.  Israelis have recently borne witness to the reinstatement of house demolitions as a “deterrent” against the families of terrorist suspects, and many of us have reacted to this resumption with disbelief.

It was not long ago that these collective punishments were deemed by the Israeli justice system to be illegal.  And their reappearance is a haunting reminder that, in every generation, we must be on guard to protect the civil liberties all of Israel’s citizens.

When Jacob realizes that his sons have taken revenge to a frightful level, he worries only about what people will think of him, and how his personal reputation will be sullied.  For us who understand how these collective punishments in the West Bank and in Israel proper will negatively affect the future of Israeli-Palestinian relationships, we recognize a broader imperative, which is to strive toward a re-imposition of a ban on such punishments, and to ensure due process in all criminal proceedings.

In these ways we strengthen democracy and decency in the Jewish state.  May our efforts, and those of the Israel Religious Action Center, be successful!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Terror in a Jerusalem Synagogue

The terror attack on a Jerusalem synagogue on Tuesday morning moved me to tears: tears of disgust with those who plot and premeditate such heinous acts; tears of grief for the victims and their families; and tears of frustration for a fractured peace process which has not yet brought about a rational response to the needs of the region.

This attack reminds us of the extent to which hatred and bigotry can thrive in an atmosphere of unresolved issues.  It also suggests that we not give in to the same emotions that led these perpetrators to their acts of violence and terror.  We need to strengthen our resolve to continue the search for peace in our homeland, to encourage and prod the governments of Israel and Palestine to negotiate in good faith, and to ensure that the extremists on both sides not be allowed to control the agenda of peace.

Religious leaders of all faiths - Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and others - must condemn this attack as something that will not be allowed to stand.  I hope to hear these other religious voices in the hours and days ahead.

As difficult as this may be, we must confront and overcome the challenges of peace so that terrorists and extremists lose the power to mesmerize the world, and that good people and causes create the real and peaceful environment for the future.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Case of the Missing Kippah

My children’s love of Shakespeare led my daughter this past summer to bring me a souvenir of her performance trip to England: a sweatshirt from London's Globe Theatre with a citation from the play Henry VIII:  “(But all) Hoods make not monks.”

This was an opportune gift, for it was around that time that I had been considering removing my kippah (head covering; sometimes called a yarmulke) which I had worn since I was a child growing up in a Conservative synagogue.

I had thought for a while about making this conscious choice about my own personal Jewish behavior.  Arguably, whether I wear a head covering or not has very little connection to how I lead my community in worship, teach Judaism to my congregants and others, pastor to my congregants’ needs, or reach out to the general community and share Jewish views with non-Jews.  But long-time habits – and long-held expectations – are difficult to change.

Origins of the head-covering: There is a midrash in Talmud Shabbat 156b, which tells of a young boy whose propensity to steal was diminished by the wearing of a hat; it was said to be symbolic of undertaking the "yoke" of God's commandments.  And based on the strength of that extra-legal vignette, certain authorities have spoken about the hat being a sign of recognition that we serve God ‘above,’ and therefore we cover the head in accord with this understanding.  Still, most authorities will acknowledge that there is no halachic (Jewish legal) requirement to wear a head covering. 

My experience: During my student days and through the length of my 22-year rabbinate, I have worn a kippah while leading worship and working as a pastor.  I had occasionally worn it while performing public functions.  But for the three weeks prior to the recent High Holy Days, and throughout the recent holiday season, I have remained bareheaded…and the skies did not open up in downpours, nor was there any lightning from above.

Further, it has been fascinating to hear reactions from congregants who are surprised by what they see.

I treasure my congregants, and I have been especially impressed by those who have approached me to inquire about my new practice.  I know that some of my congregants will never speak to me about it, preferring to speculate privately without making an inquiry.  But to a person, those who have ‘taken the risk’ and come to me have asked in a very sensitive and sincere manner.  They want to know why I have made this decision.  They are curious about how long it has been since I removed the kippah.  And when I ask them about how they feel about it, they are honest about their being surprised, and some have expressed discomfort.  But most have been willing to accept the sanction I possess as an independent, self-actualizing, Reform Jew to select my set of choices when it comes to personal practice.

They have also been willing to hold final judgment and see if they ever become comfortable with this changed custom.

This issue brings up the question of whether in a modern Reform setting the Rabbi needs to serve as an exemplar of religious practices that are not necessarily a “required” part-and-parcel of Reform praxis.  That will be the subject of a long-time personal reflection – and some public listening sessions – in which I will engage in the future.

My bimah partner Cantor Martin wears a kippah; I do not.  Perhaps this pairing of two different worship styles will demonstrate that either is acceptable in our contemporary Reform Jewish setting.  And in the eyes of some, more and more congregants are willing to accept the Bard’s reflection with which I began my blog above, that “all hoods make not monks.”

Saturday, June 21, 2014

In the Aftermath of a Divestment Vote: What to do?

I take an extraordinary step in writing this blog post today, as I usually refrain from usual labor/work activities on the Shabbat.  But the divestment vote taken yesterday at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA has affected me deeply.

If you had not yet known, the delegates to the national Presbyterian meeting in Detroit voted 310 to 303 to remove $21 million of investments in Hewlett-Packard, Motorola Solutions, and Caterpillar from their investments.  According to the Presbyterians, these companies profit from the continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the Church has now deemed that it does not want such investments in their securities portfolio.

At Presbyterian meetings over the last 10 years, similar motions have been brought to the floor and have been defeated, but by continually dwindling vote margins.  The success of this vote yesterday is not shocking, but extremely disappointing.

Even more hurtful is the disingenuousness of the language of the motion that passed the assembly.  According to the NYTimes (click here), the Presbyterian measure stressed that it is “not to be construed” as in “alignment with or endorsement of the global B.D.S. [boycott, divestment and sanctions]” movement by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  According to the church’s website, “After the vote, the assembly’s moderator told a hushed auditorium ‘To our media friends in the room, please don’t report that this action is anything other than an expression of love for both our Jewish and Palestinian brothers and sisters.’”  (You can read more about the Presbyterian vote and see some comments of the delegates by clicking here.)

I think we’ve been loved like this before, and it has not ended up well.

Regardless of the Presbyterians’ protestations to the contrary, I believe the vote and subsequent actions of the Presbyterian Church will add fuel as well as momentum to the international BDS movement.  The sad irony is that such actions generally have had the effect of strengthening Israel’s resolve to do solely what it believes is best for its national security.  Nothing the Presbyterians did in Detroit will serve to advance their goals in this regard.

This move has the potential also to drive a sharp wedge between friends who have, for many years, together sought a peaceful solution to the conflicts of the Middle East.  I pray that this will not be the case.  And I pledge, in my corner of Wisconsin, not to allow this vote to hinder the important work of peacemaking that could involve our local Presbyterian friends.

Two days before the June 14 start of the assembly, I met with two delegates from the Presbytery in which we find ourselves.  This was a very cordial and frank meeting, where I had hoped to express my fears, my concerns, and my suggestions for alternatives to a divestment vote.  I so much appreciated their willingness to meet and hear my side.  And I believe they felt my sincerity and my apprehension.  And immediately after the vote, I received an email message from one of these delegates, hoping to meet upon their return and continue our dialogue on these crucial questions.  I am sure we will pursue our conversations, and I know that we will pursue peace, as difficult as this now will be.

I hope I have your support to pursue peace even when it is most difficult.  For if we do this in our corner of the world, perhaps others will perceive our efforts, and similarly make the moves necessary for peaceful solutions to our problems.