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!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Meditation for Pesach 5775

Our God and God of our ancestors:

The Haggadah tells us, “In every generation each of us – Jew and non-Jew – is required to view ourselves as though we, individually, went forth out of Egypt.”  In these days when we see evidence of prejudice and oppression in our society, we can sometimes taste the dust of Egypt, and feel the degradation of our ancestors.

You who watch and weep over the misbehavior of your earthbound children; You who have shown us the path of righteous living through the Torah; You who have given us minds with which to think and reason, to love and understand: Inspire us once again, through the retelling of our ancient story of redemption, to confront the challenges of our world!

This week, as we gather around our tables; as we open our books and see the crumbs from Seder's past spilling into our fingers; as we count the wine-stains on our pages and remember how our cup is always lessened with human suffering, help us to find perspective, strength and faith.

Help us recognize that people of color in our midst still suffer the degradation of racial injustice.  Let us pledge to help bring redemption in our generation.

Cause us to take up the prejudice directed at our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, and to help raise up their love, their affection, and their humanity.  Let the world know that everyone should have the freedom to love whom they wish.

Bring us to respect and assist those with mental illness in our society.  Let us try to understand their perception of the world, and to welcome them into our lives.  May we help them to find peace with who they are!

Give us fortitude to continue the struggle toward men and women’s equality in our world.  May prejudices of the past continue to disappear as women and men become partners in the perfection of our world.

May our worship, our laughter and our tears, our stories, and our pledges to action, bring to fruition the ancient hope of a world perfected and complete!  May violence and hatred be drowned out, and may our hearts be unified in one human embrace.  Let us always be defined by our vision of a better world.

L'shanah Haba’ah B'yirushalayim.  Next year in Jerusalem!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Shooting of a Young Black Man in Madison

This was not the way for Madison to mark the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday" at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

Instead of empathic observances of memory and determination, our beloved community of Madison was the site of the latest tragedy of police violence against young African American men.

The shooting of Anthony Robinson on the East side last night has shocked the community.  My mentioning this at yesterday's Saturday morning services brought forth empathy for the family of the victim Anthony Robinson and gratitude for bringing it to the moment in an appropriate way.

Barack Obama, the nation's first African American president, has been an inspiration of hope to all in America who strive for the acceptance of diversity in American life.  Attending the 50th anniversary observances in Selma, he labeled the police violence of 50 years ago as "a clash of wills, a contest to determine the meaning of America."  But we all know that this struggle is no where near its hoped for victory.

The side of righteousness - the side of "tzedek," the Jewish value of 'doing what is right because it is right' - has yet to achieve what we pray for in this context: a nation - not to mention a world -  where skin color makes no difference, and where all are treated with dignity.  In a way, we are all Sisyphus, pushing that boulder of racial equality up the hill only to have us watch that burden roll back down upon us to threaten us - and threaten us it does!  Our continued American inability to achieve racial equality is a chronic and fatal cancer that has become resistant to the many medications that we have prescribed.

The NAACP of Dane County put out this statement last night in regard to this most recent shooting.  I end with this, because it says what needs to be said at this time:

"Each new case of an African American person killed is a grim reminder of the urgent need for reform in the use of force against American citizens. Although excessive use of force disproportionately affects African Americans and people living in poverty, it can affect people everywhere regardless of race, age or gender.

"Whenever this kind of tragedy occurs, questions arise about police training and appropriate use of force.  We must remind the investigating authorizes of the need for transparency, that black lives do matter, and sadly, another family is now experiencing the pain of loss in Madison, Wisconsin.
"We must push for solutions within our criminal justice system that will help keep our communities safe, our children protected and our officers properly trained.

"While there will be reactions from community leaders, faith leaders and concerned citizens, the NAACP calls for calm and vigilant monitoring of events as they unfold.  We will work with the Madison community and the Wisconsin NAACP State Conference of Branches to ensure justice for Tony Robinson."

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Invocation at the Rally in Opposition to the proposed Right to Work legislation, Madison, Wisconsin, February 25, 2015

Good day.  Yesterday I offered an invocation at  the rally, held on the steps of the state capitol here in Madison, which protested in opposition to the proposed Right to Work legislation now on its way to the second house of Wisconsin's legislature (having been passed by the Senate last evening).  My remarks are below: They followed the pledge of allegiance and the singing of the Star Spangled Banner.

I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch from Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, a statewide coalition of people of many faiths.  We strive toward “creating a state whose people and government address the real needs and raise the dignity of the hungry and poor; care for and heal the sick; and truly listen to the voices of all citizens.”

As people of faith, we are the heirs of a prophetic tradition that has ever sought to perfect the world that God gave to us.  The book of Genesis reminds us that we are each made in the Divine Image, and that no one person is inherently better than another.  That is why we honor the dignity of each person: for being a member of the human family, and for their chosen work in the world.

The biblical books of Exodus , Leviticus  and Deuteronomy  set forth civilized guidelines through which humanity engages in work that supports their families.  “Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.”  “Do not take advantage of a hired worker…Pay them their wages each day before sunset…”  These commandments resound with the spirit of fair treatment of the employee.

But there is more.  Our evolving Jewish and Christian traditions have long supported collective bargaining rights.  Even as our ancient texts direct us to engage in our individual labors with genuine effort and complete spirit, they also provide the sanction for workers to organize for their benefit and safety.  Guilds and associations of trade-workers have characterized the history of work for more than 1,800 years.

These worker organizations – especially in the last century – have striven to achieve safe working conditions, fair wages and overall dignity for those who produce the goods and services that fuel our economy.  Collective bargaining has brought security to the middle class, and has allowed us to provide adequate food, shelter, and happiness to our lives.  Nothing could be better than a society that is anxious to improve itself, doing so through the efforts of the work of our hands and the sweat of our brow.

That is why our efforts here this week are so important.  The weakening of unions, one objective of so-called “right to work legislation,” will have disastrous effects on the lives of working people in Wisconsin.  So as we today gather “peaceably to assemble” and address our elected officials, I offer this prayer to the Source of Power and Dignity in the universe:

May God bless us in our efforts to maintain and achieve a dignified work environment for all workers in Wisconsin!  May the Spirit of Human Endeavor continue to strengthen us in our chosen professions!  And may the Spirit of Right and Justice prevail through all our undertakings!  And we say, Amen.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Response to Anti-Semitism? Band Together with Others

Over this past weekend, anti-Semitic and racist epithets were painted on homes and driveways on the west side of Madison.  This is the note I sent to my congregation in response:

Anti-Semitic graffiti, as well as other defamatory tagging, has appeared again on the streets of Madison, and we are reminded that hatred and ignorance exist even in our progressive Midwest community.  News reports provide the evidence.  Each of us must now consider the repercussions and our actions.

I wish to express appreciation for the leadership of the Jewish Federation of Madison who spent the weekend with local and federal law enforcement officials reviewing the situation.  All of them are there for our welfare, and I believe they have been engaged, concerned, and present for us.

I do not believe this is a moment for panic or anxiety.  But in my opinion – to paraphrase the book of Exodus (12:42) – this is a time for watchfulness and preparing for engagement.

For these local incidents must also be viewed against the backdrop of other recent anti-Semitic acts.  The shooting in a Copenhagen synagogue this past Saturday, the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in France on Sunday, and the recent attack on a kosher market in Paris last month underscore the threat that our European cousins confront each day and that are increasing.

And sadly, there is more.  In our country, religious minorities suffer attacks by extremist groups.  North Carolina Muslims are targeted for indiscriminate shooting.  A Sikh temple in Milwaukee faces an attack from a racist killer.  Jewish facilities from Kansas City to Seattle to Los Angeles endure assault.  There is a pattern of hatred that we must recognize, even as we search for answers.

The disturbing words and images painted on residences on the West side should compel each of us to strive mightily against intolerance, and not give in to hopelessness.  It is a joyful and necessary challenge to do the work of prejudice reduction; assembling intergroup coalitions is long and arduous work.  But to confront bigotry, to rally against extremist and radical forms of religion, and to demonstrate the solidarity of our Madison community against any form of prejudice: these are challenges that we must undertake.

Let us stand by with one another as we face these challenges in the future!  Let us stand unified against prejudice, hatred, and any form of intolerance!  And let us strengthen one another as we face the future as proud Americans and Jews!

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!