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!

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Season for Rejoicing, and a Reason to Consider

Passover 5774

Dear friends,

A very happy Passover to you and your families!  May you experience the joy of the holiday, enjoy the beauty of a spring snowfall, and savor the delicious foods of the season.

As the holiday of Passover begins; as we prepare to retell the saga of our people’s courageous escape from Egyptian slavery, the American Jewish community is confronted again with the continuing visage of persecution and hatred.  It is becoming more apparent that the cowardly shooting and deaths of three people using Jewish communal facilities in the Kansas City suburbs was in some measure, if not completely, motivated by anti-Semitic animus.  And so the values that we will discuss around our Seder tables take on new meaning, as we try to escape the scourge of anti-Semitism, and liberate ourselves from senseless human prejudice.

When we see the empty place setting or goblet set aside for Elijah at our Seder tables, we might think of the three people killed in yesterday’s senseless acts.  Along with the Jewish community of Kansas City, we mourn the loss of life and we send our condolences to the families.  We also might think of many others who have been killed because either they were Jews or – as in Kansas City –they were non-Jews associating with the Jewish community.  With these thoughts in mind, our struggle against intolerance and racism continues as we rededicate ourselves to the liberation of people everywhere from the bonds of persecution.

May your holiday be sweet!  May your homes be joyous with sounds of celebration!  And may we find reason to attach ourselves to the ongoing effort of human liberation!  A sweet and happy Passover to you!

Monday, March 31, 2014

What’s On Your Ballot? Vote on April 1 - No Fooling!

Tuesday April 1 will be Election Day in many Dane County precincts.  Take time and vote tomorrow.

Go to the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board website designed to help voters at https://myvote.wi.gov/, and see what’s on your ballot.

I am sending out this message because I was appalled by a headline in Saturday’s Wisconsin State Journal that proclaimed that only 12% of Wisconsin voters are predicted to cast a ballot this Tuesday.

Let’s prove them wrong.

Judaism and voting:  What’s the connection?


As Jews and Americans, we are a people dedicated to social justice and the betterment of our society.  Accordingly, it is our religious obligation to ensure that we support elected officials and ballot referenda that reflect this commitment.  Whether on a local, state, or national level, our leaders develop policies that affect human liberties, our environment, and even the state of Israel, and we can move public policy issues when we participate in the most basic of activities, going to the voting booth and making our voices heard.

In the Talmud (B'rachot 55a) we learn that “a ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted.”  Election Day is our opportunity to offer our advice and consent on those who lead us, and on issues that may directly affect our lives.

What’s on the ballot?

Each jurisdiction and precinct has different candidates and referenda.  On my ballot will be school board candidates, judges, county supervisors, and two non-binding voter referenda.  It might, at first, appear to be a minor set of concerns, but we have to know that our local officials can be those who directly connect to us and affect the quality of life where we live.


So Go!

So please go to your polling place, before going to school or work, or on the way home, and make your voice heard.  Remember, go to the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board website designed to help voters at https://myvote.wi.gov/, and see what’s on your ballot!  Vote on April 1!  No Fooling!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Joseph and Nelson Mandela: Legacies in the Making

    (This week in the Torah we read the portion of Vayigash, which features the reconciliation of Joseph with his brothers.  The confluence of this portion with the passing of Nelson Mandela inspired me to offer these words tonight at Shabbat evening services.  Shabbat Shalom!)
    Think about men held in prison on trumped-up charges.  Think about these same men men who rose up and eventually seized power and ruled for the benefit of their nation.
    During these weeks when we read in the Torah the story of Joseph and his sojourn in - first - an Egyptian jail and - then - in the Egyptian ruling class, the world experiences the death of Nelson Mandela, the powerful leader and symbol of the anti-Apartheid movement and South Africa's first black president.  There are only a few similarities between these two transformational leaders, yet each one of them rose to prominence and positions of national leadership despite the once-slim chances that this could ever happen.
    For the accomplishments and legacies of these two embodiments of liberation remind us of the achievement and the capacity of the human spirit!
    For Joseph, he wallowed in his prison cell for two years, dependent upon the quite forgetful butler to send his request for clemency up the chain of command.  The nation had essentially forgotten this accused rapist and undocumented immigrant.  Yet through all the time that he was imprisoned, he remembered the God to whom he was connected and indebted.  He may have lost hope of being released, but he did not give up his faith.  And he was rewarded for this faith.
    For Mandela, his 27 years under detention came after a near escape of the death penalty for treason against his native land.  The words he spoke before the beginning of his confinement display the courage and strength of his conviction of the evil of apartheid.  He took full responsibility for his actions precisely because of the rightness of his cause.  Those who take responsibility for their actions – and are willing to pay the price for their disobedience – usually are the leaders whom we follow.
    Joseph came to power by the command of the Pharaoh, who was grateful for the economic vision Joseph offered, which was a solution to Egypt's anticipated agricultural woes.  It is improbable that any modern day leader would offer the position of 'second in command' to a virtual unknown who had offered some untested advice.  But in the context of the bible, miracles, reliance on the gods, and improbable situations produce momentous events.
    During Nelson Mandela's prison term, he and his liberation movement were not forgotten by the world.  During those 27 years, the anti-Apartheid movement grew only stronger as the profile of the civil rights movement rose in this land and elsewhere.  Economic sanctions against the South African government began to take effect. And world-wide protests against apartheid kept the dream of a future of equality at the forefront of our vision.  The persistence and rightness of that dream allowed us to sing 'We Shall Overcome' in bright and strong tones.
    And both Joseph and Nelson Mandela engaged in acts of reconciliation, bringing families and nations together for the sake of peace.
    This week we read in the Torah of the peace made between Joseph and his brothers.  A boy once betrayed and sold into slavery and who now holds authority over his brothers, finds every possible pathway toward resolving their relationship.
    And Nelson Mandela, working from a position of strength and authority, permitted a process of national reconciliation to take place, thereby enabling a country long torn by racial hatred to find new potential for economic, social and political growth.
    The future of the Israelite nation was hardly cemented by its eventual acceptance in Egypt.  We know that their sojourn there was temporary, and that many changes took place in the years that followed.
    In South Africa, the changes are still happening, the national reconciliation process continues, and people still learn how to live in a majority-minority nation.
    I think the fates of both nations are yet to be determined, and I hope I can live to see the fulfillment of miraculous visions and dreams for both these historically diverse and important peoples.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Increasing Our Holiness by Increasing the Light

The academies of Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel, two great Jewish authorities of the First century BCE, were once engaged in a debate about how to light the Hanukkah menorah.

The students of Shammai insisted that they should light eight lights on the first night, seven on the second night, and so on down to lighting one on the last night.

The students of Hillel argued in favor of starting with one light and lighting an additional one every night, concluding with eight on the final night.  And as with most instances of disagreement between these two academies, Hillel’s method won out.

The rationale was as clear as the olive oil used in the lighting the lamps.  One should increase the light each night, as with each subsequent evening ceremony we invite more light – and thus more sanctity – into our homes and into our world.  As we move forward in time, we increase the light and strengthen the sacred connection between and among members of the human race.

The miracle of the Maccabees’ military victory led to a rebirth of religious liberty for all inhabitants of the ancient land of Israel.  No longer did the Jews have to exist subservient to an occupying nation which had sought to eliminate Judaism.  The popular story of the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days inspired them to ascribe their accomplishments to God.

In our day as well, the struggle for religious freedom continues, in our country and all over the world.  Will we realize miracles in those efforts?  Will we be able to bring sanctity to those who suffer oppression from the many ‘masters’ who control the lives of others?

As with all things, it begins with us.  If we increase the holiness in our lives
  • by treating people in just and fair ways;
  • by eliminating gossip and slander from our speech;
  • by devoting ourselves to helping friends and family through difficult situations; and
  • by taking part in movements to bring repair to our world;
we too will move upward from one strength to a greater one, and we will increase the sanctity of the entire world.  We can, each day, dedicate ourselves to bringing more wholeness – and holiness – to humanity.

Happy Hanukkah!

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Death of John Kennedy: The Loss of a Dream

I have tried to be fairly objective about my feelings of today’s 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy, and I was successful up until this morning.

“Important milestone.”  “Marking the day pays homage to a slain leader.”  “Sensitivity to a nation’s feelings and memories has its place.”  Yada-yada-yada.

By coincidence, that day was also a Friday.  When I rose today and listened to radio reporting that reviewed that day’s events, physically powerful feelings of loss began to wash over me.  I was eight years old 50 years ago, an eager and active third grader whose parents campaigned for Kennedy because of his idealism for the progressive spirit that he would bring to our nation.  This is how our nation's future was supposed to go.

In reality, it was not the assassination of a president that affected me, but more, it was the demise of the potential of a nation on the verge of realizing great strides in civil rights, sexual equality, and the drive toward a progressive future that was passionate and potent.

Those born after that date, or those whose awareness of those events had not yet blossomed, cannot easily identify with this feeling.  Someone who was only one year old at the time recently said to me that s/he could not understand the commotion that people are making over this fateful anniversary.  It’s difficult to explain this feeling of grief for the loss of a dream, but that is what it was.