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 24, 2014

The Essence of Judaism – What Would You Say?

Over the last few weeks, I have had what is an annual parade of students of world religion classes from local colleges visit my office and interview me about Judaism.  This year, the question they all asked was, “What are the most important beliefs of Judaism?”

I hope you offered your replies on our Facebook Page at https://www.facebook.com/templebethelmadison.  So here is my answer to these students:

There are three Jewish beliefs that are the most important, and that distinguish Judaism from other faiths and religious communities.

I.   First, the history of our belief in the One God, Creator of the heavens and the earth, who is a benevolent and non-punishing God.  Honoring one god allows us to have focus and to develop a personal relationship with that God.  Other religions, past and present, might have been perceived to have one or multiple gods, who must be appeased because of their jealousy and need for fealty, and who punishes for infractions, major and minor.  And it is true that the God of Israel comes across this way in the Torah.  But when the Talmudic sages of our people spoke about and tried to analyze the characteristics of our God, they described the Holy One of Blessing in compassionate and human terms.  This God has chastised Israel in the past, but now is with and supports the people of Israel in all their endeavors.

II.      Second, the belief that each person is created in the image of God, and that each person is equal in God’s eyes regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or any other characteristic that has tragically divided people from one another.  As a corollary, the book of Genesis uses the imagery of the “image of God” to denote also that each person carries with them elements of the Divine.  Therefore, each person is deserving of respect and love.

III.    And third, that each person receives at birth a soul that is pure and good, and that each person has the capacity to rise to great heights of human achievement during his and her lifetime.  This characteristic, too, underscores the essence of human dignity, because each person, regardless of traits that may distinguish one from another, is truly equal to one another!

Please leave comments - I would be interested in your observations and dialogue on this question!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Ukraine May Not Be Healthy for Jews and Other Living Things

During my high school and college years, the cause of liberating Soviet Jewry rose as a major goal of the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities.  And the button and bumper sticker of choice was one that read, “Russia isn’t healthy for Jews and other living things.”  Given the current events in Ukraine, things have not changed.

As you may know, last week following evening services one day in the Ukrainian town of Donetsk, masked men approached Jewish worshipers with leaflets, informing them that ‘Jews’ had to register their names, possessions, and the fact that they were loyal to the Russian separatists, and pay the equivalent of $50 to do so.  They were informed further that non-compliance would be met with ouster from the country.

The fact that this act was not sanctioned by the government in Russia – that this was later revealed to be an elaborate hoax perpetrated against the Jews (and perhaps the Ukrainian government) – meant nothing to the Jewish worshipers.  They felt intimidated, shamed, frightened, and disgusted.  This was an act reminiscent of the Holocaust, when identifying one’s lineage became the difference between life and death.

Jews becoming the political pawns of hostile governments has happened for hundreds of years.  I guess it never stops getting old.

But this occurrence in Donetsk, taken in concert with the haunting events of Overland Park, Kansas, where a known white supremacist attacked two very visible Jewish institutions, make it abundantly clear that anti-Semitism still exists as a force to be reckoned with.  It is something that we must recognize and label it for what it is: ethnic hatred and intolerance.

At this time of the year, when Passover coincides with Easter, and the passions of people become inflamed, it is vital to protect our communal institutions and our way of life as a free American people.  And when we see overt acts of anti-Semitism, to call them out and identify them!  Only then will we begin to win the struggle against them.

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.