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, July 19, 2015

Religion: A Potentially Divisive Political Landscape

At a recent campaign appearance in Iowa before a group of Religious Right activists and clergy, Governor Scott Walker announced that "his faith defines who he is as an elected official and informed his response to protesters during the polarizing 2011 debate over public sector collective bargaining." (Wisconsin State Journal, July 19, 2015)

In a seemingly simple statement and speech that day, Walker introduces his brand of divisive politics: implying that his faith is purer than those of the protestors; dismissing the religious values of those who, in faith and integrity, appropriately and legally confronted their government at the time of those protests; denying any responsibility for enraging the sensibilities of those whose livelihoods he diminished; and claiming religious superiority over others.

As a rabbi and a member of a religious minority, I am particularly offended when a candidate for office uses a reprehensible technique such as this to win over potential voters.  It is wrong to claim that one set of religious values are necessarily superior to another; it would be an unAmerican approach to our political process, and the candidate who espouses such prejudicial tactics should be avoided.

In the coming election cycle, as always, we must be keenly aware and cautious of politicians who use their pulpits to create divisions where there are simply differences of opinions.  Open political debate is fine and necessary, but it must be tempered by honesty, tolerance for differences, and a sincere search for truth. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Reaction to the Deaths in Charleston

The following is a transcription of remarks I made at our Shabbat evening service on Friday June 26, 2015:

Shabbat Shalom.

How do we soothe hearts that are broken by loss?  How do we bring comfort to the mourner?
In Jewish life we do so by our presence.

No words can change the ugly reality of the pain of loss; no amount of praying can bring back those who have been killed.

It is, rather, our ability to leave our positions of comfort, and to sit with someone who has experienced a loss: this is the ultimate mitzvah of “nichum avelim,” of comforting the mourners.

*     *     *     *

I have to tell you that, as a Rabbi, I feel somewhat odd imposing my understanding of mourning and loss onto those of another religious tradition.  To some, those who died at the hands of that gunman in Charleston are in a better place.  And those who experience loss will find some solace in a faith that places the souls of loved ones in the bosom of their god.

But as we consider our history and as we think about our traditions, we Jews are no different.  We understand well the disruption of those whose houses of worship have been violated by violence and hatred.  We know the anger and anguish of prayer that is prohibited, and of Torah study being cut short.  And in our past, we have given special homage to those who have died “al kiddush hashem,” that is, having perished while sanctifying God’s sacred name.

To die while studying the bible, just as did our ancestors at the time of the Roman conquest of the land of Israel, has been considered by our tradition as an act of martyrdom.  We tell ourselves, “Talmud torah k’neged kulam, the study of Torah is greater than observing all of mitzvot.”  In short, those individuals of faith hold a special place in the schema of the world, and we treasure them.

*     *     *     *

Yet regarding the act of violence that led to these deaths in Charleston:  another bible verse comes to mind at this time:  “Lo tirtzach,” do not murder,” says the Ten Commandments.  Taking life is a sacrilege.  So how do we speak of these unspeakable acts?  How can we hold in our minds the thought of the hatred that one person can have for another person, or for a group of people, or for the simple ideas of tolerance and acceptance?

*     *     *     *

We see – we know! – the existence of hate crimes in our times.  Madison itself is on the list of towns where the African American community has suffered loss and experienced prejudice.  Especially here, in a county which is among the most painfully divided because of race: We should well understand the pain – the ache – the agony of rejection by society.  So it is incumbent upon us Jews to empathize well, and to give our presence to those who have experienced loss.

We read in the selection from Leviticus earlier this evening* that we must not stand around idly while our neighbor bleeds.  In this instance, when our friends and neighbors experience loss at the hand of a violent offender – when God’s beloved have literally bled to their deaths – we must call ourselves to action.  We must take into consideration the lives of these dear ones and insist that their martyrdom will not be for naught.

*     *     *     *

There is another scripture that we must learn, however.  There are other lessons that we must integrate.  Ed Madden, poet laureate of Columbia, South Carolina, and faculty member at the University of South Carolina, offers us this recent insight:

“he is from here,
he grew up here,
he went to school here,
he wore his jacket with its white supremacist patches here,
he told racist jokes here…
he learned his racism here…
he is not a symbol, he is a symptom.
he is not a cipher, his is a reminder.
his actions are beyond our imagining but his motivation is not beyond our understanding.
no he didn’t get these ideas from nowhere.”

*     *     *     *

From where, then, we must ask: Who is responsible, and who will now take responsibility?

*     *     *     *

There has been, ever since the rise of Jewish social justice causes, a natural and strong affinity between the Jewish American and African American communities.  Now is the moment – now is the time – when we must re-engage with one another, to remember the values that brought us together, and to commit ourselves anew to the cause of racial justice and equity.  As Hillel reminds us, “And if not now, then when?”

*     *     *     *

So let us remember the souls of the Rev. Clementa Pickney, the Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sister Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, and Ethel Lance.  Let us consider well what we can do to make their deaths part of the grand scheme of tikkun olam, the perfection of God’s world.

*     *     *     *

There is a lot to do, and the job is not only to be accomplished in Madison.

During our recent stay in Jerusalem, I had hoped to visit the “Museum on the Seam,” an institution dedicated to studying the causes and solutions of intolerance.  It is located on the old border between Israel and Jordan, itself a sign of trying to find the hope in conflict.

But our guide told me that the Museum had gone bankrupt.  It made me think that, due to the enormous amount of prejudice alive and well in Israel, maybe the idea of combating intolerance and prejudice, too, has become bankrupt.  Have we become so concerned with our own issues and problems that we cannot see the other, whether in joy or in pain?

*     *     *     *

A week ago yesterday, as we toured the Golan Heights – as we explored the intricate and delicate situation in that part of the world – our Beth El Israel travelers could hear air-shattering and heart-pounding artillery fire in the distance.  Although we were not certain at the time, we could literally feel the pain in the world as yet another round of hatred takes hold.

We later learned that the artillery fire was that of the Syrian army shelling Druze villages in the Syrian-held parts of the steppes of Mount Hermon, in the northern Golan Heights.  Loyal Syrian Druze citizens were and are being slaughtered at the hands of a ruthless and intolerant Syrian regime.  When will that hatred ever cease?

And this moment of our tour was especially poignant to us.  For just two days before, we were privileged to be hosted for lunch at the home of a Druze family near Haifa.  The Druze, a sect of Islam that remains secretive and has been unwilling to disclose details of their faith, is now letting in the strangers and letting the world know a bit about their culture and religion.  They are a kind, generous, tolerant group of souls, who never intermarry and always are loyal to the land in which they live.  If you didn't know, the Druze men serve proudly in the Israel Defense Forces.

*     *     *     *

Another vignette from our recent trip to Israel:

A week ago yesterday, as we returned from Golan Heights and headed toward our kibbutz hotel, we learned of an attack on a church at the northern end of Lake Kinneret, in the small town of Tabcha.  This church is located at the place, says the New Testament, at which Jesus multiplied the fish and the loaves of bread.  It is a place where the Christian faithful come to recall and witness miracles.  Yet on that day, in an entrance corridor of the building, perpetrators set fire to the building making the place inhabitable.  And Hebrew graffiti was found, citing a passage from our Aleinu prayer, calling for the ‘false gods to be eliminated’ from the world.

Most authorities believe this to be the work of a Jewish group which calls itself “Tag M’chir,” or “price tag.”  This group has taken it upon themselves to attack Christian, Muslim, and liberal Jewish individuals and institutions as a way of protesting the presence – in Israel – of those who believe differently than Orthodox Jews, and suffering loss is literally the price these groups have to pay, to try to live in an open society.

The true disappointment is that no one has yet been indicted or held accountable for this or for any of the other such hate crimes that this group has committed.

*     *     *     *

Even the government in Jerusalem is rife with prejudice.

A minister in the new Israeli government last week decried Reform Judaism as the entity that will cause the end of the Jewish people.  Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately condemned those words.  But when such sentiment breaks forth from elected officials, and especially those who are part of the
ruling coalition: This is indeed a time for concern and action.

*     *     *     *

Examples of prejudice abound; it seems they confront us each day, whether we live in Israel, in Charleston, in Oak Park, Wisconsin, at the Sikh temple, or right here in Dane County.  The question is: What will we do about it?  Again, who is responsible, and who will now take responsibility?

A colleague put it in physiological terms:  The human heart has two sides: one side receives blood that has been depleted of oxygen, and the other side adds life-sustaining air and pumps out oxygen-rich blood to the body.  And somehow we hold both in our breast at the same time.

Our hearts today are filled in part with the airless ache of acts of hatred, lives laid to rest in Charleston, and lives cut short by terror overseas.  Many of us feel oxygen-depleted, especially when we consider the situation of the world, and we lose hope.

And for some of us as well, today we also hold in our hearts a measure of hope and comfort, as others of many religious traditions, our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, were given some assurance that that the love they feel for their beloveds is now going to be more accepted by our nation’s state and national governments. 

Ultimately, it is the positive oxygen that sustains the human body. Ultimately, it is the love and justice that surge through our souls that sustains us all.  It is this life-sustaining force that we must put forth into the world.

The loss that confronts us this week has taken the breath from our souls.  It is this loss that we feel with profound sadness.  And so we are present for one another at a time of loss.

But let us also use this occasion to bring comfort, through our hope for repairing the ills of our world. 

May we achieve tikkun olam soon, and in our day.

Shabbat Shalom.

*These selections from Leviticus were read by the congregation earlier in the service:
The Revelation at Sinai – The Holiness Code The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying:  Speak to the whole community of Israel and say to them, “You shall be holy, for I - the Eternal - am holy. You shall each revere your father and your mother, and keep My Sabbaths. When you reap your harvest, leave the corners and the gleanings of the field for the poor and the stranger. You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another. You shall not swear falsely by My name. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not commit robbery. The wages of your workers shall not remain with you until morning. You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall not render an unfair decision: Do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; rather, judge your neighbor fairly. Do not go about as a talebearer.  Do not profit by the blood of your neighbor. You shall not hate your kinfolk in your heart. Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt in doing so. Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinfolk. Love you neighbor as yourself: I am the Eternal.”

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Desert Experience



On this second to the last day of our tour, we descended to the Dead Sea Valley for some extraordinary experiences.  This valley is located in the Syrian-African rift, a meeting of the tectonic plates that separate geographically the continents of Asia and Africa.

As you can guess, therefore, this region is subject to earthquake activity on a regular basis (I am from southern California, so I feel particularly at home here!) and the evidence of this is everywhere.   Cliffs show evidence of violent rockfalls, and canyons widen both through natural erosion and the movement - over centuries - of the surface of the land.



The Dead Sea is located at the lowest elevation on the face of the planet, therefore it is among the warmest places on earth.  Yesterday the temperature rose to a comfortable 100 F or so, but, as they say, ‘it is a dry heat,’ so it does not feel as hot as it may appear.  That’s why it’s terribly important to keep hydrated all the time, and our tour guide and our tour members constantly reminded us to drink.

The Dead Sea is a salt water lake with the highest concentration of minerals and salt content in the world: The water consists of 33% salt, and as you may know, when you ‘swim’ in this water, you float without effort.  The authorities recommend that no one swims in this water, because if any of the salts enter your body through your eyes, nose, or any open wound, you will not soon forget its sting.

The movement of the tectonic also caused the land to gush forth with fresh water, as we saw in Ein Gedi, a site that is within 2 miles of the Dead Sea yet is a fresh water spring that is as fun to play in as it is to drink.

We also visited Masada, desert fortress and purported site of a mass suicide that occurred at the hands of the Roman legions in the year 73 CE.  Our guide Tzvi presented theories that doubted the veracity of this account by Josephus, and suggested that the slogan “Masada shall not fall again,” that is, as a reflection of Josephus’ imagination, emanated from a time in Israel’s history (during the 1930’s and 1940’s – see Ari Shavit’s book “My Promised Land”) when she needed such heroes who would commit suicide rather than succumb to the conquering nature of the enemy.

More photos of all of this are to come…please be patient while we conclude our trip and I upload the pictures of our fantastic trip.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Getting Down to the Basics



Shabbat day and Sunday were days on our tour of Israel when we got down to the basic elements of the history of Israel: not all of them, mind you, but we found some of the essential sites here that undergird our history and culture.

On Shabbat morning, we separated for a while: some went to Shabbat services at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the school from which I received my rabbinic degree; others slept in; still others visited relatives; and still others took in the Israel Museum or other cultural sites.  At 12:30, we met up and enjoyed a tremendous walking tour of the walled city here in Jerusalem, usually known as “the Old City.”

Many cultures inhabit this place, and the city is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian.  We walked through these quarters pretty freely, regardless of the activity in the Arab market (or shuk), or the Shabbat worship that took place at the Western Wall.  For many this was their first time here, at the base of the retaining wall of the ancient Jerusalem temple, and for all is it an emotional experience to be there.



We also took a stroll to the rooftops above the city to get an idea of the layout of the city, a place of only one square kilometer.

Saturday evening was free time, and people had dinners on their own.  As a reality of Israeli life, we found, on the eve of the summer solstice, that many of the restaurants did not open until after Shabbat concluded, which was about 9 PM.

On Sunday, we visited another element of Jewish life that is essential to our identity: Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum and Memorial Authority.  The new permanent exhibit displays, in chronological order, the devolution of the Jewish people through the intentional actions of the Nazi regime of WWII Germany.  There are also fitting memorial monuments to the children who were murdered (1.5 million), as well as those who fought the terror in the Warsaw ghetto and other places.

In the afternoon we really dug down to our roots by enjoying an archaeological dig in the region known as Beit Guvrin.  A series of 5,000 caves seem to hold treasures from the Maccabean era, and the team at Archaeological Expeditions had us dig into the earth, uncover pottery shards, and then they will try to put together a fuller history of the people of this region.

In the cave known to the digging team as Django, we found an almost complete cooking pot.  It was a marvelous experience for us!

Tomorrow we will visit the Dead Sea and Masada, learning the lessons of the martyrdom of the Jews of the early years of the First century of Common Era.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Jerusalem – A Miraculous World Unto Itself

On this Friday of June 19, as many do each Friday, we changed our world.

We did not necessarily change “the” world, but rather we transformed the day-to-day existence that we live, and entered the special world that is this holy place of Jerusalem.

On our particular journey, we traveled only 100 miles in space, but eons in time, in order to view a world of real and imagined possibilities.

Here is how we got there.

We departed the beautiful Kibbutz Lavi Hotel where we had lodged for two nights.  I had written before that Kibbutz Lavi was an Orthodox kibbutz, but I don’t think I expanded those words into a practical description of the hotel.  Being an Orthodox institution, they cater not only to modern Orthodox, but also to ultra-Orthodox as well.  This was most evident on Thursday evening and then again on Friday morning at the dining room.  We had eaten previously – all the hotel’s clientele together – in one dining room.  But on Thursday night, at supper, things changed.  We ate in a separate dining room, and it seemed that the distinction was due to the degree of Orthodoxy the group practiced.

Reform in one room, ultra-Orthodox in another.

Other travel groups in our room, ultra-Orthodox in another.

Any group whose men did not wear kippot in our room, ultra-Orthodox in another.

Any group whose women and men did not wear appropriately modest clothing in our room, ultra-Orthodox in another.

I want to be absolutely clear that I do not complain about this.  This is, after all, a private hotel/kibbutz which can operate as it chooses.  But the distinctions made were all too clear, and I simply observe this as a hint of life in Israel.

We left the hotel and proceeded to the Kinneret Cemetery, located at almost the very southern tip of the Sea of Galilee, or Yam Kinneret in Hebrew.  At this cemetery are buried many of the greats of the early Zionist movement: political movers and shakers, poets, even a number of mistresses of some of the men involved in the building of the state of Israel; oddly enough, these women are buried just next to their lovers, who are buried next to their wives.  Again, just an observation of the lives of these great men and women who toiled to raise this nation out of the swamps of a fetid land.

Here are a few photos of our group as we learned from the words and experience of our guide and educator Tzvi.






In this last photo you can see the grave marker of the early Zionist/Israeli poet Rachel Bluwstein, the stone with only her first name on it.  She composed verse on the nature of the land, the trials of being a single person having immigrated to a land of swamps, and the difficulties of the Zionist movement.  If you look carefully at this picture, just directly behind Tzvi's right and, there is a metal plate that appears to be sitting on a low stone.  It is a cover of a repository that Tzvi told us about: In this small niche is a copy of the book of poetry that Rachel composed: today it is a simple paperback version, but it had been a much better preserved hard cover edition.  THAT version had been stolen, and it was the inspiration of a group of guides to find ways to keep the more permanent volume present.  Tzvi is continually working to maintain both the memories of Rachel, and the integrity of the cemetery, in tact!

It was Mark Twain who observed that the land of Palestine, in the mid-to-late 1800’s (in his book “The Innocents Abroad” noted that Palestine was “a desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds... a silent mournful expanse.... a desolation.... we never saw a human being on the whole route.... hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”  The land as we observed it could very well have been the same: it was a warm and humid morning there as we overlooked the Kinneret.  But we could only imagine the sights and sounds of the Kinneret that greeted this author laureate of our nation.

Anyway, being at this cemetery inspired us to wonder about how any of us address any task in our own lives: To what extent are we willing to sacrifice our ideals and lives to achieve a goal?  What can we, ourselves, do in our day to affect the kind of change in which they participated?

From Kinneret Cemetery we went to a strip mall just outside of Tiberias for a coffee and bathroom break, preparing for the next two hour drive to Jerusalem.  During our sojourn where we had a bit of interesting scenery and a lot of desert to observed, we engaged in a discussion of the latest political machinations of the governments of Israel and the United States.

We arrived at a scenic overlook of the city of Jerusalem: We parked at the northern campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and participated in a welcoming ceremony for our group, most of whom had never been to Jerusalem before and were completing this pilgrimage today.  It was a very moving experience for all of us.

We then traveled to the Machaneh Yehudah market, a vast area in the western part of the city (the new and Jewish part) consisting of streets of stores and stalls selling anything you can imagine!  As it was 2 PM on erev Shabbat, the place was packed with people, buying for the Shabbat or for ‘the weekend’ to come, and after 75 minutes of our own engaging in this shopping craze, we boarded the bus and transferred to our hotel.

Just before our dispersion into the shopping crowds, someone on the street beside me noticed the OSRUI logo shirt I wore: For some who may not know, OSRUI is the acronym for the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute camp in Oconomowoc, and for the woman who noticed my shirt, it was a warm remembrance of a camping experience that she had as a teen, and asked me about my connection.  As it turns out, she is a member of the Reform congregation in Fort Wayne, Indiana, which was also running a tour at this time.  As it turns out, her Rabbi is a very close friend of mine who just happened to be across the street and coming to greet me.  A miracle is something unexpected, and it surely was a miracle to be a the saem time, in the same place, and to see a good friend in the city of Jerusalem, in the middle of throngs of people, at this particular time.

Anyway, we departed Machaneh Yehudah and went to check in at our hotel.  As we approached the Dan Panorama hotel in the heart of the city, some of our travelers noticed familiar faces walking on the sidewalk alongn side our stuck-in-traffic bus: David and Aleeza Hoffert, our temple’s Executive Director and Director of Community Engagement, were just walking along in Jerusalem in the hours prior to Shabbat.  (I knew they were going to be there, but) it was a total surprise for some of us to see them.  But still, the fact that we were all going to be in Jerusalem at the same time is another miracle.

After a lot of waving and calls, we encountered them personally at the First Train Station in Jerusalem, where our group went to experience Kabbalat Shabbat Jerusalem 2015 style:

The name “Kabbalat Shabbat” refers to the series of psalms and prayers said in synagogues just before the start of the evening service on Friday evenings.  And in the sultry summer Friday evenings, the First Train Station – formerly the terminus of the rail line from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and now a beautiful performance venue – is totally transformed into a lovely “open air synagogue,” with a band that performs these tunes for the more than 300 people – mostly secular but some modern Orthodox – who enjoy the evening, drink beer or eat ice cream or bring their picnic suppers and participate in the evening’s arrival of Shabbat.  I described a bit of this scene in a high holy day sermon two years ago after having seen this scene during my sabbatical sojourn in Israel.

Another miracle: As I was talking with Gil Nathanson and Manny Price, two of our group’s participants, about the calls for modernity and innovation even in the Talmud, up to us comes Susan and and Mira Sellman, two other of our Temple Beth El congregants who live in Janesville.  It is a very small Jewish world indeed!

But then, another miracle occurs!  Earlier in the week, our guide mentioned that his wife – as I – was raised in the San Fernando Valley of the city of Los Angeles, and that her name was Debbie.  At that earlier moment and always exploring Jewish geography, I tried to discover if I had known her during my youth, but could not make a connection; our guide did not know intimately too much about her earlier days.  But at the First Train Station she came to meet him for their own Shabbat observance, and he introduced her to me.  It was then we discovered that we were the same age, we had both come to Israel for our first times as 15-year-olds in the same program in the same summer, that we had many of the same friends and acquaintances, and that this particular summer was a pivotal point for each of us as we developed our attitudes about Israel: She is an attorney and social worker for the Ministry of Social Welfare, whose focus is saving at-risk youth from abusive family situations.

I think that Jerusalem is the city of miracles, to be sure!

After the events of the First Train Station, our group, along with David and Aleeza Hoffert and Aleeza’s mother and two sisters, returned to the hotel for a festive and filling Shabbat dinner.

Shabbat Shalom!