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, 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!

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.