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!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

God Sends Us

In a recent edition of Forward, Rabbi Ilana Grinblat wrote this about whether and how God intervenes in the life of earth’s creatures: “Does Judaism believe that God sends natural disasters in punishment for sin?

"This question was examined by the rabbis. The Talmud posits, “If a man stole a bag of seeds and planted them in his garden, it would be right if the seeds didn’t grow. However the rabbis concluded that nature follows its own rules and the seeds grow.

“The text likewise explains that if a man commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, it would be right if she did not get pregnant. But nature follows its own rules and she conceives. Through these and other scenarios, the rabbis articulated that God does not intervene in nature based on moral calculus.

“The devastation of the earthquake is horrible enough without giving the victims the added burden of feeling guilt that somehow they are responsible. This atrocious discourse only adds insult to injury.

"If God doesn’t intervene in nature, then where is God in disaster? A story is told of a man who goes up to heaven at the end of his life and stands before God, his heart breaking from the pain and injustice of the world. He cries out, “God, look at all the suffering in your world. Why don’t you do something to fix it?” God replies gently, “I did do something. I sent you.

"In the aftermath of disaster, God is with the injured and the bereaved, giving them strength to endure and heal. God is with the rescuers, giving them courage and perseverance. God is with all of us, encouraging us to give generously to the victims. God surely did not send the earthquake in Haiti last week. But God has sent each one of us to help."

The question for me, this Rabbi in Madison, Wisconsin, is whether we can see ourselves sent by God. For many of us, our eyes are blinded to this possibility because we are 'rationalists' who cannot fathom a God who intervenes in the world. I do not suggest that God does this, of course, but rather that this is the mission and goal of every individual on the planet. In other words, God set this up from the start, that the job of being human is precisely that, to intervene and help in the life of our world, and especially when our fellow humans need help.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti: Why Politicize Tragedy?

At a time when our nation should be rallying together to help Haiti's citizens at this critical time, conservative broadcast pundits and preachers have found it imperative to both politicize the tragedy of Haiti and offer nonsensical theological blather about the cause of the catastrophe.

Syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh politicized the calamity by saying that President Obama would use the Haitian tragedy to boost his standing with the "light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country."  Limbaugh also seemed to want to scuttle the fundraising for relief efforts when he protested, "We've already donated to Haiti.  It's called the U.S. income tax."

On Glenn Beck's January 14, 2010 radio show, he implied that he has a problem with the Obama Administration's pledge of $100 million to Haitian aid.  Beck believes that the military should be providing security only and allow private charitable organizations and NGOs to do the rest.  IN short, he wanted to create Katrina 2.0.

At least one-third of that island nation has been brought to its knees by tragedy, and the best the Beck can offer is criticism of the Obama Administration's desire to spend $100 million there.  This amount in comparison to our total government outlay is a drop in the proverbial bucket.

And television evangelist Pat Robertson was apparently criticizing the indigenous citizens' adherence to various forms of Haitian voodoo religion as a cause of the earthquake, though he did not do so directly.  On the January 13, 2010 edition of the Christian Broadcasting Network's The 700 Club, Pat Robertson bizarrely claimed that Haiti was hit by the crushing earthquake because it "swore a pact to the devil" to get "free from the French" hundreds of years ago.

This insensitive comment was only the latest in a long line of remarks made by Robertson regarding other disasters.  For example, in 2005 he linked the tragic aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina to the legality of abortion and the presence of homosexuals in New Orleans.  And he earlier agreed with the late Jerry Falwell about the cause of the September 11 terrorist attacks.  Falwell commented on the September 13, 2010 edition of The 700 Club Falwell said then that the attacks could be attributed in part to "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way - all of them who have tried to secularize America - I point the finger in their face and say "you helped this happen."

It is unfortunate that there is little we can do against ignorant, insensitive, and anti-humanitarian remarks such as these, except to be aware of them and, as many progressive organizations are doing, to shine a light on these buffoons.  This might go far to begin the cleansing process.  It is only by educating ourselves and exposing these bigoted, politicized, and mean-spirited attitudes that we may be able to put this kind of prejudice in its proper place.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Can We Be Only for Ourselves?

A very happy New Year to you! May it be a year of health, happiness, and peace!

Much controversy has erupted over the recent resolution passed at the recent biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) regarding support for programs intended to raise the standard of living of Israeli Arabs.

In reality, the Reform movement’s action is not new nor is it unprecedented.

Over the past six to eight years, the URJ, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the United Jewish Communities, and, in fact, over 80 other American Jewish organizations, have addressed ways to fill the social and educational gaps between Jewish and non-Jewish communities in Israel. (see below my commentary on the controversy)

These organizations and others have begun to address the ideals stated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. That document asserts that there would be “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel” and that there should be “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…”

Today the social gaps in Israel are glaring, and most poignantly among the Israeli Arab citizens who make up 20% of Israel’s population. A 2008 report by the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel, 50% of Israeli Arabs (and 65.7% of Arab children) live below the poverty line, compared to 15.7% among Jews (and to 31.4% for Jewish children). Other social indicators reveal similar gaps in health care, education, welfare funding, life expectancy, and employment.

Raising all Israelis’ social and educational standards would help to strengthen Israel’s society. Offering and providing assistance in appropriate ways would fortify relationships and increase the level of coexistence that the Zionist founders of Israel sought in their time.

Much of this advocacy work is being conducted by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli-Arab Issues. I invite you to learn more about this organization that aspires to “make civic equality in Israel a priority for the Jewish people” (from its mission statement).

This is truly an embodiment of the value of Hillel, to concern ourselves about the lives of others as well as our own.


I can only imagine that some donors to these and the other organizations that make up the Inter-Agency Task Force are unhappy with the decision, made eight years ago, to act on this issue. Following the passing of the URJ resolution, the presidents of the Zionist Organization of America and the national Young Israel movement condemned the resolution.

The comments of the Young Israel leader were particularly hurtful, stating that 'Jewish priorities' would dictate serving and supporting Jews and NOT non-Jews.

I think this is a misreading of tradition, which teaches us to help others in addition to ourselves, and at least 37 times in the Torah to help the stranger because 'you were strangers in the land of Egypt.'

I am, as always, interested in hearing your views. Please sign in and share your thoughts.