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, September 9, 2010

Religious Bigotry: Unacceptable by Any Standard

(The following is the text of a press release composed by the signatories listed below about their grave concern over incidents of religious persecution in the weeks and months gone by. This was released on Tuesday September 7, 2010, at a press conference run by Ingrid Matson, president of the Islamic Society of North America. You can view the press conference through C-SPAN's coverage of the press conference by clicking here.)

As religious leaders in this great country, we have come together in our nation’s capital to denounce categorically the derision, misinformation and outright bigotry being directed against America’s Muslim community. We bear a sacred responsibility to honor America’s varied faith traditions and to promote a culture of mutual respect and the assurance of religious freedom for all. In advance of the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, we announce a new era of interfaith cooperation.

As Jews, Christians, and Muslims, we are grateful to live in this democracy whose Constitution guarantees religious liberty for all. Our freedom to worship in congregations of our own choosing, to give witness to our moral convictions in the public square, and to maintain institutions that carry out our respective missions—all of these are bedrock American freedoms that must be vigorously guarded and defended lest they be placed at peril. The United States of America has been a beacon to the world in defending the rights of religious minorities, yet it is also sadly true that at times in our history particular groups have been singled out for unjust discrimination and have been made the object of scorn and animosity by those who have either misconstrued or intentionally distorted the vision of our founders.

In recent weeks, we have become alarmed by the anti-Muslim frenzy that has been generated over the plans to build an Islamic community center and mosque at the Park 51 site near Ground Zero in New York City. We recognize that the vicinity around the former World Trade Center, where 2,752 innocent lives were cruelly murdered on 9/11, remains an open wound in our country, especially for those who lost loved ones. Persons of conscience have taken different positions on the wisdom of the location of this project, even if the legal right to build on the site appears to be unassailable. Our concern here is not to debate the Park 51 project anew, but rather to respond to the atmosphere of fear and contempt for fellow Americans of the Muslim faith that the controversy has generated.

We are profoundly distressed and deeply saddened by the incidents of violence committed against Muslims in our community, and by the desecration of Islamic houses of worship. We stand by the principle that to attack any religion in the United States is to do violence to the religious freedom of all Americans. The threatened burning of copies of the Holy Qu’ran this Saturday is a particularly egregious offense that demands the strongest possible condemnation by all who value civility in public life and seek to honor the sacred memory of those who lost their lives on September 11. As religious leaders, we are appalled by such disrespect for a sacred text that for centuries has shaped many of the great cultures of our world, and that continues to give spiritual comfort to more than a billion Muslims today.

We are committed to building a future in which religious differences no longer lead to hostility or division between communities. Rather, we believe that such diversity can serve to enrich our public discourse about the great moral challenges that face our nation and our planet. On the basis of our shared reflection, we insist that no religion should be judged on the words or actions of those who seek to pervert it through acts of violence; that politicians and members of the media are never justified in exploiting religious differences as a wedge to advance political agendas or ideologies; that bearing false witness against the neighbor—something condemned by all three of our religious traditions—is inflicting particular harm on the followers of Islam, a world religion that has lately been mischaracterized by some as a “cult.”

We call for a new day in America when speaking the truth about one another will embrace a renewed commitment to mutual learning among religions. Leaders of local congregations have a special responsibility to teach with accuracy, fairness and respect about other faith traditions. The partnerships that have developed in recent years between synagogues and churches, mosques and synagogues, and churches and mosques should provide a foundation for new forms of collaboration in interfaith education, inter-congregational visitations, and service programs that redress social ills like homelessness and drug abuse. What we can accomplish together is, in very many instances, far more than we can achieve working in isolation from one another. The good results of a more extensive collaboration between religious congregations and national agencies will undoubtedly help to heal our culture, which continues to suffer from the open wound of 9/11.

We work together on the basis of deeply held and widely shared values, each supported by the sacred texts of our respective traditions. We acknowledge with gratitude the dialogues between our scholars and religious authorities that have helped us to identify a common understanding of the divine command to love one’s neighbor. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all see an intimate link between faithfulness to God and love of neighbor; a neighbor who in many instances is the stranger in our midst. We are united in our conviction that by witnessing together in celebration of human dignity and religious freedom; by working together for interfaith understanding across communities and generations; and by cooperating with each other in works of justice and mercy for the benefit of society, all of us will demonstrate our faithfulness to our deepest spiritual commitments.

We are convinced that spiritual leaders representing the various faiths in the United States have a moral responsibility to stand together and to denounce categorically derision, misinformation or outright bigotry directed against any religious group in this country. Silence is not an option. Only by taking this stand, can spiritual leaders fulfill the highest calling of our respective faiths, and thereby help to create a safer and stronger America for all of our people.


Rev. Father Mark Arey
Director, Inter-Orthodox Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

Galen Carey
Executive Director of the Office of Governmental Affairs, National Association of Evangelicals

Rev. Richard Cizik
President, New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good

Dr. Gerald L. Durley
Pastor, Providence Missionary Baptist Church

Dr. Mohmaed Elsanousi
Director of Community Outreach, Islamic Society of North America

Prof. Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer
Chair, Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

Dr. Welton Gaddy
President, Interfaith Alliance

Rabbi Steve Gutow
Executive Director, Jewish Council for Public Affairs

Rev. Donald Heckman
Director for External Relations, Religions for Peace

Bishop Neil L. Irons
Executive Secretary, Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church

Mr. Rizwan Jaka
Board Member, Islamic Society of North America

Rev. Rich Killmer
Executive Director, National Religious Campaign Against Torture

Dr. Michael Kinnamon
General Secretary, National Council of Churches (NCC)

Imam Mohamed Hag Magid
Vice President, Islamic Society of North America

Rev. Steven D. Martin
Executive Director, New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good

Father James Massa
Executive Director, Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)

Rabbi Jose Rolando Matalon
Rabbi, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun

Dr. Ingrid Mattson
President, Islamic Society of North America

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick
Archbishop Emeritus of Washington, Archdiocese of Washington

Bishop Donald J. McCoid
Executive for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)

Dr. Roy Medley
General Secretary, American Baptist Churches

Rabbi Jack Moline
Director of Public Policy, Rabbinical Assembly

Mr. Nicholas Richardson
Communications Director, Archdiocese of New York

Pastor Bob Roberts
Pastor, Northwood Church in Keller, Texas

Mr. Walter Ruby
Muslim-Jewish Relations Program Officer, Foundation of Ethnic Understanding

Rabbi David Saperstein
Executive Director, The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ)

Rabbi Marc Schneier
President, Foundation of Ethnic Understanding

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld
Executive Vice President, The Rabbinical Assembly, the Association of Conservatives Rabbis

Dr. Parvez Shah
Secretary General, Universal Muslim Association of America

Bishop Mark Sisk
Bishop of New York City, The Episcopal Church

Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed
National Director, Islamic Society of North America

Rabbi Steve Wernick
Executive Director, United Synagogue

Mr. Jim Winkler
General Secretary for Church and Society, United Methodist Church

Mr. Safaa Zarzour
Secretary General, Islamic Society of North America

Dr. James Zogby
President, Arab American Institute

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Jewish Response in Support of American Muslims

(NOTE: This is an opinion piece that originally appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on Sunday, September 5, 2010, and was written by myself and Charles Cohen, Professor of History/Religious Studies; Director, Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions, University of Wisconsin, Madison)

This week we observe a unique confluence of days sacred to Jews, Muslims, and all Americans. The convergence of the beginning of the Jewish New Year, the conclusion of the month of Ramadan fasts, and the ninth anniversary of the terror attacks of September 11 compel us to reflect on the current controversies ignited by those who wish to divide Americans on the basis of religion.

We are disgusted by recent attempts in various US cities to intimidate Muslim Americans, people who wish simply to exercise their constitutional rights. Anti-Islam activities in New York City, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Sacramento, California, and elsewhere soberly remind us that hatred can fester in any locale. We categorically reject these fear-infused acts to stand with our Muslim cousins – and all Americans of good will – against hate. These actions are utter anathema to us as people of faith and as citizens.

Most disturbing of late have been the threats by a Florida church to burn copies of the Holy Qur’an on September 11. Two generations ago, our parents and grandparents fought the Nazis, who also incinerated books that offended them. It is shameful that a few Americans wish to emulate Hitler.

We believe that the current attacks on Islam go deeper than a fear of terrorism; they put forward the canard that Islam is fundamentally at odds with American values, a viewpoint that we categorically reject. These assaults recall others on religious (and non-religious) minorities: Catholics were thought minions of a foreign potentate; Mormons were hounded because Joseph Smith was (like Muhammad) regarded as a false prophet; Jews were charged with deicide; and atheists were deemed unfit to hold public office. That all of these groups now participate fully in American life is self-evident and cause for national self-congratulation.

Those Muslims who hijacked four planes on September 11 surely caused America grievous harm. Islam itself, however, is not the enemy. The adversary is religious extremism and intolerance for differences. America's better angels have always upheld religious freedom. We hope that the majority of Americans, and surely the majority of Madisonians, will drown out the voices of hatred, bigotry, and ignorance that have rung forth so discordantly this past year.

Observances of both the Jewish New Year and the month of Ramadan encourage their faithful to examine the self, reject sin, and choose better ways of living. We urge Americans of all backgrounds, whether religious or not, likewise to examine themselves and affirm the values that make us a people: freedom of conscience, and respect for different religious heritages.