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!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Observations from My Sabbatical Leave: The Ninth of Av, Trayvon Martin, and Race Hatred as an American Affliction

Beginning Monday evening July 15 and continuing until sundown on July 16, the world-wide Jewish community will observe the day of the Ninth of Av (in Hebrew, Tishah B’av).  This is a day on which we commemorate the destruction of the two ancient Jerusalem Temples, once in 587 BCE, and the other in the 70 CE.

At Temple Beth El, we do not observe this holy day as other congregations might.  However, on this particular Ninth of Av, it is necessary for us to acknowledge one of the lessons put forth about this sorrowful holy day by the rabbis of the Talmud, for this lesson has a direct connection to the verdict of the trial just concluded in Florida which decided the criminal case brought against George Zimmerman.

In teaching about the destruction of the Second Temple by Rome in 70 CE, the rabbis inform us that God destroyed the Temple on account of the “baseless hatred” (Hebrew: sin’at hinam) that we Jews had toward one another: During the years leading up to the destruction, the Jewish community had divided itself along many different political and ideological lines, bringing forth a great amount of vitriol and enmity toward each other.

There were ultra-religious Jews who observed the Torah word-for-word, as well as ‘interpretive-tradition’ Jews who believed that lessons of Torah had to be updated and interpreted in each era; there were also new Christians who believed that their savior had eliminated altogether the need for the Torah and its laws.

There were zealots who looked past the ideological stances of these groups, and advocated for the violent overthrow of Rome by the Israelite nation; and there were those who simply left the body of Jews in Palestine and retreated to the Dead Sea community of ascetics and hermits.

The rabbis of later years analyze the situation, and state that since we could not band together and present a united front in the battle for our land, and since we exhibited a baseless hatred toward – and a total disregard for – one another’s opinions and feelings, we deserved the fate of exile.

In America, in our times, there exist, we must acknowledge, a similar, underlying hatred and suspicion of some of our fellow citizens toward others, specifically some whites against blacks.  From calls for voter registration schemes that would disenfranchise poor and minority voters to the fear that brought about the Trayvon Martin shooting, race prejudice is still an affliction in our country that we have yet to cure.

And the thought that plagues me, as I write on this eve of the Ninth of Av, is whether and when we - as freedom loving and advocating Americans - will ever be able to rid ourselves of our racial fears and animosities, and look upon all others as beings created in God’s image.

Many issues can divide us.  Race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion, should not be the things that separate us from one another.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Observations from My Sabbatical Leave: A Journey to Auschwitz

 The physical dimensions of Auschwitz II (The Auschwitz-Birkenau complex next to Oświęcim, Poland) are difficult to describe.  It’s simply larger than belief.

It may take an hour and a half or longer to circumvent the borders of that infamous death factory where the Nazis murdered more than 1.2 million people, 90% of whom were Jewish.  During my recent visit, it took me twenty minutes to walk out of the camp, traversing the straight rail line that led into the camp and ends today at the platform where ceremonies of memory take place.  I could leave that camp, and our ancestors could not.

As I observed the rocks that lined and reinforced those rail lines, this verse from the book of Psalms came to my mind:  “The rock that the builders had rejected has become the cornerstone.”  (Psalm 118:32)  Just as those rocks have outlived the German war machine, so too have we as a people outlived the animus that sought to destroy us.  Our enemies have been destroyed, and we still exist.

It was recently my privilege to escort a group of 90 eleventh grade Reform Jewish students and their seventeen person staff through some of the Jewish historical sites of Eastern Europe.  And we traveled from the synagogues of Prague to the streets and tenements of Terezín, and from the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz to the rebirth of Jewish life in Krakow and Warsaw.

We learned there that, on the one hand, there was seemingly no limit to the Nazi atrocities of World War II.  We also learned that resistance took many forms, and there were countless Jewish Holocaust victims who would not quietly suffer injustice.

As difficult as this might be, we should include these places on our travel itineraries.  They are not comfortable places to visit, but they are significant Jewish sites where we can directly and viscerally understand what our people experienced during the Holocaust.  And we will also see that Jewish life is on the ascent, even in the very shadow of Auschwitz.