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, 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.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Case of the Missing Kippah

My children’s love of Shakespeare led my daughter this past summer to bring me a souvenir of her performance trip to England: a sweatshirt from London's Globe Theatre with a citation from the play Henry VIII:  “(But all) Hoods make not monks.”

This was an opportune gift, for it was around that time that I had been considering removing my kippah (head covering; sometimes called a yarmulke) which I had worn since I was a child growing up in a Conservative synagogue.

I had thought for a while about making this conscious choice about my own personal Jewish behavior.  Arguably, whether I wear a head covering or not has very little connection to how I lead my community in worship, teach Judaism to my congregants and others, pastor to my congregants’ needs, or reach out to the general community and share Jewish views with non-Jews.  But long-time habits – and long-held expectations – are difficult to change.

Origins of the head-covering: There is a midrash in Talmud Shabbat 156b, which tells of a young boy whose propensity to steal was diminished by the wearing of a hat; it was said to be symbolic of undertaking the "yoke" of God's commandments.  And based on the strength of that extra-legal vignette, certain authorities have spoken about the hat being a sign of recognition that we serve God ‘above,’ and therefore we cover the head in accord with this understanding.  Still, most authorities will acknowledge that there is no halachic (Jewish legal) requirement to wear a head covering. 

My experience: During my student days and through the length of my 22-year rabbinate, I have worn a kippah while leading worship and working as a pastor.  I had occasionally worn it while performing public functions.  But for the three weeks prior to the recent High Holy Days, and throughout the recent holiday season, I have remained bareheaded…and the skies did not open up in downpours, nor was there any lightning from above.

Further, it has been fascinating to hear reactions from congregants who are surprised by what they see.

I treasure my congregants, and I have been especially impressed by those who have approached me to inquire about my new practice.  I know that some of my congregants will never speak to me about it, preferring to speculate privately without making an inquiry.  But to a person, those who have ‘taken the risk’ and come to me have asked in a very sensitive and sincere manner.  They want to know why I have made this decision.  They are curious about how long it has been since I removed the kippah.  And when I ask them about how they feel about it, they are honest about their being surprised, and some have expressed discomfort.  But most have been willing to accept the sanction I possess as an independent, self-actualizing, Reform Jew to select my set of choices when it comes to personal practice.

They have also been willing to hold final judgment and see if they ever become comfortable with this changed custom.

This issue brings up the question of whether in a modern Reform setting the Rabbi needs to serve as an exemplar of religious practices that are not necessarily a “required” part-and-parcel of Reform praxis.  That will be the subject of a long-time personal reflection – and some public listening sessions – in which I will engage in the future.

My bimah partner Cantor Martin wears a kippah; I do not.  Perhaps this pairing of two different worship styles will demonstrate that either is acceptable in our contemporary Reform Jewish setting.  And in the eyes of some, more and more congregants are willing to accept the Bard’s reflection with which I began my blog above, that “all hoods make not monks.”

Saturday, June 21, 2014

In the Aftermath of a Divestment Vote: What to do?

I take an extraordinary step in writing this blog post today, as I usually refrain from usual labor/work activities on the Shabbat.  But the divestment vote taken yesterday at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA has affected me deeply.

If you had not yet known, the delegates to the national Presbyterian meeting in Detroit voted 310 to 303 to remove $21 million of investments in Hewlett-Packard, Motorola Solutions, and Caterpillar from their investments.  According to the Presbyterians, these companies profit from the continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and the Church has now deemed that it does not want such investments in their securities portfolio.

At Presbyterian meetings over the last 10 years, similar motions have been brought to the floor and have been defeated, but by continually dwindling vote margins.  The success of this vote yesterday is not shocking, but extremely disappointing.

Even more hurtful is the disingenuousness of the language of the motion that passed the assembly.  According to the NYTimes (click here), the Presbyterian measure stressed that it is “not to be construed” as in “alignment with or endorsement of the global B.D.S. [boycott, divestment and sanctions]” movement by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  According to the church’s website, “After the vote, the assembly’s moderator told a hushed auditorium ‘To our media friends in the room, please don’t report that this action is anything other than an expression of love for both our Jewish and Palestinian brothers and sisters.’”  (You can read more about the Presbyterian vote and see some comments of the delegates by clicking here.)

I think we’ve been loved like this before, and it has not ended up well.

Regardless of the Presbyterians’ protestations to the contrary, I believe the vote and subsequent actions of the Presbyterian Church will add fuel as well as momentum to the international BDS movement.  The sad irony is that such actions generally have had the effect of strengthening Israel’s resolve to do solely what it believes is best for its national security.  Nothing the Presbyterians did in Detroit will serve to advance their goals in this regard.

This move has the potential also to drive a sharp wedge between friends who have, for many years, together sought a peaceful solution to the conflicts of the Middle East.  I pray that this will not be the case.  And I pledge, in my corner of Wisconsin, not to allow this vote to hinder the important work of peacemaking that could involve our local Presbyterian friends.

Two days before the June 14 start of the assembly, I met with two delegates from the Presbytery in which we find ourselves.  This was a very cordial and frank meeting, where I had hoped to express my fears, my concerns, and my suggestions for alternatives to a divestment vote.  I so much appreciated their willingness to meet and hear my side.  And I believe they felt my sincerity and my apprehension.  And immediately after the vote, I received an email message from one of these delegates, hoping to meet upon their return and continue our dialogue on these crucial questions.  I am sure we will pursue our conversations, and I know that we will pursue peace, as difficult as this now will be.

I hope I have your support to pursue peace even when it is most difficult.  For if we do this in our corner of the world, perhaps others will perceive our efforts, and similarly make the moves necessary for peaceful solutions to our problems.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Essence of Judaism – What Would You Say?

Over the last few weeks, I have had what is an annual parade of students of world religion classes from local colleges visit my office and interview me about Judaism.  This year, the question they all asked was, “What are the most important beliefs of Judaism?”

I hope you offered your replies on our Facebook Page at https://www.facebook.com/templebethelmadison.  So here is my answer to these students:

There are three Jewish beliefs that are the most important, and that distinguish Judaism from other faiths and religious communities.

I.   First, the history of our belief in the One God, Creator of the heavens and the earth, who is a benevolent and non-punishing God.  Honoring one god allows us to have focus and to develop a personal relationship with that God.  Other religions, past and present, might have been perceived to have one or multiple gods, who must be appeased because of their jealousy and need for fealty, and who punishes for infractions, major and minor.  And it is true that the God of Israel comes across this way in the Torah.  But when the Talmudic sages of our people spoke about and tried to analyze the characteristics of our God, they described the Holy One of Blessing in compassionate and human terms.  This God has chastised Israel in the past, but now is with and supports the people of Israel in all their endeavors.

II.      Second, the belief that each person is created in the image of God, and that each person is equal in God’s eyes regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or any other characteristic that has tragically divided people from one another.  As a corollary, the book of Genesis uses the imagery of the “image of God” to denote also that each person carries with them elements of the Divine.  Therefore, each person is deserving of respect and love.

III.    And third, that each person receives at birth a soul that is pure and good, and that each person has the capacity to rise to great heights of human achievement during his and her lifetime.  This characteristic, too, underscores the essence of human dignity, because each person, regardless of traits that may distinguish one from another, is truly equal to one another!

Please leave comments - I would be interested in your observations and dialogue on this question!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Ukraine May Not Be Healthy for Jews and Other Living Things

During my high school and college years, the cause of liberating Soviet Jewry rose as a major goal of the Israeli and Diaspora Jewish communities.  And the button and bumper sticker of choice was one that read, “Russia isn’t healthy for Jews and other living things.”  Given the current events in Ukraine, things have not changed.

As you may know, last week following evening services one day in the Ukrainian town of Donetsk, masked men approached Jewish worshipers with leaflets, informing them that ‘Jews’ had to register their names, possessions, and the fact that they were loyal to the Russian separatists, and pay the equivalent of $50 to do so.  They were informed further that non-compliance would be met with ouster from the country.

The fact that this act was not sanctioned by the government in Russia – that this was later revealed to be an elaborate hoax perpetrated against the Jews (and perhaps the Ukrainian government) – meant nothing to the Jewish worshipers.  They felt intimidated, shamed, frightened, and disgusted.  This was an act reminiscent of the Holocaust, when identifying one’s lineage became the difference between life and death.

Jews becoming the political pawns of hostile governments has happened for hundreds of years.  I guess it never stops getting old.

But this occurrence in Donetsk, taken in concert with the haunting events of Overland Park, Kansas, where a known white supremacist attacked two very visible Jewish institutions, make it abundantly clear that anti-Semitism still exists as a force to be reckoned with.  It is something that we must recognize and label it for what it is: ethnic hatred and intolerance.

At this time of the year, when Passover coincides with Easter, and the passions of people become inflamed, it is vital to protect our communal institutions and our way of life as a free American people.  And when we see overt acts of anti-Semitism, to call them out and identify them!  Only then will we begin to win the struggle against them.

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Season for Rejoicing, and a Reason to Consider

Passover 5774

Dear friends,

A very happy Passover to you and your families!  May you experience the joy of the holiday, enjoy the beauty of a spring snowfall, and savor the delicious foods of the season.

As the holiday of Passover begins; as we prepare to retell the saga of our people’s courageous escape from Egyptian slavery, the American Jewish community is confronted again with the continuing visage of persecution and hatred.  It is becoming more apparent that the cowardly shooting and deaths of three people using Jewish communal facilities in the Kansas City suburbs was in some measure, if not completely, motivated by anti-Semitic animus.  And so the values that we will discuss around our Seder tables take on new meaning, as we try to escape the scourge of anti-Semitism, and liberate ourselves from senseless human prejudice.

When we see the empty place setting or goblet set aside for Elijah at our Seder tables, we might think of the three people killed in yesterday’s senseless acts.  Along with the Jewish community of Kansas City, we mourn the loss of life and we send our condolences to the families.  We also might think of many others who have been killed because either they were Jews or – as in Kansas City –they were non-Jews associating with the Jewish community.  With these thoughts in mind, our struggle against intolerance and racism continues as we rededicate ourselves to the liberation of people everywhere from the bonds of persecution.

May your holiday be sweet!  May your homes be joyous with sounds of celebration!  And may we find reason to attach ourselves to the ongoing effort of human liberation!  A sweet and happy Passover to you!

Monday, March 31, 2014

What’s On Your Ballot? Vote on April 1 - No Fooling!

Tuesday April 1 will be Election Day in many Dane County precincts.  Take time and vote tomorrow.

Go to the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board website designed to help voters at https://myvote.wi.gov/, and see what’s on your ballot.

I am sending out this message because I was appalled by a headline in Saturday’s Wisconsin State Journal that proclaimed that only 12% of Wisconsin voters are predicted to cast a ballot this Tuesday.

Let’s prove them wrong.

Judaism and voting:  What’s the connection?

As Jews and Americans, we are a people dedicated to social justice and the betterment of our society.  Accordingly, it is our religious obligation to ensure that we support elected officials and ballot referenda that reflect this commitment.  Whether on a local, state, or national level, our leaders develop policies that affect human liberties, our environment, and even the state of Israel, and we can move public policy issues when we participate in the most basic of activities, going to the voting booth and making our voices heard.

In the Talmud (B'rachot 55a) we learn that “a ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted.”  Election Day is our opportunity to offer our advice and consent on those who lead us, and on issues that may directly affect our lives.

What’s on the ballot?

Each jurisdiction and precinct has different candidates and referenda.  On my ballot will be school board candidates, judges, county supervisors, and two non-binding voter referenda.  It might, at first, appear to be a minor set of concerns, but we have to know that our local officials can be those who directly connect to us and affect the quality of life where we live.

So Go!

So please go to your polling place, before going to school or work, or on the way home, and make your voice heard.  Remember, go to the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board website designed to help voters at https://myvote.wi.gov/, and see what’s on your ballot!  Vote on April 1!  No Fooling!