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, 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!