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!