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, June 29, 2015

Reaction to the Deaths in Charleston

The following is a transcription of remarks I made at our Shabbat evening service on Friday June 26, 2015:

Shabbat Shalom.

How do we soothe hearts that are broken by loss?  How do we bring comfort to the mourner?
In Jewish life we do so by our presence.

No words can change the ugly reality of the pain of loss; no amount of praying can bring back those who have been killed.

It is, rather, our ability to leave our positions of comfort, and to sit with someone who has experienced a loss: this is the ultimate mitzvah of “nichum avelim,” of comforting the mourners.

*     *     *     *

I have to tell you that, as a Rabbi, I feel somewhat odd imposing my understanding of mourning and loss onto those of another religious tradition.  To some, those who died at the hands of that gunman in Charleston are in a better place.  And those who experience loss will find some solace in a faith that places the souls of loved ones in the bosom of their god.

But as we consider our history and as we think about our traditions, we Jews are no different.  We understand well the disruption of those whose houses of worship have been violated by violence and hatred.  We know the anger and anguish of prayer that is prohibited, and of Torah study being cut short.  And in our past, we have given special homage to those who have died “al kiddush hashem,” that is, having perished while sanctifying God’s sacred name.

To die while studying the bible, just as did our ancestors at the time of the Roman conquest of the land of Israel, has been considered by our tradition as an act of martyrdom.  We tell ourselves, “Talmud torah k’neged kulam, the study of Torah is greater than observing all of mitzvot.”  In short, those individuals of faith hold a special place in the schema of the world, and we treasure them.

*     *     *     *

Yet regarding the act of violence that led to these deaths in Charleston:  another bible verse comes to mind at this time:  “Lo tirtzach,” do not murder,” says the Ten Commandments.  Taking life is a sacrilege.  So how do we speak of these unspeakable acts?  How can we hold in our minds the thought of the hatred that one person can have for another person, or for a group of people, or for the simple ideas of tolerance and acceptance?

*     *     *     *

We see – we know! – the existence of hate crimes in our times.  Madison itself is on the list of towns where the African American community has suffered loss and experienced prejudice.  Especially here, in a county which is among the most painfully divided because of race: We should well understand the pain – the ache – the agony of rejection by society.  So it is incumbent upon us Jews to empathize well, and to give our presence to those who have experienced loss.

We read in the selection from Leviticus earlier this evening* that we must not stand around idly while our neighbor bleeds.  In this instance, when our friends and neighbors experience loss at the hand of a violent offender – when God’s beloved have literally bled to their deaths – we must call ourselves to action.  We must take into consideration the lives of these dear ones and insist that their martyrdom will not be for naught.

*     *     *     *

There is another scripture that we must learn, however.  There are other lessons that we must integrate.  Ed Madden, poet laureate of Columbia, South Carolina, and faculty member at the University of South Carolina, offers us this recent insight:

“he is from here,
he grew up here,
he went to school here,
he wore his jacket with its white supremacist patches here,
he told racist jokes here…
he learned his racism here…
he is not a symbol, he is a symptom.
he is not a cipher, his is a reminder.
his actions are beyond our imagining but his motivation is not beyond our understanding.
no he didn’t get these ideas from nowhere.”

*     *     *     *

From where, then, we must ask: Who is responsible, and who will now take responsibility?

*     *     *     *

There has been, ever since the rise of Jewish social justice causes, a natural and strong affinity between the Jewish American and African American communities.  Now is the moment – now is the time – when we must re-engage with one another, to remember the values that brought us together, and to commit ourselves anew to the cause of racial justice and equity.  As Hillel reminds us, “And if not now, then when?”

*     *     *     *

So let us remember the souls of the Rev. Clementa Pickney, the Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sister Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, and Ethel Lance.  Let us consider well what we can do to make their deaths part of the grand scheme of tikkun olam, the perfection of God’s world.

*     *     *     *

There is a lot to do, and the job is not only to be accomplished in Madison.

During our recent stay in Jerusalem, I had hoped to visit the “Museum on the Seam,” an institution dedicated to studying the causes and solutions of intolerance.  It is located on the old border between Israel and Jordan, itself a sign of trying to find the hope in conflict.

But our guide told me that the Museum had gone bankrupt.  It made me think that, due to the enormous amount of prejudice alive and well in Israel, maybe the idea of combating intolerance and prejudice, too, has become bankrupt.  Have we become so concerned with our own issues and problems that we cannot see the other, whether in joy or in pain?

*     *     *     *

A week ago yesterday, as we toured the Golan Heights – as we explored the intricate and delicate situation in that part of the world – our Beth El Israel travelers could hear air-shattering and heart-pounding artillery fire in the distance.  Although we were not certain at the time, we could literally feel the pain in the world as yet another round of hatred takes hold.

We later learned that the artillery fire was that of the Syrian army shelling Druze villages in the Syrian-held parts of the steppes of Mount Hermon, in the northern Golan Heights.  Loyal Syrian Druze citizens were and are being slaughtered at the hands of a ruthless and intolerant Syrian regime.  When will that hatred ever cease?

And this moment of our tour was especially poignant to us.  For just two days before, we were privileged to be hosted for lunch at the home of a Druze family near Haifa.  The Druze, a sect of Islam that remains secretive and has been unwilling to disclose details of their faith, is now letting in the strangers and letting the world know a bit about their culture and religion.  They are a kind, generous, tolerant group of souls, who never intermarry and always are loyal to the land in which they live.  If you didn't know, the Druze men serve proudly in the Israel Defense Forces.

*     *     *     *

Another vignette from our recent trip to Israel:

A week ago yesterday, as we returned from Golan Heights and headed toward our kibbutz hotel, we learned of an attack on a church at the northern end of Lake Kinneret, in the small town of Tabcha.  This church is located at the place, says the New Testament, at which Jesus multiplied the fish and the loaves of bread.  It is a place where the Christian faithful come to recall and witness miracles.  Yet on that day, in an entrance corridor of the building, perpetrators set fire to the building making the place inhabitable.  And Hebrew graffiti was found, citing a passage from our Aleinu prayer, calling for the ‘false gods to be eliminated’ from the world.

Most authorities believe this to be the work of a Jewish group which calls itself “Tag M’chir,” or “price tag.”  This group has taken it upon themselves to attack Christian, Muslim, and liberal Jewish individuals and institutions as a way of protesting the presence – in Israel – of those who believe differently than Orthodox Jews, and suffering loss is literally the price these groups have to pay, to try to live in an open society.

The true disappointment is that no one has yet been indicted or held accountable for this or for any of the other such hate crimes that this group has committed.

*     *     *     *

Even the government in Jerusalem is rife with prejudice.

A minister in the new Israeli government last week decried Reform Judaism as the entity that will cause the end of the Jewish people.  Prime Minister Netanyahu immediately condemned those words.  But when such sentiment breaks forth from elected officials, and especially those who are part of the
ruling coalition: This is indeed a time for concern and action.

*     *     *     *

Examples of prejudice abound; it seems they confront us each day, whether we live in Israel, in Charleston, in Oak Park, Wisconsin, at the Sikh temple, or right here in Dane County.  The question is: What will we do about it?  Again, who is responsible, and who will now take responsibility?

A colleague put it in physiological terms:  The human heart has two sides: one side receives blood that has been depleted of oxygen, and the other side adds life-sustaining air and pumps out oxygen-rich blood to the body.  And somehow we hold both in our breast at the same time.

Our hearts today are filled in part with the airless ache of acts of hatred, lives laid to rest in Charleston, and lives cut short by terror overseas.  Many of us feel oxygen-depleted, especially when we consider the situation of the world, and we lose hope.

And for some of us as well, today we also hold in our hearts a measure of hope and comfort, as others of many religious traditions, our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, were given some assurance that that the love they feel for their beloveds is now going to be more accepted by our nation’s state and national governments. 

Ultimately, it is the positive oxygen that sustains the human body. Ultimately, it is the love and justice that surge through our souls that sustains us all.  It is this life-sustaining force that we must put forth into the world.

The loss that confronts us this week has taken the breath from our souls.  It is this loss that we feel with profound sadness.  And so we are present for one another at a time of loss.

But let us also use this occasion to bring comfort, through our hope for repairing the ills of our world. 

May we achieve tikkun olam soon, and in our day.

Shabbat Shalom.

*These selections from Leviticus were read by the congregation earlier in the service:
The Revelation at Sinai – The Holiness Code The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying:  Speak to the whole community of Israel and say to them, “You shall be holy, for I - the Eternal - am holy. You shall each revere your father and your mother, and keep My Sabbaths. When you reap your harvest, leave the corners and the gleanings of the field for the poor and the stranger. You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another. You shall not swear falsely by My name. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not commit robbery. The wages of your workers shall not remain with you until morning. You shall not insult the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall not render an unfair decision: Do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; rather, judge your neighbor fairly. Do not go about as a talebearer.  Do not profit by the blood of your neighbor. You shall not hate your kinfolk in your heart. Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt in doing so. Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinfolk. Love you neighbor as yourself: I am the Eternal.”

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