The following is the statement Rabbi Jonathan Biatch delivered at Madison’s Candlelight Vigil in Solidarity with Charlottesville on Sunday, August 13, 2017. He was speaking on behalf of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice.
Good evening, my friends,
I am Jonathan Biatch, Rabbi of Temple Beth El here in Madison, and I am deeply pained by the reason we gather here tonight. I represent an organization called Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice. Yet our voices are, at this moment, silenced by the shock and sadness that pervades this nation because of this weekend’s events in Charlottesville, Va.
A sacred text of my tradition reminds me that ‘although we are not required to complete the work, we are still compelled to be engaged in it.’ [Pirkei Avot 2:21]. So, here we gather once again, in this case to mourn and to seek catharsis by our presence, but also to rededicate ourselves to the ongoing work of realizing the true American values of equality and justice and peace that give our nation its unique place in the world.
On this occasion, I cannot think about anything other than fire. According to the folklore of my tradition, fire was the first of humanity’s creations. It happened just at the end of that first week in the book of Genesis’ account of God’s creating the world. Yet after creating fire, Adam and Eve discovered that they were afraid of it, and our legends tell us that God demonstrated to them how best to employ those flames which, we know, can be used for good purposes or for ill. We saw this past Friday night, one of the more purposeless and destructive uses of fire. White supremacist marchers used torches to light up the city of Charlottesville in support of their cause.
And I realized that it may have always been thus: For I recalled that these same kinds of torches were employed by Nazi troops and sympathizers during WWII, during their pro-Aryan and anti-Semitic rallies. As I witnessed this terror-filled apparition in Virginia, I realized that we have regressed as a nation and a world, that we have not learned from our past.
Yet we gather here in the same spirit of those concerned citizens, the progressive Americans, and the many religious leaders who gathered in Charlottesville this weekend (and those who are gathering in countless American communities tonight) to confront bigotry and racism.
Our hearts are with the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia who want to redress and resolve the racism in their past. They, there – and we, here – are being challenged by bigots, racists, and anti-Semites who take many of their cues from the so-called leaders in the current presidential administration.
Do we even recognize our nation? Do we see in our fellow citizens our best aspirations, or our worst fears? Is there a way that the president can remove his moral blinders that have, so far, shielded him from the truth of the hatred in our nation? Can we ask him to call out racists, anti-Semites, and xenophobes who are antithetical to the true spirit of America? We all can do this. Why does he refuse?
Let us go forward from this place, tonight, to help our leaders understand the depth of our pain and anguish. Let us go forward from this place, tonight, to ask the president to lead without being forced, cajoled, or compelled, to offer denunciations of white supremacist groups who are anti-American and anti-human, not simply anti-black, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, or anti-LGBTQ.
Let us go forward from this place, tonight, propelled by our common humanity and sense of justice, so that when white supremacists dare to appear anywhere in our nation, they will be met with overwhelming numbers of counter-protesters to bring forth true American values, not fake values.
On this night, let us go forward and offer sympathies and condolences to all those whose lives have been hurt by these bigoted and hateful people, in Charlottesville, Virginia, Bloomington, Minnesota, Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and others. And let us be certain to support them in whatever ways they require.
On this night, our sympathies are with the families of Heather Heyer, H. Jay Cullen, and Berke M.M. Bates, whose deaths did not have to occur were it not for the unforgivable acts of violence and terror perpetrated by the white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville. Our sympathies are also with the wounded in yesterday’s events.
Please permit me to offer this prayer for those who were injured:
May the One who blessed our ancestors bless and heal those who are injured. May the Holy One of Blessing send them compassion, to restore them, to heal them, to strengthen them, to enliven them. May the One who is Blessed send them, speedily, a complete healing: healing of the soul and healing of the body, along with all the ill among all humankind.
And permit me to offer a prayer in memory of those who were killed:
May the One who blessed our ancestors send wholeness to the families of Heather Heyer, H. Jay Cullen, and Berke M.M. Bates, who now suffer at their losses. May God send them loved ones, family and friends, to comfort them and console them, so that they are not alone at this time of grief. And may their memories become blessings in this world.
May all innocent victims from yesterday’s events in Virginia, they and their families, know that good-hearted people from across the world stand with them and with their cause, that of discovering the true spirit of this country and its values of equality, justice, and peace.
I ask us to spend a few moments in silent prayer to remember those who have fallen, and those who will yet rise again in furtherance of these goals.
The struggle continues. May we be successful. Thank you and good night.