We Must Do Something, Even if We Can’t Do Everything

testimonygunsAs the legislative session begins here in Washington, I had the first opportunity to offer testimony on pending legislation.

As part of my commitment to social justice, I find the opportunity to use the clergy voice to bear on legislation to be very important. Oftentimes to affect social change we need to work through our systems of governance and legislation, and to bring a moral and faith-based voice to bear on issues of common concern is part of pursuing tikkun olam. In doing this work, I generally work in coordination with two organizations, the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, the umbrella Jewish organization that develops a policy agenda does lobby, and the Faith Action Network, a statewide interfaith organization dedicated to issues of social justice.

The issue last Thursday was guns. And while I wasn’t originally scheduled to offer testimony, since the scheduled rabbi had a funeral to officiate, and I dutifully stepped in.

The bill was to establish Extreme Risk Protection Orders. These are court orders that will allow law enforcement to confiscate the guns of or prevent the purchase of guns by those deemed at high risk. If someone, for example, suffers from mental illness and is at risk of harming themselves or others, or has perpetrated domestic violence, or who has made obvious threats, then family members or law enforcement can petition the court to issue an extreme risk protection order. It is meant to get guns out of the hands of those most liable to do harm to themselves or others.

There were several gun related bills up for discussion that day in front of the House Judiciary Committee. Many people in support of the various gun safety measures shared personal stories of pain and loss related to gun violence. It was truly heartbreaking to hear, and served as a reminder that while we honor constitutional rights, we also note that rights must be tempered with responsibilities.

On the other side, the arguments against gun safety measures that I heard that day fell into a few categories: (1) there are other things that kill people and are liable to cause harm, and so why single out guns? (2) We don’t need new laws because there are enough protections on the books already. Or (3) there are other factors that contribute to gun violence, so we should address the root causes and not blame guns.

In other words, these bills being heard at the Legislature are not going to stop all gun related violence, so we shouldn’t even bother to implement them.

It is true, we can not be sure what will work and what will not work. We can not be sure how many gun deaths will be averted if we institute new measures. But that does not mean we shouldn’t try.

I think about this as last week’s hearing fell the week of the Torah portion Beshallach. This is the portion in which we read the story of the parting of the Red Sea, how the Israelites were finally free from Egypt, only to find their path blocked by the sea. With the Egyptian army pursuing them, Moses lifted up his staff and a miracle occurred, the sea parted allowing the Israelites to pass in safety.

The Midrash (ancient Torah commentary) adds more detail to the Torah text, and tells the story of Nachshon. As the midrash goes, when the Israelites saw the Egyptians approach and their path blocked, they cried out to Moses. Moses himself was unsure about what to do; there was arguing and discord. An Israelite leader named Nachshon, meanwhile, jumped right into the sea, and it was with that action that Moses was able to part the waters to let the Israelites pass.

It was Nachshon’s direct action and willingness to take a leap into an unknown future, the commentary tells us, that allowed for the seas to part to bring about liberation.

Nachshon’s example still speaks strongly to us today. Careful deliberation and weighing of options is important. But sometimes we just need to act, unsure about what the outcomes may be. The only surety is that doing nothing is not an option. In Nachshon’s case, doing nothing meant certain death, so he needed to take the first step forward.

As we continue to face the devastating issue of gun violence in our country, there are many ideas as to what measures we can take to reduce harm, and we can debate them all. But we also need to take action to do something. Doing nothing is not an option. It too, can mean certain death.

Here is my testimony:

Chair and members of the committee, my name is Rabbi Seth Goldstein and I serve the Jewish community here in Olympia, and I am here as a citizen and as a member of the clergy, representing the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, the Faith Action Network and other allied faith communities in support of HB 2461

I am here in support because the dictates of my faith and my conscience tell me that we must do what we can to try to curb the plague of gun violence in our country. As each day the number of deaths and injuries attributed to gun violence rise, the more this issue has become not only one of policy or rights, but of our failure to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Our rights as citizens have never been absolute. They must be balanced by individual responsibility and the collective obligation to protect each other from harm. And when there is a situation of proven risk, and we do not do what we can to mitigate that risk, then we have acted irresponsibly.

We all recognize that there are a host of factors that contribute to gun violence, and that there are other means of causing harm. But to not do something because we can’t do everything is, frankly, immoral. Extreme risk protection orders represent one important step, to limit access in order to limit injury. I urge your support.

And here is video


On the Backs of Those Who Most Need Our Help

I spent today at the Capitol with over 200 other members of faith communities from across the state to participate in Interfaith Advocacy Day, sponsored by the Faith Action Network. It was a day of learning, of inspiration and action. Connected to the work we did today is this piece I wrote for the Jewish Soundwa capitol (formerly the JTNews, and thanks to them for the headline), published in this week’s issue:

Here is a scenario: a synagogue is faced with a tight budget. Examining its options, the board of the congregation decides not to do any additional fundraising, but instead decides to just cut programs.

Doesn’t sound too realistic? As a congregational rabbi myself, I understand that there is a limit to cutting programs-how far does one cut back? Do we get rid of our youth education program? Deny well- deserved pay for our staff? Instead, prudent spending cuts need to be coupled with examining new avenues of fundraising: do we raise the expected annual commitment? Have a special event? Maybe a special High Holiday appeal?

This is the situation our state is facing. Bound by law on much of its spending, our state is facing a tight budget. So there are two choices: cut services, or raise revenues. And with many of the services on the chopping block social services to help the most in need in our state, it becomes imperative that we look at new areas to raise revenue in order to secure the social services that are so desperately needed.

But the need for more revenue rather than balancing the budget on the backs of those most in need is only one major issue of economic justice facing our state. Our state taxation system is extremely regressive-it puts more of the burden of those who can least afford it. In other words, the poorest in our state are paying a higher percentage of their earnings in taxes than the richest in our state.

How regressive? Out of 50 states, Washington ranks 50th.

According to the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy, an independent think tank that studies federal, state and local tax issues, Washington State has the most regressive tax structure in the United States. According to its most recent report (which can be found on its website http://www.itep.org), the poorest citizens of our state are taxed at a rate of 16.8%, while the richest-the top 1% of wage earners-pay only 2.4% in taxes.

[Again, to the synagogue analogy, it’s like expecting your poorest congregants to pay more in dues than your richest congregants.]

And if we combine the two issues, we see that failing to raise revenue while cutting social services will mean a double hit on our poorest: they will be paying the most in taxes while services meant to support them are being cut.

I often find it interesting that a state that seems to be progressive when it comes to social issues-the voters of the state of Washington passed by ballot marriage equality, gun control and marijuana legalization (the first two with the official support of the organized Jewish community)-continues to be so regressive when it comes to economic policy.

As our legislature is meeting here in Olympia, they will need to wrestle with this dilemma. Already our Governor has introduced various revenue packages for consideration. And there are other issues of economic justice in front of our lawmakers. A raise in the minimum wage is another, for example, that should be seriously considered.

I’m not an economist or a policy analyst, so I will hesitate to weigh in on the pros and cons of various solutions; I don’t know what the right answers are. But I am a rabbi, and I can say that budgets are moral documents, they reflect a community’s priorities and values. And to continue to maintain such a regressive tax system, and cutting social services without raising new revenue, is immoral.

We as Jews need to be concerned with economic justice, it is rooted in our text and tradition. This coming Shabbat is parashat Terumah, in Exodus. Having escaped from Egyptian slavery, the Israelites-through the gift of Torah-are to build a new society for themselves. One aspect is the ritual and ethical laws we explored in last week’s Torah reading. Another aspect is the communal institutions that will serve as a centerpiece to the community.

In this week’s portion, in Exodus 25:8, God tells Moses “let them make me a Sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” The portion continues, describing in detail the plans and materials that will be used to construct the tabernacle and its furnishings. And those materials come from the people. All the people.

The economic issues facing our state are our issues, not only as citizens, but as Jews. We all must contribute to the development of our community. That is what our tradition teaches. And it also teaches that we do so justly and fairly.

Against Wage Theft: My Testimony in front of the WA House Labor Committee

Through my political action, I have the occasion to testify in front of the Washington State legislature several times over the course of a legislative session. Rarely, though, do those opportunities come so close in time. Much of what appears to be on the legislative horizon this year is about economic justice–namely, how to not forget those in need at a time of difficult budgeting and the need for new revenue and spending cuts. On the other hand, there are opportunities to make the case for other issues of economic justice. In the past I have lent my voice in the fight against payday lending. Today, I had the opportunity to speak out against wage theft, and support a bill that would provide remedy for those whose wages have been unfairly withheld. And as a rabbi, I can tell you that this practice is in clear violation of the Torah! Here is my testimony:

Chair and members of the committee,

My name is Seth Goldstein and I am a rabbi serving the Jewish community of Olympia. I am here representing the Faith Action Network, a statewide organization representing faith communities off all denominations dedicated to advancing faith based approaches to justice.

And I come here in strong support of HB 1518

As a faith community leader, I am reminded of the verse from Scripture, in the book of Deuteronomy: “You must pay a worker’s wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the Lord against you and you will incur guilt.”

I do not site this verse to imply that Washington civil law should be based on biblical precedent. I do site these verse to point out that there is a deep and abiding ethical concern enshrined in our sacred texts that is mean to support those who labor, to oppose the exploitation of workers, specifically through the of duly earned wages in a timely manner. The treatment of those who work for us is of paramount concern—it is a pillar of a moral society.

And we continue to fail on that regard. It should be a common expectation that you show up to do your job and you get paid for your time and effort. You have earned that money, it is yours. Sadly, workers suffer from various forms of “wage theft”—having wages withheld through a variety of means.

And these violations, while in and of themselves unfair, also unfairly target those who have been traditionally marginalized in our society: women, immigrants and minorities. And when the poor and vulnerable are trapped by these violations then it makes it that much harder for them to provide for their families and make the rent or a car payment for example, and are caught in a cycle of dependency.

We support HB 1518 because it provides means to break this cycle. It provides a means to address wealth inequality and create a more just society. It gives the tools people need to reclaim what is rightfully theirs: not only their lost wages, but their dignity as human beings who have the right not to be taken advantage of, looked down upon, used and abused.

Our support is not about punishing the business community, it is about doing right by our workers. Let us rectify a wrong so that all citizens of Washington are treated fairly and justly.

Thank you.

Video here: http://www.tvw.org/index.php?option=com_tvwplayer&eventID=2015011180#start=4478&stop=4660