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


The One Biblical Verse We Need to Remember When We Discuss Guns

The New York Times did something extraordinary this Saturday—it ran an editorial on the front page.

This was extraordinary in both senses of the word. On the one hand it was unusual in that this is the first time since 1920 that the Times ran an editorial on the front page. And on the other hand, it was also impressive because it took on one of our most pressing social issues of our day—the prevalence of gun violence in our country.

In the wake of this most recent mass shooting in San Bernadino, California, the Times called for renewed attention to and, more importantly, action against the ease by which guns can be obtained in this country. The Times writes, “It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency… America’s elected leaders offer prayers for gun victims and then, callously and without fear of consequence, reject the most basic restrictions on weapons of mass killing….”

This is a call that resonates. As a citizen, I find the statistics of gun violence to be staggering, both the numbers of victims and the number of incidents. I find it shameful that our government has even prevented research into the epidemic of gun violence, to examine it as we would any other public health issue.

And at the same time, as a member of the clergy, I feel the “moral outrage” when we allow such violence to continue, when we don’t act on our power to take reasonable measures to protect human life, when we maintain conditions that makes it easier for people to violently act on their impulses, or cause self-harm, or create situations for accidental mayhem.

I do believe it is the religious response to want to implement meaningful gun legislation in our country. And in examining my sacred textual tradition, there is only one biblical verse to which we need to turn to find a  basis for meaningful action regarding guns.

gun bible

No, it is not “thou shall not kill,” famously part of the Ten Commandments. And no, it is not even “you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” found in Leviticus, which teaches about the need to act on behalf of our neighbors, especially when they are suffering.

Rather, we need to look to Deuteronomy 22:8: “When you build a new house, you must build a parapet on the roof, that you should not bring any blood upon your house, if any person falls from there.”

In other words, we must do what we can to mitigate risk. It does not mean we need to ban completely certain activities that carry risk. But if we don’t take rational steps to minimize injury, then we are guilty of any harm that comes because of our neglect.  No one is saying don’t build a house. But when you do, build a railing so someone doesn’t fall off the roof.

This ancient verse speaks to our contemporary gun situation. It may not be possible or desirable to completely get rid of guns. But we must do what we can to minimize risk. We must “build the parapet” of gun legislation in our country.

Research has shown that gun safety measures can lower gun deaths. We must, as a nation, think creatively, rationally and spiritually to implement means to reduce the harm caused by guns.

The other day I sat with my oldest son in the orientation for his driver’s education class. Having turned 15 and now eligible for his learner’s permit in Washington State, we learned about the requirements he would need to fulfill in order to become a licensed driver: A course of education with supervised driving time. A minimum of 50 hours driving practice. Written and practical exams. Insurance requirements. Here, then, measures taken to minimize risk and increase protection for a necessary yet potentially dangerous act—driving. Will accidents happen? Of course. Will deaths occur? Unfortunately, yes. These are the risks that come with living. But just because we can not eliminate all risk does not mean we do not do what we can to eliminate some.

The New York Times has lent its voice to the growing chorus calling for more reasonable gun laws. It is a position that all people of faith should support, for the original call came thousands of years ago, in a verse of Scripture.

Taking Another Step to Reducing Gun Violence: My Testimony on HB 1857

Here is the scenario: you discover a loved one who has struggled with mental illness recently purchased a gun. What do you do to prevent him from harming himself or others? As of now in Washington, there is no measure that can be taken to legally remove the gun from that person. But a bill working its way through the state legislature will create that measure.

When the voters of Washington passed the universal background check initiative last election day, we as a citizenry took an important step to reducing the amount of gun violence. But there is more work to do. Yesterday I was honored to represent Jewish and other faith communities in support of HB 1857, the Extreme Risk Protection Act, which would create a means to protect those who are at risk from potential gun violence.10420096_906629809357283_8188437738861861523_n

Here is my testimony in front of the House Judiciary Committee yesterday:

Chair and members of the Committee, my name is Rabbi Seth Goldstein, I am a rabbi serving the Olympia Jewish community and I am here as a member of the clergy and representing the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, and umbrella Jewish organization.

I am here as a representative of Jewish and faith communities from across the state to appeal to you to support HB 1857 as a measure to take the ethical and just path of maintaining a safe and secure environment for families and the public.

Our American society has been founded on rights and due process. At the same time the rights of one must be balanced against the rights of others, and the rights of an individual must be balanced against the responsibilities to public welfare. All of the great faith traditions of our day teach the responsibility we must have for each other’s welfare. We demonstrate this in our daily interpersonal interactions, but sometimes we must also guarantee this through legislation and government oversight.

When there are those at risk of becoming the victim of violence, either because of mental illness, or substance abuse, or an altered emotional state, we have the moral obligation to do what we can as a society to mitigate that violence and stop those who may do harm to themselves or others.

There is a passage in Scripture, in Exodus, that says, if you have an ox that is prone to goring other oxen—in other words, it is dangerous—and you know about the danger, and you do nothing about it, then you are both legally and morally liable for the damage it causes.

This bill gives families and our honored law enforcement the tools needed to tame that ox. It helps families and communities prevent a crisis from turning into a tragedy, and helps build a stronger and safer and more just society. For that, I believe, it deserves your support.

Thank you.

Testimony on Gun Legislation

I had the opportunity to offer testimony in front of the Washington State Senate committee considering background checks on gun purchases. Here is what I said in my allotted 1 minute:

Senator Padden and members of the committee, my name is Rabbi Seth Goldstein and I serve the Jewish community of Olympia. I come here today to lend a religious voice in support of I-594.

There is an interesting verse in Scripture, in the book of Deuteronomy: “If you are building a house, you must put a fence on your roof, so you do not incur guilt if one should fall from it.” In other words, if we know of something that can cause harm and we do not do anything to mitigate that harm, then we are guilty should something happen, the blood is on our hands.

I know this bill will not completely end senseless gun violence. But to do nothing because it won’t do everything is immoral. If there is anything we can do to prevent guns from getting in the hands of those who should not have them while still respecting the rights of those who could, then that is what we are called upon to do.

I recognize that our constitutional rights are indeed sacred, but our country has never said that rights are absolute—they must be balanced with the responsibilities we have to one another. For we are responsible for one another.

Thank you.

The Response to Fear is to Interfere

Last weekend in Olympia was an interfaith vigil on gun violence. I was asked to give the closing words, here is what I shared:

We are reminded, especially after this week, that we are living in a time of fear.

We live in fear of violence that the accessibility of guns can bring,

And we live in fear that violence is seen as an appropriate expression of disagreement or dissent.

We live in fear that our leadership can not do what is necessary to keep us safe,

And we live in fear that our leaders want to do what is easy, not what is just.

We live in fear that individual rights are seen as absolute, while communal concern is seen as not a priority,

And we live in fear that individuals are rightfully held accountable for their crimes without an examination of the larger systems which support them.

We live in fear.

But we don’t have to.

Rebbe Nachman of Bratslov famously said, “The world is a very narrow bridge, the essence is not to fear.” The world is a fraught place, but we do not need to fear, because we can act.

The response to fear is to interfere.

Today is Shabbat, the sacred day of rest. In the Jewish tradition we read a section of the sacred Scripture—the Torah—each week on Shabbat in order, beginning with Genesis in the fall and continuing through the year. Today we are in the middle of Leviticus, in a portion called “Kedoshim”—holiness. The Holiness Code. It is a portion that gives us some of our most powerful ethical imperatives. Ways to be holy as God is holy. We are told, in this week’s reading, that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. And indeed we must.

But we are also told, in the verse immediately prior, that “you must not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.”

And indeed we must not.

We will not stand idly by the blood of Newtown, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Oak Creek or Tucson.

We will not stand idly by the blood of the thousands upon thousands of victims who die each year by a bullet.

We will not stand idly by the blood of the victim of domestic violence, who suffers more because there is a gun in the house.

We will not stand idly by the blood of one of God’s children, who in a moment of despair makes the ultimate decision because there is a gun readily accessible.

We will not stand idly by the blood of one person whose death could have been avoided by more just, more compassionate, more reasonable gun laws.

We will not fear, we will interfere.

We will interfere with our elected officials, our community leaders, our fellow citizens.

We will interfere with our prayers and our protests.

We will interfere.

So let us move from a place of fear to a place of action, a place of sadness to a place of hope.

And may our steps be firm, our spirits strong and our vision clear.