Being Good Citizens

In this week’s Torah portion the Israelites, under the leadership of Moses, have escaped from Egyptian slavery, crossed the Red Sea and are beginning their journey to the Promised Land. Jethro, Moses’s father-in-law, has heard about the events that took place, and travels from his home in Midian to meet up with Moses in the Wilderness. Jethro brings Moses’s wife and children, and the family is reunited. Jethro congratulates Moses on the victory and offers up a blessing to God on behalf of the Israelites.

The next day, its business as usual, and, as the text describes, Moses takes his position at the head of the community to adjudicate the disputes of the Israelites:

Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” Moses replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.” But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. (Exodus 18:13-18)

Jethro then advises Moses to set up a system of system of judges wherein selected leaders would be placed over smaller groups of people, “over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens,” with each leader handling the disputes of the group that they are overseeing. Larger disputes make their way up the chain, and Moses is left just handling the most important and difficult cases.

It is a system of jurisprudence that is familiar to us, with lower courts handling local disputes with the ability to appeal to higher courts as necessary.

This story of Jethro is taken to teach the importance not only of having an orderly court system, but to have an organized system of leadership in general. Moses running the entire community by himself was not sustainable neither for him nor for the people. We recognize the need to have institutions of government in order to facilitate community and ensure that everyone’s needs are met.

But Jethro has another lesson for Moses. For before advising Moses to set up the system of leaders he says to him, “enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow.” (Exodus 18:20)

In other words, Jethro says before you set up a system of judges, make sure the people themselves know the law and what is expected of them as members of the community. A successful system, therefore, is one that not only relies on a functional system of government but on an active and engaged citizenry.

Earlier this week I sat on a panel at The Evergreen State College on the subject of religious liberty and specifically how it relates to the LGBTQ community. I represented a faith community perspective in a wide ranging conversation in which we talked about law, discrimination and the Constitution, circling around the Arlene’s Flowers case, in which a florist was sued for discrimination for refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding claiming it violated her religious beliefs. (The Washington Supreme Court unanimously decided against her on Thursday.)

During my opening remarks, I cited the famous letter from George Washington to the Jewish community in Newport, RI in 1790, which has become a sacred text to the American Jewish community. In that letter, a response from Washington to a letter of congratulations sent to him by the congregation on the occasion of his inauguration, he writes,

It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

I’ve always knew this letter to be an affirmation of religious liberty, especially important to a minority faith community wary perhaps of its position in this new country. But in reading it again we see that while Washington affirms those rights, he also notes that at the same time in order for those rights to be guaranteed, those who live by them should behave as “good citizens.”

From Jethro to George Washington the message is that while we have leaders and guides, the obligation rests on us to know what is expected of us and to behave accordingly.

We are responsible for our civic lives, needing to be educated in our laws, our rights and responsibilities and to conduct ourselves in such a way that we not only exercise them for ourselves but guarantee them for others. Courts can serve as a correction when things go wrong, but the onus is on us to treat everyone fairly.

And we are responsible for our own spiritual lives, needing to be educated in our traditions, texts and practices and to find our place within them in order to live out our values and convictions. We can find others who serve as teachers and guides, but we can not expect others to do it for us.

In both instances, we ourselves are expected to “know the way we are to go.”

Why Tim Kaine is Good for the Jews (and It’s Not Because of Israel)

It’s convention season, so I’m glued to the TV as are many of my fellow citizens. After Hillary Clinton’s selection of Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate, I penned this blog post for my weekly turn on the Rabbis Without Borders blog:

Why Tim Kaine is Good for the Jews (and It’s Not Because of Israel)


A Post-“Hobby Lobby” Fourth

Tomorrow we celebrate the Fourth of July, the central observance of our civil religion as Americans.

I believe that as Jews, we need to pay particular attention to the observance of this day. As a minority in this country, we are indebted to the founding principles and values of America. It is the idea of America—with its emphasis on freedom, equality and rights—that has allowed the Jewish community to flourish in its diversity.

Even in the State of Israel there are limits when it comes to religious liberty among Jews (there is freedom of religion for other faiths). With elements of the establishment in the hands of the Orthodox, one expression of Judaism has official sanction leading to tensions with more liberal expressions of Judaism and clashes over access to sacred spaces.

America is not without its challenges as well. That same freedom that allows for the diversity of expression among Jews also raises new questions about Jewish continuity as we Jews—like other populations—find ourselves no longer confined to ethnic enclaves but in shared community with people of different backgrounds, faiths and cultures.

And more recently we are seeing an evaluation of how religious liberty is understood in our country.

We come to celebrate this July 4th not long after the Supreme Court announced its decision in the Hobby Lobby case, which essentially gave the right of closely-held corporations to exercise religious liberty by opting out of the provision of the Affordable Care Act to cover certain types of  women’s contraception.

There are many analyses of this decision to be shared by greater legal minds than mine (despite winning the Rockland County Mock Trial championship in 1990). This case includes elements of reproductive justice, women’s rights, corporate personhood, health care reform and religious liberty.

But it is the last part which captures my attention as a rabbi (well, the others do as well.) As a member of a minority faith I have felt that principles of religious liberty are in place to protect the minority from the majority. This decision however gives those in power (employers) the ability to impose their religious beliefs over those without power (employees). That is a dangerous precedent.

On the one hand, I am glad that the court affirmed the principle of religious liberty in the first place. The fact is Hobby Lobby holds the free exercise of religion to be a fundamental value. The question comes in its execution and how to balance differing expressions of religious faith. And this is an on-going question.

A story: when we moved into our new building a decade ago, we undertook as a congregation a re-evaluation of our food policy. Our TBH food policy is essentially our communal minhag (custom) when it comes to kashrut (dietary laws), and as we were moving into a new home with a new kitchen, the Ritual Committee decided it was a good opportunity to reexamine our practices.

As we began to settle on particulars—maintaining a dairy/vegetarian kitchen, allowing for food prepped at home, affirming our support of organics and food that reflected environmental and social justice principles—the question arose as to the scope of the policy. In other words, to whom would the policy apply?

While it was clear it would apply to Temple events, what about the private meals of our staff? We also had contractors working on our building who took a break for lunch. And when we hosted the homeless shelter, the guests brought their own food. We knew that not everyone of these people were Jewish.

It was determined that our food policy would not apply to those working for TBH, either permanently as staff or temporarily as a contractor. It would also not apply to the guests of the shelter. The only stipulation is that any food that is brought into the TBH building that does not meet the guidelines of the food policy not be brought into the kitchen. The sentiment, in short, was not to impose our practices on those who didn’t share our religious values, even though they were in our building or working for us. We did have that right, but didn’t exercise it.

I know this isn’t the best analogy, but it was an example in which I wrestled with when and how to apply religious preferences. And for me this was part of a larger process of engaging with issues of religious expression and issues of church/state.

Prior to entering the rabbinate, I was a strict separationalist when it came to church/state issues. Now I am not so sure. The separation of church and state comes with benefits to faith communities. Yet at the same time it comes with restrictions.

It was the separation of church and state which allowed local churches to host Camp Quixote, but it is also the separation of church and state which forbids faith communities from holding services in city parks. It is the separation of church and state which exempts TBH from property taxes, but it is the separation of church and state which excludes TBH staff from unemployment pay.

There are those who argue that the benefits are unfair, and those who argue that the restrictions are unfair. But the point is this: as we celebrate July 4th once again, we are ever mindful of the fact that our country is a continuous work in progress. We Jews accept the rights and freedoms that come to us. And we need to accept the responsibilities to help guarantee them for all.

Whose Religion? Whose Liberty?

good-guy-rabbi-pork-abortionThere is something seemingly odious happening to the concept of religious liberty in our country.

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments in a case about (depending on how you look at it) religious liberty, reproductive rights, corporate personhood or the Affordable Care Act. In short, two corporations—the craft supply store chain Hobby Lobby and furniture manufacturer Conestoga–are suing the government to be exempt from the requirement that they pay for their employee’s health care coverage of certain contraception. Their argument is that the law should not compel employers and business owners to violate their religious liberty by forcing them to pay for medical coverage that they deem to be a violation of their beliefs.

Earlier this year, this issue came up in our state when the Legislature was considering for the second time the Reproductive Parity Act. This piece of legislation would require health plans offered in our state to cover termination of pregnancy, and while it advanced in the House, it died in the Senate. The argument of the opponents of the RPA is again religious liberty and the rights of employers—employers should not be compelled to pay for something that violates their religious beliefs.

A variation of this argument was also advanced in Arizona, in which the Legislature passed a law that would protect businesses that refuse services to gay couples based on a religious opposition to same-sex marriage. The bill was vetoed by the Governor after a public outcry.

What is troubling about these religious liberty arguments is twofold. One, while seemingly instituted to protect religious minorities, the concept of religious liberty is being invoked by the religious majority, sometimes at the expense of minorities. While I do not deny that everyone is entitled to the same rights—including those in the Christian majority—we must be careful when it is the case of a majority vs. a minority. We Jews have benefited greatly from guarantees of religious liberty because of the fact we are a religious minority in a place where Christianity and Christian culture is the norm.

The second troubling aspect is that in these cases, the concept is being invoked in a way that will cause harm to others, either through decreased access to health care (and the financial burden that comes with it) or outright discrimination. Religious liberty is being used as a sword, not a shield.

The fact that the Supreme Court case (and the RPA) is about reproductive rights makes it a good test of these principles. Support it or not, abortion is a legal right in this country. And as with any right, whether or not one chooses to exercise that right is up to each individual’s conscience. But that does not give license to restrict another whether or not another he or she can exercise that right. (The other complicating factor is that the heart of the argument in Hobby Lobby is not abortion per se but rather emergency contraception which opponents claim is the same as abortion and proponents claim otherwise.)

While not condoning the practice as routine, Judaism does take a more permissive approach to the termination of a pregnancy. A fetus holds the potential for life, but according to Jewish tradition does not hold the same status as a person. Based in a verse in Torah (Exodus 21:22ff), in which a woman who miscarries after accidentally being struck is compensated financially (and no murder charge is levied), a fetus is seen as part of the mother and may be aborted if the mother’s life is in jeopardy. For another variant of this principle—according to Jewish law if a pregnant woman converts to Judaism, then her child is born Jewish. In other words, the mother’s conversion affects the unborn child as well. If that fetus was seen as a separate person, then one would assume he or she would not be born Jewish but would have be converted once born.

A Jewish employee of Hobby Lobby, therefore, may have a different approach to birth control and termination of pregnancy that the company has. And should Hobby Lobby prevail in its lawsuit, then that employee’s free exercise of her legal rights and religious conscience would be curtailed because of her company’s legal rights and religious conscience. This is troubling.

[Maybe the fight for marriage equality is partly to blame for the direction of these arguments. In many of the marriage equality legislations moving across the country, including in Washington, proponents have compromised in writing in religious exemption language that states a religious leader will not be compelled to officiate at a wedding if it violates the tenets of his or her faith. The problem with this language is that it was completely unnecessary. As a member of the clergy, I am not compelled to officiate at any marriage. I have colleagues who will not officiate if one of the parties is not Jewish. We are not even compelled to officiate if both parties are Jewish if we find a reason not to. Just because the state allows two people to be married, doesn’t mean a member of the clergy must officiate. So the language was extraneous. However, it gave a foot in the door for religious exemptions in neutral law that is now being exploited. That’s my two-bit non-lawyer legal analysis.]

Meanwhile, a bill in our state that does much to promote true religious liberty is languishing, waiting to be signed by Governor Inslee. The bill, SB 5173, would create “holidays of faith and conscience” for public employees and school children. Anyone, regardless of faith tradition, would be allowed to take two unpaid days off in observance of religious holidays without being penalized by the employer or school.

For Jews, this is huge. With our holiday cycle based on a lunar calendar, our festivals and celebrations shift from year to year and do not always fall on weekends or even the same date each year. The same is true for our Muslim brothers and sisters, who did much to push this bill in the legislature. (I had the honor of testifying on behalf of the Jewish community. You can hear it here starting at 3:04) If signed into law, our Jewish kids and public employees will be allowed to take time of for the High Holidays, for example, without impunity.

Aside from the practical nature of having leverage in taking time off and (hopefully) not having to negotiate, plead and argue with recalcitrant supervisors and teachers, this bill makes the statement that we live in a religiously diverse environment, and we want to extend the same rights and privileges to all. As I said in my testimony, the First Amendment guarantee to free exercise of religion means the right to worship and celebrate as one sees fit. However, this free exercise sometimes runs up against practical difficulties. This bill is a step at alleviating those obstacles. (If you want to help this bill along, I urge you to send a note to Governor Inslee asking him to sign it.)

While it passed unanimously in the Senate, the bill did meet some opposition in the House. First, an amendment was introduced and approved that would allow an employer to deny the request for time off if it created an “undue burden.” Then, some Representatives voted against it because how to determine that undue burden was not, they believe, made explicit enough in the bill.

Some of the same Representatives who voted against this bill, which explicitly guarantees religious liberty, also voted against the Reproductive Parity Act in the name of religious liberty. While on its face it may seem to be, it is not a contradiction—its just that the consistency lay elsewhere. The consistency is supporting the employer over the employee. It is not in religious liberty per se but in who exercises it. In other words, the message is religious liberty is worth guaranteeing if you are an employer, but not if you are an employee.

And herein lies the irony, and the danger. The guarantee of religious liberty is meant to protect the weak from the strong. Recently, however, it is being invoked to strengthen the strong against the weak. The passage of the holiday bill is a victory for the former. The fear comes with the potential victory of the latter.

Testimony on Religious Liberty

Last week I had the opportunity again (the last of this session, probably) to testify in front of the Washington State Legislature. This time it was in front of the House Judiciary Committee on behalf of Substitute Senate Bill 5173, which would create two unpaid holidays of faith and conscience for students and public employees. This is an important step for religious liberty, especially for Jews who have to continually negotiate to take days off on holidays. Here are my words:

Members of the committee, thank you for this opportunity to speak to you today. My name is Rabbi Seth Goldstein, and I serve Temple Beth Hatfiloh, the Jewish community of Olympia, and I am also here representing the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and the Jewish Coalition for Justice in strong support of SSB 5173.

As a member of a religious minority in this country, I recognize the benefit I have received from the right to religious liberty. This bill recognizes that along with the freedom of conscience that comes with that right of religious liberty, so too must there be a freedom to worship and celebrate according to one’s beliefs. Although religious liberty is guaranteed, its execution often runs up against practical difficulties, especially when holidays and celebrations conflict with the normal course of our civic life and calendar.

Jewish practice is based on a lunar calendar, so therefore in relation to our common Gregorian calendar, the Jewish festivals often fall on weekdays, and do not fall on the same (Gregorian) date from year to year.

In order to fully observe these holidays—and not every holiday requires a day off—students and parents must negotiate a day off from school, and others a day off of work. In my own experience as a congregational rabbi and as a parent of school-aged children, this sometimes goes smoothly, and sometimes does not. This bill will go a long way to not only protect those students and employees from what they then perceive to be discrimination, whether intended or not, and also educate people about faiths and celebrations different than their own.

The Jewish community, along with our Muslim brothers and sisters and others, do not seek any special considerations outside those granted to all—the ability to assemble and worship without fear of reprisal, punishment or being made to feel that our faith is inconvenient or second class. To that end I urge the support of SSB 5173.

Thank you.