In Support of the Washington Voting Rights Act

A new legislative session, and a new opportunity to give testimony. This week I represented the Jewish Federation and the Faith Action Network in support of the Washington Voting Rights Act at a committee hearing. Text is below, click here for video link.

Chair and members of the committee, my name is Rabbi Seth Goldstein and I serve the local Jewish community here in Olympia. I am here representing the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and the Faith Action Network in support of the Washington State Voting Rights Act.

I recognize that this is an issue that one may not normally associate with faith communities. But this bill is in keeping with our faith perspective because is it, at its base, an issue of morality and justice.

Our democracy is founded on the principle that all people are created equal, and that governments exist to preserve and protect the rights that are granted to us. One of those fundamental rights is the ability to participate in our governance through the ballot box. It is incumbent upon our systems of voting and civic participation to ensure that all communities have the chance to elect candidates of their choice. Even Scripture reads that there should be “one law for all people.”

Too often, the systems of elections in our state do not allow fair representation. This has the result that segments of the population are underrepresented in local governments, and too often, this underrepresentation affects minority populations. In the spirit of racial and economic justice, our voting system needs reform. It is not just a technical issue, but a moral one.

This bill is an important step to make our state a more just one that honors all of its citizens.

Thank you.

 

 

Testimony against Payday Lending (SB 5899)

For the last time this session, I made my way to the Capitol to testify on a bill. When I go, I am there usually at the behest of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, an umbrella Jewish organization, and the Faith Action Network, a statewide interfaith organization which works on issues of social justice. Each have a legislative agenda. There are other rabbis and ministers who testify of course, but for these 8:00 a.m. hearings, it is usually the Olympia clergy who are called upon.wa capitol

This morning, representing FAN, I spoke against SB 5899, a payday lending bill. These are the loans, sold by Moneytree and other like companies, which charge high interest rates and fees. Because they tend to trap people in debt and are most often used by those more disadvantaged, a coalition of poverty, labor, immigration and faith groups are opposed to such loans in general and this bill in specific.

There were two bills this session, one in the House and one in the Senate. While the House bill failed to come up for a vote, the Senate bill passed after two and a half hours of floor debate. It is now in the House for consideration.

While others speak to the specifics of a bill, I usually offer the “moral argument”–that the decisions we make are not merely legal or economic, but moral, and we need to take that into consideration. Here are the words I shared this morning:

Mr. Chair and members of the committee, my name is Seth Goldstein and I am a rabbi serving the Olympia Jewish community, and I am here representing the Faith Action Network, an interfaith statewide organization representing Washington communities of faith working for social justice and the common good, in opposition to SB 5899

For people of faith, responsible lending is not merely an economic concern, but a moral concern. We are taught in our sacred texts and traditions to extend our hand to our neighbor in need, and to help provide for their needs. Sometimes this involves direct gifts, and sometimes this involves a loan.

Loaning money can empower those in need. At the same time, lending can be used to exploit those in need. We are warned against usury—charging excessive interest. We are warned against taking advantage of those in our debt. We are warned about the installment loans in this bill with their high interest rates and excessive fees.

Loans should be a means to self-sufficiency and independence, not continued debt and dependency.  The type of loans in this bill—and this type of lending in general—easily allows people to fall deeper and deeper into debt and can worsen rather than alleviate conditions of poverty and economic disparity. And when one is enriched at the expense of others, we need to really examine what is fair and just in our society.

It is our concern, as communities of faith, that we protect the most vulnerable among us. Past reforms have worked, and we do not need another product that could potentially have such harmful effects. For these reasons, we urge your opposition to SB 5899.

Thank you.

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.

For Equitable Revenue: My Testimony in front of the WA Senate Ways and Means Committee

One day after MLK Day I had the opportunity to testify in front of the WA Senate Ways and Means Committee on behalf of the Jewish Federation and the Faith Action Network about the state budget and opportunities for new revenue. I believe that our state taxation is excessively regressive, and there are means to examine new ways of funding important and needed programs. Here is my testimony as delivered:

Chair and Members of the Committee,

My name is Seth Goldstein, and I am a rabbi serving the Jewish community here in Olympia, and I am here representing faith communities and specifically the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and the statewide interfaith organization, Faith Action Network.

As we gather for this legislative session, I do not envy your position. There is much demand for the programs that serve the needs of the citizens of the state of Washington. There are many decisions that need to be made.

Our concern is this: that you take a broad vision in your crafting of a balanced and sustainable budget, and address the issue of our regressive tax structure which puts most of the burden on those who can least afford it. We support the institution of new revenue sources that would distribute the burden more fairly and equitably among all. We ask that you recognize that it takes a shared sacrifice to meet the needs of all of our citizens, especially the poor and vulnerable among us. Indeed, the maintenance of the status quo on revenue will have the double negative effect of maintaining a regressive tax structure while at the same time cutting services to those who need them most.

I think about the story of the Exodus in Scripture, of moving from slavery to freedom to the Promised Land. It was a story that inspired the contemporary spiritual leader Dr. King that we celebrated yesterday. And it is a story which continues to inspire us, for it teaches us the vision of a new reality.

We can create that new reality. We look to the institutions of government to bring about that vision of a “beloved community.” We ask that you exercise the authority and the trust place upon you by the citizens of this state to do so through means that are fair, moral and just.

Thank you very much.

You can also see the video here:

http://www.tvw.org/index.php?option=com_tvwplayer&eventID=2015010122#start=3543&stop=3650

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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.

Testimony against Predatory Lending

On a beautiful day in Olympia, when the evidence of spring is all over the Capitol Campus, I had the opportunity to give testimony in front of the House Business and Financial Services Committee against predatory lending. Here is my testimony:

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Members of the committee, my name is Rabbi Seth Goldstein and I am here representing the Jewish Coalition for Justice, a coalition comprised of rabbis and laypeople, organizations, congregations and individuals, committed to bringing the spiritual and moral teachings of Judaism and the experience of the Jewish community to bear on issues of public policy and communal concern in our state. The JCJ stands in opposition to ESSB 5312.

We are currently in a time of economic uncertainty as we as a nation move out of a recession, yet are still faced with issues of income inequality and a growing wealth gap. These issues are spiritual issues, for in my religious tradition, Jewish teachings and values are applicable on issues of civil society and interpersonal values, and this includes issues of economic justice. Applying these teachings to consumer installment loans in general and this bill in specific raises moral concerns.

We are taught in our sacred scriptures, in the book of Leviticus (25:14), “When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.” Fairness and honesty in our business dealings are paramount, and creating new loan products to roll back prior regulation, regulations which the Jewish community has advocated for in the past, does not in my opinion meet this test. Neither does lowering interest rates while establishing new fees, which is a semantic change, not a substantive change.

Judaism does not dispute the necessity of making loans and incurring debt. However, we are taught in our sacred texts that loans are meant to lift a person out of poverty, not keep him there. They are meant to strengthen, not weaken. They are meant to lead to self sufficiency and independence, not continued debt and dependency. [Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Gifts to the Poor, 10:7]. Consumer installment loans again do not meet this test.

The types of loans spoken of in this bill prey on the most vulnerable on our society, trapping people in a vicious cycle of debt. When one is enriched at the expense of another, we must ask hard questions about what is fair and just in our society.

Thank you.