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


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.

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

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:



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 on the Reproductive Parity Act

Yesterday I went to the Washington State Capitol for the third time this session to testify. This time it was in front of a Senate committee considering the Reproductive Parity Act, a groundbreaking piece of legislation that would require health plans to cover all aspects of maternal care, including voluntary termination of pregnancy.  My testimony was brief, the time allotted was short, and I testified on a panel which included the CEO of Planned Parenthood Northwest. The hearing made the New York Times. Here’s what I added, providing a religious perspective in support of choice. The testimony was prepared with Rev. Vincent Lachina, the chaplain of Planned Parenthood.

Senators, my name Rabbi Seth Goldstein and I serve Temple Beth Hatfiloh and the Jewish community here in Olympia.  I come this morning to speak in support of EHB 1044.

My faith tradition teaches the necessity of compassion and care for all humanity. As much as possible, we all desire a society that is both fair and even-handed in its treatment of all people. This bill will make sure that all women are treated fairly in their personal reproductive health decisions.  To have a child, to place a child for adoption or to terminate a pregnancy is an important life decision that a woman makes with the help of those with her best interests in mind: her family and her physician and whomever else she consults, including sometimes faith leaders and clergy like myself, who are asked to offer comforting and compassionate advice. But in the end, whatever any woman decides should be wholly her own, and it should not be regulated by an insurance company or government officials.

As for religious freedom, I believe the exemption clause is quite solid and does protect one’s freedom of religion.  I would add that religious freedom includes both freedom OF religion and freedom FROM religion.  We cannot permit one religious group or their leaders to obstruct or coerce the exercise of mine or any other person’s religious conscience.

And as we are engaged in this country in a conversation about how to extend health care coverage to its citizens, it does raise moral concerns when we consider restricting it.

Thank you for your time, and I ask you for your support of this bill.

Testimony in favor of excused absences for Jewish holidays

Today I testified in front of the WA Senate Commerce and Labor Committee in support of SB5173, a bill which would provide for excused absences at work or school for “days of faith or conscience”–i.e., in our case, Jewish holidays that conflict with work or school. I joined a panel with a representative of the Jewish Federation in Seattle and two members of the Seattle Muslim community in support. While the bill won’t go anywhere this year, the hearing set it up for consideration next session. Here is my testimony:

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 representing the Jewish Coalition for Justice. I am in strong support of SB 5173.

As a member of a religious minority in this country, I recognize the benefit I have received from rights enshrined in our country’s founding documents, specifically those related to religious liberty. Our federal and state governments have not only sought to avoid the establishment of religion in the public sphere, but have gone out of its way to protect the rights of religious minorities.

This bill recognizes that along with the freedom of conscience that comes with 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.

Within Judaism, while our weekly Sabbath falls on the weekend, our holiday cycle is not so accommodating. Jewish practice is based on a lunar calendar, with holiday dates laid down in our sacred Scripture. The result is that in relationship 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. Sometimes, especially students, are given a hard time about work missed, or a test to retake. (It is especially challenging for Jewish students because the most important holidays fall during the fall, not long after a new school year has begun.) This bill will go a long way to not only protect those students from what they then perceive to be discrimination, but 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 SB 5173.

Thank you.