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Congress must protect the needy among us

Washington Post
December 13, 2012
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt

Our leaders in Washington and the pundits who follow them have spoken of little but the fiscal cliff in recent weeks. This is understandable: The political wrangling reflects a hard-fought election, and how we resolve the pending fiscal crisis will have an enormous impact on our nation’s well-being. For this reason, we all have a stake in its outcome.

Far too many Americans continue to struggle to find employment, put a roof over their heads, or simply feed their families. I say this not just as a concerned citizen, but as a rabbi: While it’s clear that we must find a new balance between revenue and spending, we dare not do so on the backs of this nation’s most vulnerable.

If we want to safeguard the American middle class and support economic health down the road, Congress should start by ending the tax cuts from 2001 for the wealthiest of our citizens, combined with reducing spending while finding creative and compassionate ways to protect the programs that serve the needy.

I understand that this is much more complicated than simply putting words to paper. There are tremendous challenges facing our country’s economic stability and the real pressures to reduce the deficit. If it were easy, the argument wouldn’t be so fierce.

But if we’ve learned nothing else since the start of the recession in 2008, surely we’ve learned that the entire country suffers when we decide to allow the weak to fend for themselves. Americans’ shared religious and ethical heritage tells us that economic justice is a value and a goal unto itself – but that goal also serves to remind us that the lives and futures of all Americans are very closely bound up.

Thus, if we want our economy and society to be vibrant and robust, we must approach the difficult challenges we face honestly and head-on. Even as we search for ways to meaningfully reduce wasteful spending, we must also make the social safety net a priority. Whether it be maintaining disaster relief or securing the future of Medicare and Social Security, ensuring the welfare of all is a communal duty, one that requires the involvement not only of well-meaning individuals, but the entire American people, as expressed through the policy decisions of our leaders.

The economic inequities faced by so many across this country are not a simple result of ill-fortune – the temporary tax cuts passed in 2001 actually added to the burden shouldered by America’s weakest communities. Ending the tax cuts for those who need them the least will add hundreds of billions of dollars to government coffers over the next 10 years, an important first step in addressing the damage done in the recession.

Together with a conscientious reconsideration of our government spending, this added revenue will then enable the President and Congress to craft a moral budget, one that does not reward the wealthy with greater wealth, but rather supports those in need, strengthens public education, and increases job growth, all of which help to foster a healthy, moral society.

Calling on the wealthiest to help shoulder the burdens of all is a longstanding tradition among my people. Shared institution-building was established in the Torah’s commandments, the imperative to care for “the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor” taught by our prophets. Mutual support and responsibility has been a hallmark of Jewish communities throughout history, and today I join almost 300 rabbis from across the United States in asking Congress, via a letter organized by Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, to allow the temporary tax cuts for our wealthiest two percent to expire.

But it is also a hallmark of the American story. When floods ravage the Jersey shore, or tornadoes obliterate entire Midwestern towns, we reach across the miles and do all that we can to extend a hand to those in need.

Simply put, an economic storm hit this great nation in 2008, and too many of our neighbors are still reeling. We must not fail to give them a hand, too.

This is the moment, when the White House and Congress are tasked with avoiding a fiscal crisis and restoring our economy, to listen closely to the voices of those with the least, voices that are so often silenced. We must hear the hungry child, the student struggling to better his future, the veteran who served her country and now cannot find work. These are the voices of America. And they truly are too big to fail.

In Deuteronomy, we are told of our obligation to help the needy among us. It is an ideal to which we must never stop striving to achieve. Congress has to know: Protecting the needy is not merely the moral course, it is also the wise course. For everyone.

Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt is rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md., and serves in several national positions.

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