Why I’m going to Austin next Wednesday

I begin this post with a disclaimer. It may sound “boilerplate,” but I mean it quite sincerely:

“The views expressed in this posting (and all postings, for that matter), are the views of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the views of Temple Mount Sinai, its membership, or its leadership.”

When a rabbi, or any member of the clergy, wades into public policy debate, there’s a danger that he or she will be perceived as trying to represent himself or herself as a representative of a congregation, a denomination, or indeed an entire people. We all know the old saw about “two Jews, three opinions,” and so we know how ridiculous is the notion that one Jew — even a rabbi — would be able to speak on behalf of a diverse congregation in its entirety.

The fact that I cannot claim to speak for everyone does not mean that I do not speak for anyone — and certainly, I have the same right and duty as anyone else to speak for myself. And so, on Wednesday I will join hundreds of other El Pasoans in Austin at the TCEQ hearing related to ASARCO’s seeking permission to renew smelting operations in El Paso.

I go as a concerned citizen, a resident of Kern Place whose front yard was replaced due to contamination from minerals likely deposited there by the ASARCO smokestack over many decades. I go as the father of three daughters who deserve to grow up in a twenty-first century city that is not forever under the haze of nineteenth century industry. I go as a homeowner and taxpayer, concerned about what it would mean to El Paso’s economic future to have a smelter operating within our city limits in 2008.

And I go as a rabbi, a student of the Jewish tradition, which (I believe) ought to come to bear when Jews think about the question of ASARCO’s request for a renewed permit. As I read the texts of our tradition in light of the debate, I am particularly drawn to the Mishnah, Baba Batra 2:9 —

“Tanneries (which produce foul odors) must be kept fifty cubits from a town, and they must be placed only on the east side (i.e., downwind) of the town.”

It seems to me that the Rabbis of old recognized the competing demands of economic development and quality of life quite well, and sought a reasonable compromise between them. They didn’t say, “no tanning allowed,” nor did they say “tanners can set up shop wherever they please.” They strove for balance.

As they strove for balance, so too must our society. And it is unfathomable to me that such a fair compromise would include the reintroduction of copper smelting within our city limits.

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