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Jewish Journal

The Torah of Wisconsin

By Elissa Barrett and Aryeh Cohen

February 25, 2011 | 2:16 pm

In the streets of Madison, we can hear the echoes of Torah. From Moses to Maimonides to modern day Rabbis across the country, Jews have a long and lively history of supporting the rights of working people. Rabbis Bonnie Margulis and Jonathan Biatch recently reported from Wisconsin that standing for worker’s rights is “absolutely” the Jewish thing to do. Now is a good moment to ask ourselves, why?

For the past 150 years, labor unions have formed the backbone of progressive movements for social change. In Egypt, the winds of change blew hardest when workers from Alexandria to Aswan joined the youth revolution. In America, unions are woven into the story of empowerment for countless generations of immigrant workers, Jews among them, and the struggle of American minorities—from the sanitation workers of Memphis in the 1960s to the janitors of Los Angeles today.

The issue in Wisconsin is no longer about budgeting or steep cuts in wages and benefits—the unions and Governor Scott Walker are in full agreement there. When Governor Walker began targeting the ability of public employees to bargain collectively for their common good, he targeted our country’s most fundamental labor right: the right to a voice on the job. Our Jewish tradition urges us to see this as a shofar call to action.

It is no coincidence that the first lessons we receive after being freed from slavery in Egypt are on the treatment of workers. “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger… You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets… else he will cry to God against you and you will incur guilt” (Deuteronomy, 24:14-15). The third century mishnah and tosefta instructs employers to meet or exceed local custom in terms of wages and benefits, and the Babylonian Talmud gives town residents the right to intervene between a local employer and a worker to insure that wages are fair. All this is codified by centuries of commentaries, Talmud scholars and jurists.

Contemporary Halakhic (Jewish legal) decisions continue this strong tradition. 

In 1938, Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Chai Uzziel, the Rishon le-Tziyon (Sephardic Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel), wrote: “It is obvious that the Sages, of blessed memory, recognized the regulations of a craftsman’s guild or union of laborers or clerks in the general labor federation, or other federations of professionals.” Rabbi Uzziel explicates this further: “Reason also dictates that we should not leave the worker alone, isolated as an individual, so that he would have to hire himself out for minimal wages in order to satisfy his and his family’s hunger with bread and water in meager quantities and with a dark and dank apartment. In order to protect himself the law gave him the legal right to organize, and to create regulations for his fellows for the fair and equitable division of labor amongst them and the attaining of dignified treatment and appropriate payment for his work—so that he might support his family at the same standard of living as other residents of his city.”

And Rabbi Uzziel was not alone. In 1945, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, a leading Israeli Ashkanzi scholar and posek (authoritative adjudicator of questions related to Jewish law), recognized the right of workers to organize and to have their regulations and rules seen as binding. He also recognized, in certain conditions, their right to strike. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895–1986), a Lithuanian Orthodox rabbi, scholar and posek, concurred in a series of Responsa that extended Rabbi Waldenberg’s holding to include the right of workers to prevent scabs from doing their jobs and to include the rights of religious school teachers to bargain collectively, even though community funds and the religious obligation to teach Torah were at stake. In May 2008, a Responsa by Rabbi Jill Jacobs was passed by the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, calling on Jewish organizations and synagogues to allow collective bargaining by their employees.

In sum, Jewish tradition has been clear and consistent—the treatment of workers and their right to organize are among the basic underpinnings of a just society. From the synagogue to the state house, Jews must therefore call on those who govern to find the path toward economic justice regardless of how difficult that road is to travel. Our heritage, as the sweatshop workers and copper miners of yesterday, bears witness to it. Our tradition compels it.

Elissa Barrett is the Executive Director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.  Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, author of the forthcoming Justice in the City: Toward a Community of Obligation (Academic Studies Press), is a past President and current member of the PJA board of directors, and an Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature at American Jewish University.

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