Rabbis’ Dispute Exposes Communal Rift on Labor

Scholars Split Over Applying Rabbinic Law to Living-Wage Debate

By Anthony Weiss

Published April 24, 2008, issue of May 02, 2008.
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A rabbinic legal opinion stipulating that Jewish employers should pay their workers a living wage is exposing fault lines in the Jewish world over attitudes toward labor issues.

The opinion, which will be voted on by Conservative Judaism’s halachic policy body in late May, argues that rabbinic law obligates Jewish employers to pay their workers a wage sufficient to support themselves. Along with the expected debates over legal argumentation, the opinion, or teshuva, has spurred an economic debate within the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, as members have argued over whether the opinion is in the best interests of employers, and even workers.

While Jews have historically been at the heart of the American labor movement and broadly supportive of labor rights issues, that consensus has frayed in recent years. As Jews have moved up the socioeconomic ladder, questions surrounding workers’ rights have lost some of their centrality.

As a result, Jews have split into several camps on the issue, said Steven Windmueller, a professor of Jewish communal service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “The focus and orientation, in the case of one camp, is traditional, old-line support for social justice causes,” he told the Forward. But for others, labor issues no longer hold sway. “Some of it is a rebuff of the labor camp, and part of it is simply that, economically and socially, Jews are in a different place.”

The living-wage opinion is coming up for consideration at a time when the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, has turned its attention to a range of hot-button political issues, most notably the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis. Activists in the movement have also been galvanized by the Hekhsher Tzedek initiative, which would certify kosher products that meet acceptable standards for labor conditions and environmental impact.

The author of the labor teshuva, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, has been involved in the Hekhsher Tzedek push and has a background as a labor activist. She now works for Jewish Funds for Justice, a not-for-profit focused on social issues.

The teshuva has come up for a vote once before, in September 2006. At the time, a debate erupted in the legal committee over what kind of economic impact the implementation of Jacob’s opinion would have on Jewish business owners and their workers. Jacobs and a committee member both submitted memos to the committee on the economic impact of living wage legislation.

Marc Gary, a nonvoting committee member who is executive vice president and general counsel to Fidelity Investments, argued that the higher cost of wages would threaten to put Jewish business owners and their employees out of business.

“We’re saying that for Jews who are halachic in the Conservative movement, you are at such a competitive disadvantage that it’s a threat to your livelihood,” he told the Forward.

Jacobs, however, has responded that economic research on living wage ordinances has not borne out the predictions of job loss and damage to businesses. What’s more, she maintains that many accepted Jewish values have an economic cost.

“If we focused on economics alone, we would not ask our members to send their children to day school, buy kosher meat, or cease working on Shabbat,” she writes in the teshuva.

Other committee members have taken issue with the opinion’s advocacy for unions to protect worker rights.

“This is not 1910 on the Lower East Side. It’s a different era,” said Rabbi Paul Plotkin, who has been one of the opinion’s strongest critics.

The economic intricacies left some committee members scratching their heads. Committee chair Rabbi Elliot Dorff said that for him, the question was not whether the goal of good wages was admirable but how it should be achieved.

“The question is, how do we do that effectively without putting Jewish business owners at an unfair disadvantage?” he said.

In the 2006 vote, the opinion gained only three of the six votes required to obtain legal standing. But a large number of committee members abstained instead of voting against the opinion, and Jacobs was encouraged to revise the opinion and resubmit it to the committee.

Much of that revision has focused on concerns raised about the legal framework supporting the teshuva’s position, but the opinion’s basic recommendations have not changed. In the end, that vote may hinge not on the economic arguments but on whether the opinion can pass muster with the committee as good law rather than good policy.

Dorff said that he does not know if the teshuva will pass or even if he will vote for it. He did say that whether it passes or not, the upcoming vote will be the last on the issue.

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