Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

Statement of Rabbi Jonathan Biatch, Madison, Wisconsin

February 21, 2011

Contact information: rabbi@templebethelmadison.org, 608-335-4771
For additional resources: www.rjrblog.blogspot.com

Good afternoon, brave friends.  I am Jonathan Biatch, a Rabbi serving a Reform Jewish congregation in Madison, Wisconsin, and a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  This organization, and the movement of which I am a member, has, for more than 90 years supported progressive rights of the American worker.

In 1918, we began to recognize and champion the rights of American workers to bargain collectively.

In 1940, we supported the National Labor Relations Act as a way to achieve economic democracy.

In 1947, we called upon states, employers, and labor unions to embrace a fair process of discussion and negotiation, rather than imposing legislation, in establishing union contracts.

And as early as 1999, we called upon federal, state, county, and municipal governments to establish a living wage, in order to raise working families’ income above the poverty line.

As Jews, we are heirs of a biblical and prophetic tradition that has sought to perfect the world that God gave us, and we believe still in making real the demands of the books of the Hebrew bible that are thousands of years old – yet still are relevant the rights of workers in our day.

The laws of the Bible call upon employers to be fair and honest in their relationships with their employees.  They say, “You shall not defraud your fellow…Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.”  And “Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy…Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it.”[1]

From these laws, Judaism derives the following beliefs:

  • that a wage must be sufficient to bring dignity to the worker;
  • that workers in similar professions may band together for various purposes;
  • that such organizations may and should bargain collectively to establish uniform salaries for similar work and safe working conditions;
  • that there must be days of rest among days of labor;
  • that employers not abuse children who were, at one time, forced to work and not attend school;
  • and that laborers are to work hard, both for their own self improvement and to strengthen society.

Judaism is not the only faith tradition that supports the rights of the workers.  A Papal Encyclical written over a century ago warned that the owners of production must not ignore the inherent, divine dignity of every worker, and that the welfare of workers and their families could not be left to the vagaries of the market place.[2]

Therefore, Wisconsin people of faith believe, and want our elected representatives to hear:

  • that it is morally right and proper to sit and talk across the table with laborers whose lives they wish to affect;
  • that this is the way to bring people the dignity; they deserve
  • and that any other approach is immoral and repugnant.

My friends: The fact that we have come out to this rally in this weather speaks volumes about our commitment to one another, and the values for which we struggle.  For WE know that regardless of the counterfeit claims of those who support Governor Walker’s proposals, the working class and the unionized workers are not the ones who caused the deficit in our state, and should not be penalized for their simple desire to bargain collectively for the benefit of all.

We therefore move truly forward today, the direction of the motto of our state.  We learn in Jewish tradition, “Great is labor for it gives honor to the laborer”.[3] May we all be honored and dignified through your work today.

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[1] Leviticus [19:13] and Deuteronomy [24:14-15]

[2] http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/leo_xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_15051891_rerum-novarum_en.html

[3] Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 49b


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