Shame, shame, shame!
OK, now don’t get me wrong. I think it’s incredibly important to make sure that gays and lesbians are brought into traditionally observant life, and that people not be allowed to hide their prejudices behind the misapplication/misinterpretation of halacha. But, let’s face it, while the first is an important struggle, it pales in comparison to making sure that people have enough to eat, are able to pay their rent, and can afford to take care of themselves and their loved ones when ill.
So while I am a Keshet rabbi, I can’t help but be completely appalled at the fact that – well, where do I even start?

Man should know that it is a part of the divine worship that man should remember states of distress at a time when he prospers. This purpose is frequently affirmed in the Torah: And you shall remember that you were a servant, and so on (Devarim 5:15; 16:12). For there was a fear of the moral qualities that are generally acquired by all those who are brought up in prosperity – I mean conceit, vanity, and neglect of the correct opinions: When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God Who took you out of the land of Egypt… and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me” (Devarim 8:12-17). And it says: So Yeshurun grew fat and kicked – you grew fat and gross and coarse – he forsook the God who made him and spurned the Rock of his support (Devarim 32:15). It is because of this apprehension that the commandment has been given to carry out a reading every year before Him, may He be exalted, and in the presence of His Indwelling, on the occasion of the first fruits. (RaMBaM, Guide of the Perplexed III:59, following Pines translation)

1. I found out in the Forward – which is an ongoing problem for Rabbinical Assembly members, as this is far from the first time we hear nothing about a tshuvah until the Forward reports on the vote- that the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards had just considered Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ tshuvah calling on Jewish business owners to pay their workers a living wage and hire union employees when possible
2. That they had voted, and it didn’t even collect the six votes necessary for a minority opinion and that, in fact, it received only three votes.
Three votes. Three votes.
Is this a joke? What, wasn’t there ample precedent in the Torah and Talmud? Rabbis, I direct your attention to the upcoming Yamim Noraim, high holidays, to the prayers we recite during these days, not to mention a particular haftarah from Isaiah, to the Labor day weekend Torah reading which just passed. If the Tanach does not contain sufficient reminders of our duties to the poor, perhaps we can take a review of Tractate Bava Metzia in the talmud – there’s interesting stuff in both the Bavli and Yerushalmi versions. We also have modern support, from no less than the late gadol Rabbi Feinstein. I’m sure with a bit of effort we could dig out a few more references, since this is just off the top of my head.
I quote from the Forward article,

As American Jews have ascended the ranks to employers from employees, memories of earlier Jewish labor activism have faded into the background. Concerns by some members of the law committee that Jacobs’s pro-labor paper would create an undue hardship on Jewish business owners seem to reflect what some observers describe as the growing gap between American Jews and the union movement. Jacobs, a labor activist who is the education director of the left-wing group Jewish Funds for Justice, rebuffed the argument made by some on the law committee that paying workers a living wage could put Jewish-owned companies out of business. “We ask people to do all sorts of things that put them at an economic disadvantage,” Jacobs said. “That’s because we believe in Jewish law and we don’t believe that making money is the highest Jewish law,” she added.”

Yes, that’s right, her tshuvah received three votes because we thought there was a chance it might cut into someone’s profits. Now, I started off by saying that this was a fight to pick with the Conservative movement, but the truth is, if this was just a movement thing, I could live with it. If it was really just the Conservative movement, there would be hope that we could be shamed into doing the right thing by the Reform, the Orthodox, the chilonim (seculars). But really, it’s not the case. This is not, unfortunately, a movement problem. It is, in fact, a Jewish problem. There have been no shortage of articles over the past few years dealing with this issue – the fact is that Jewish organizations are not living up to Jewish law. Jewish law requires us to treat our employees with fairness, and more than fairness. But Jewish organizations are not doing this. It’s not like it’s just bigotry, this is not a Jewish/ non-Jewish thing either. Jewish employees of Jewish institutions are also being underpaid, not receiving benefits, and so on.
A few years ago Jewish institutions in the Washington D.C. area got involved in the fight -against- the living wage in Montgomery County Maryland. The Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington helped to defeat a Montgomery County, Maryland living wage bill, citing concerns that paying workers the proposed living wage of $10.44 an hour or $9 with benefits would cost Jewish organizations up to $1 million and force the cancellation of some programs. Other Jewish groups and a coalition of local rabbis, supported the bill and sponsored a series of community forums to discuss the proposal. It took Abe Pollin, the majority owner of the Washington Wizards basketball team to move things along by promising to make up the diffierence in what the Jewish organizations had to pay, if necessary). In the end, two Jewish council members cast the deciding votes in defeating the proposed legislation.
During the same time, the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington led opposition to a resolution in support of living wage laws adopted by the Jewish Council for
Public Affairs in February 2000 (How was the legislation finally passed? The bill finally passed exempts nonprofit organizations and businesses that receive certain tax credits or economic development aid – in other words , the Jewish institutions that had been fighting it).
When I wrote, with Rabbi Joshua Ginsberg, the Ethical Smachot letter now featured as part of Jews United for Justice‘s Ethical Smachot campaign to ask Washington D.C. community clergy to sign on to support their congregations’ and communities’ seeking more ethical ways to have their bnai mitzvah, weddings and other festive events, so as to support Jewish law’s requirements of our treatment towards others, it didn’t occur to me that this could be controversial in any way. Oh, granted, it was difficult to get Reform rabbis to sign on, because I talked about kashrut (as one’s community defines it), and it talked about living wage and mediation, but it didn’t call on anyone to do anything but ask some questions about what it means to have a Jewish event, a simchat mitzvah, rather than, as Maimonides terms it, a simchat creiso (a celebration of the belly).
And in truth, many, many rabbis have signed on, from all different movements. But a simchah cannot be the only time we consider these questions. If it is controversial for the CJLS to pass a tshuvah that merely reiterates and strengthens those laws which the Torah and the sages tell us, over and over, are the very basis for Judaism’s relationship with God, when we pass before the throne on Rosh Hashanah as a nation, we will be judged – and found wanting.
I encourage you all to sign on to the Ethical Smachot letter, but more so, I encourage you, strongly, to take it to the streets; not passing the tshuvah, fighting living wage ordinances: this is so not okay. Call your rabbis – more importantly, because rabbis often don’t have the power to change things like this within a shul, call everyone on the board of your shul and make sure they know you care if your janitors and secretaries and the waiters and cooks for your caterers aren’t receiving a living wage. Take it to your community businesses.
And for God’s sake, literally, if you’re Conservative, call your rabbi and tell them you’ve heard about Rabbi Jacobs’ tshuvah, that you care about this issue, that it’s a violation of Jewish law to underpay your workers, and that you think it is imperative that we speak forcefully for halachah: we must tell the members of our community that it matters what we do in our businesses, in our lives, and at every moment of the day : not just when we eat, not just when it’s shabbat, not just once a month after one’s menstrual cycle is over, not just once a year at the High Holidays; all of those things, but not only then, not only them.
Utefila, uteshuvah utzedakah – they are what annul the evil decree. What is tefila, prayer, without the intent to do justly? what is teshuvah, repentance, if we do not fix our businesses so that they will produce justice by their examples? tzedakah: it is justice, nothing less, that we are required to do.
Crossposted to Kol Ra’ash Gadol