The minimum wage battle: What makes a wage just?


Raising the minimum wage is a mitzvah.

The Rambam says that ensuring others have work that can sustain them is the highest rung on the hierarchy of tzedakah (Mattanot Aniyim, 10:7). In Judaism, tzedakah does not mean charity but justice. We rectify social wrongs and fulfill our obligations through tzedakah. By raising the minimum wage, we are enabling others who work to escape poverty. Tzedakah is all the more important when applied to a system of legislation, as the mission of the Jewish people is to perpetuate our most precious  values of the good and the just into broader society. Our messianic dream is the creation of a society where Torah values are brought into the world to create a more just and holy civilization.

The disparate gap between rich and poor is one of the most troubling moral issues in America today. Much of the problem has to do with unfair wages that block social mobility. The federal wage floor for most workers today is $7.25 an hour, paying at most around $15,000 annually for 40 hours/week (not including the millions of “invisible people” being exploited at under minimum wage). The issue of increasing the minimum wage has become muddied with partisanship, as politics, today, trumps justice. There was no increase from September 1997 until July 2007, at which point the minimum wage had fallen 22 percent in constant dollars while corporate profits had increased by 50 percent (Time magazine, July 24, 2009). Even then, the wage only rose from $5.85 in July 2007 to its current level of $7.25 in July 2009. Some have noted that the decline in value of the minimum wage has coincided with the decline of the American middle class, as previously the minimum wage offered families a chance to climb into the middle class, but now the gap is too wide. We must acknowledge just how far below subsistence the minimum wage has fallen. There has been a major decline of the real value of the minimum wage and the earned-income tax credit has been crucial in helping to fill the gap (aiming to benefit low-income families with children and not just all low-wage workers).

Some argue that raising the cost of labor will hurt workers, because employers will then hire fewer workers. In a few instances this may be true, but overall many economists and researchers have shown this to be false. Speaking to this issue, Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow stated that “… the evidence of job loss is weak. And the fact that the evidence is weak suggests that the impact on jobs is small.”

Current state unemployment statistics (October 2013) tend to support Solow on this. For example, of the four states with a minimum wage below the federal standard, two (Minnesota and Wyoming) have unemployment rates below the average, while two (Arkansas and Georgia) have unemployment rates above the average. Of the five states with no minimum wage, South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi have unemployment rates higher than the national average, while Alabama and Louisiana have lower unemployment rates. Thus, there is no substantive evidence to support the idea that a minimum wage adversely affects employment, or that a lower wage helps employment. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman recently helped to debunk the myth that raising the minimum wage leads to job losses. Studies have shown that when states raised their minimum wage they experienced no significant impact on employment compared to states that did not raise wages. Further, today, 76 percent of voters support raising the minimum wage. It’s a win-win because workers are empowered to sustain themselves, the government gives less “hand-outs,” and businesses flourish as that new income leads to increased spending.

Furthermore, minimum wage workers tend to work in industries that cannot be outsourced or eliminated (e.g., the fast-food and hotel industries), so it is unlikely that a rise in minimum wage would reduce these jobs. One significant study looking at the food industry found that raising the minimum wage did not result in employers trimming their workforce, and dozens of studies have confirmed these conclusions. For example, a study looking at airport employees found that not only did higher wages not lead to lower employment, but, in fact, led to reduced employee turnover.

We must consider not only the microeconomics but also the macroeconomics. There is evidence to suggest that when low-wage workers have more spending power, this creates demand for labor and employment opportunities. For example, in 2006 the Economic Policy Institute estimated that raising the minimum wage from $6.55 to $7.25 would increase consumer spending by $5.5 billion, potentially offering a much-needed boon to the economy.

A final objection to raising the minimum wage is that those who work in these largely menial jobs are teenagers who are simply trying to earn extra cash, and therefore there is no need for a wage increase. As former Labor Secretary Robert Reich pointed out, this is untrue. Among the 15 million people working in minimum wage jobs today:

90 percent are age 20 or older.

• 50 percent are full-time employees.

• 25 percent are parents.

But at the end of the day, minimum wage reform is not enough. A minimum wage increase will not bring low-wage-earning families out of poverty. We must embrace a living wage to truly improve the lives of the millions of our fellow Americans who are living in abject poverty. The 2010 U.S. Census revealed the extent of U.S. poverty in graphic detail:

• Nearly 47 million people live in poverty (15 percent of the population), the highest number ever recorded. Of these, more than 20 million lived in extreme poverty (i.e., an income less than half the poverty level).

• Among children, 22 percent live in poverty.

• More than 17 million households are food insecure, the highest number ever recorded.

• Some 50 million people lack medical insurance, which will increase if enrollment under the Affordable Care Act is unsuccessful.

The sheer injustice of economic inequality is overwhelming. From 2007 to 2010, the average American family lost 39 percent of its wealth, while at the same time, 95 percent of all new wealth generated was accumulated by the wealthiest 1 percent of the population. It has been estimated that six members of the Walton family (heirs to the Walmart fortune) own more wealth than 41.5 percent of Americans (nearly 49 million families). Is it too much of an encroachment on the wealth of the Walton family to encourage them to pay their workers more? Is it morally tolerable that the employee of a multibillion-dollar company is paid poverty-level wages?

It is our Jewish obligation to lead this fight for justice. The Rema, the great 16th century Polish authority, teaches that when one is involved in an issue of public monies, one must engage (act and vote) l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven (i.e., for reasons not based on self-interest) (Choshen Mishpat 163:1). It is crucial, and our religious duty, that Jews vociferously advocate for systemic change for the poor.

In Judaic doctrine, rabbis have limited the earning power of owners selling essential food so as to help the poor through the laws of “onaah” (fair pricing). The owner is forbidden from keeping more than one-sixth profit in order that others could be sustained as well (Bava Batra 90a, Choshen Mishpat 231:20). For the rabbis, the value of maintaining a just society where the needs of all can be met trumps the full autonomy of owners to maximize their profits to no end.

The primary wage responsibilities fall upon employers. Rebbeinu Yonah, the 13th century Spanish rabbi, taught:

“Be careful not to afflict a living creature, whether animal or fowl, and even more so not to afflict a human being, who is created in G-d’s image. If you want to hire workers and you find that they are poor, they should become like poor members of your household. You should not disgrace them, for you shall command them respectfully, and should pay their salaries (Sefer HaYirah).”

Rebbeinu Yonah teaches that when we hire a worker and find that he/she is still poor after we pay them, then we must treat them as b’nei beitecha (members of our households). If we choose to become an employer, then we must take responsibility to ensure our workers do not live in poverty.

The minimum wage, in its current state, is a collective violation of the biblical prohibition of oshek (worker oppression), as workers remain poor while they work to their full capacity (Leviticus 19:15). The previous verse tells us that we must not be enablers of lifnei iver (social wrongs), linking the two responsibilities of fair wages and Jewish activism. Now is the time for a collective Jewish intervention to ensure that those who work can live.

I have experienced the challenges of Jewish activism on this issue. Tav HaYosher (Uri L’Tzedek’s ethical seal for kosher restaurants) has encountered unique and anomalous apathy in the Los Angeles kosher community. Personal wealth and low food costs have been prioritized over proper worker compensation and dignity. What is perhaps most troubling about my experience is that Tav HaYosher is only asking for the basic law to be followed, paying workers minimum wage and nothing more, and this, tragically, is asking too much for many kosher consumers and owners. The indifference from some in the Jewish community is deeply troubling.

Today, one working on the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour will have a gross annual income $12,000-$14,500, based on a 35- to 40-hour work week, after which federal and state income tax, Social Security and other taxes are then deducted. It is simply morally repugnant to argue that one working all day every day should live in poverty. As Barbara Ehrenreich, who once described her vain attempt to survive on a wage (above the minimum) in “Nickel and Dimed,” wrote in 2007: “There is no moral justification for a minimum wage lower than a living wage. And given the experience of the … states that have raised their minimum wages, there isn’t even an amoral economic justification.”

Today, change is needed and the Jewish community has a crucial role to play. We should heed the word of President Barack Obama: “… let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty.”

I believe we will get there, but I am not a total optimist. I am a possibilist. I believe we will only get there if we engage in courageous leadership. The Jewish community has a crucial role to play.


Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is executive director of the Valley Beit Midrash, founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, founder and CEO of the Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.

Hundreds of Israeli medical residents resign


Hundreds of medical residents in Israel have resigned, leaving many Israeli hospitals shorthanded.

More than 300 residents did not show up for work on Monday, affecting hospitals throughout the country.

The residents resigned over a labor dispute; they are dissatisfied with a nine-year agreement signed between the government and the Israel Medical Association.

The State Prosecutor on Monday asked the national Labor Court to issue an injunction against the resignations, and to order the residents to return to work as they continue to negotiate for a solution.

The resignations were originally scheduled to take effect in September, but were delayed by the court. The residents then agreed to stay on until Sunday in order to get past the Yom Kippur holiday.

Many of the residents have already secured positions in other countries, Ynet reported.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked the residents to delay their resignations by another two weeks to allow him to help find a solution.

Baltimore’s Yeshivat Rambam day school announces closing


A Baltimore Jewish day school will close at the end of this school year.

Yeshivat Rambam, which opened about 20 years ago and taught according to the Modern Orthodox philosophy of Torah U’Maddah, or Torah and secular knowledge, will shut down in June, it announced in a statement Sunday night, the Baltimore Jewish Times reported.

The school had already announced in January that it would close its high school division in an effort to get the rest of the school on its feet financially while working to increase enrollment in kindergarten through 8th grade.

But the financial situation reportedly proved to be too much for the award-winning school.

Parents and faculty were informed of the closing at separate meetings held Sunday night, according to the newspaper.

The school has retained a community-based adolescent-family-community relations counselor to help students, faculty and parents cope with the closing.

“Rambam faced rising costs, declining enrollment and a shrinking contributor base. Financial burdens were piling up. The time came for facing reality and making tough decisions. Thus, we have called this meeting tonight to let you know that it is with great sadness that Rambam’s Board of Directors has voted to close Rambam at the end of the current academic year,” Rambam President Meyer Shields said Sunday night.

Classes will continue on a regular schedule until the end of the school year. The school will help the students find other schools to attend.

Electricity cut to Rambam’s tomb


Visitors to the tomb of Jewish scholar and philosopher Moses Maimonides have been left in the dark.

That’s because the rabbis who manage the site in the Israeli city of Tiberias neglected to pay the electric bills over a long period of time.

The Israel Electric Corp. cut electricity to the site after the mounting bills passed the $11,500 mark.

Visitors usually come to pray at the tomb around the clock. The tomb currently is closed to night visitors due to what a sign on the tomb is calling “a power glitch.”

Maimonides, known as the Rambam, was born in Spain around 1138, where he wrote famous works of Jewish law, philosophy and medicine.

He died in Cairo in 1204 and his remains were said to be reburied in Tiberias, on the banks of the Sea of Galilee.

Can we help?


My desk is coated with letters of request: Adopt an animal at the zoo; come to a gala for the Jewish food bank; plant a tree in Israel; plant a tree in Los Angeles. Feed 50 meals to homeless people. Support public radio. Support the temple building fund. Support the school PTA, the booster club, the play. Need I go on?

These bids for help come in every year at about this time, but this year they feel different. We all are facing the reality that these are really hard times — for everyone, it seems — and there’s a note of desperation in these letters, a fear of becoming destitute. In fact, it’s probably a feeling most of us share to some degree, whether when we look at our 401(k)s (don’t!), or hear from our relatives (do!), or watch friends figure out how to get unemployment checks … or talk to someone who has lost their home to foreclosure.

So this year, all those pleas for funds have to be weighed against our anxieties. And the nagging question inside us must be: Should we hold back on our giving because what we have now might not last? And when we give, whom should we give to? Who are the neediest?

In his recently released “A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself,” (Bell Tower), Rabbi Joseph Telushkin quotes the familiar talmudic teaching: “Charity is equal in importance to all the other commandments combined.” (Bava Bathra 9a). But Telushkin also goes on to quote Maimonides: “It is our duty to be more careful in the performance of charity than in the performance of any other positive commandment.” (Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:1).

In our era, Telushkin points out, we equate charitable giving to cultural causes — museums, orchestras, universities — as much as to helping the poor. But it is the latter that the Bible refers to exclusively in the teachings on tzedakah. For a person in need, the Bible commands, “You shall open, yes, open, your hand to him,” and not “harden your heart nor shut your hand against your needy brother” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8). And the need for such generosity is so drilled into the Jewish soul that, as Telushkin paraphrases Maimonides, “Not giving tzedakah constitutes such cruel and un-Jewish behavior that we should question the Jewishness of one who acts in this way.”



The Shulchan Arukh assures us: “No person will become poor because of giving charity.”



So does this mean the art museum is out and the homeless shelter is this year’s beneficiary? That the temple coffers come before the school or after? What do we value most? And should we really decide? Because as we open our checkbooks this year and attempt to give back to the world, shouldn’t we consider sustenance from all angles?

High on our list, of course, should be those whose very lives depend upon our help. But this also is not a time to extinguish the many institutions that have risen up to create a civil society. The arts nourish the soul, schools nurture the potential of our youth, but they also promote the scientific and creative research that will secure our future. And the synagogue is one place where we can turn when we need caring most.

Our relationship with Israel also cannot be lost in the mix — its need for health and security doesn’t disappear while our attention is focused elsewhere.

And those animals in the zoo — should they be left out?

To be fair, aren’t times of hardship when we should be giving the most? And not just to one place?

I have a friend who runs an institute for the deaf — a place that gives the gift of communication to people who might otherwise be cut off from the world. She recently told me of a single day in the life of her institute: A check for $1 million came in from a major donor. Cause for great celebration. Then a look at the endowment showed a $1 million loss — just that same day. What do you do?

As the articles in this special Giving Guide illustrate, everyone is trying to answer all the questions I’m proposing here. And there are no easy answers.

But I would suggest this. This is the time to step up to the plate. And there are ways to do it even as we tighten our belts. We can think hard before we buy that fancy pair of shoes and get something more practical; then take that extra money left over — and give it away. Think again before we allocate fun money and find ways to share the pleasures with those who haven’t got the spare cash. We can take the bus once in a while and spend the gas savings on a person in need. Even small economies can turn into great gifts.

This is a time when, at whatever level we can, we should all continue to respond to the pleas for help from charities of all kinds — and give to our capacity, and maybe a little more. Because, as the Shulchan Arukh assures us, and as Telushkin notes, “No person will become poor because of giving charity.”

Sacrifices Address Emotion of Guilt


The theme of Parshat Tzav is korbanot, the animal sacrifices brought in the Tabernacle and, later, in the Temple.

The Rambam, in his “Guide to the Perplexed,” writes, “The purpose of sacrifices being incorporated into the Divine service of the Jewish people was to accommodate the transition of the people going from the extreme falsehood of idol worship to the extreme truth of worshipping one true God. The Jewish people had been steeped in an idolatrous culture and could only free themselves from it by utilizing the same form of animal sacrifice that they were accustomed to. Now, through strict rules and regiments, they could direct it toward the service of God.”

Unfortunately, this statement has been grossly misunderstood. The Rambam never meant to imply that korbanot were a temporary means of service, whose practice would be abandoned as soon as the Jewish people were weaned from their idolatrous ways. Noah and his sons offered korbanot after the flood; Avraham offered various sacrifices. Neither of them needed to be weaned from idolatry.

Although the concept of animal sacrifices seems foreign, almost antithetical to our notion of serving God, korbanot were offered in the Temple on a daily basis. The detailed rituals of sacrifices played an essential role in the celebration of each holiday, and various sacrifices were offered to mark significant events in the lives of people.

Korbanot obviously played a major role in our service to God. How are we to understand that role?

The ultimate way to serve God and come closer to Him is through prayer and Torah study, for those methods involve one’s heart and one’s intellect.

At the same time, we are created with physical drives, and we are therefore driven to relate to God in a physical, tangible way. Offering a korban (from the word karov, to come close) is a hands-on project.

But this very human need is not given free rein; rather, the offering of sacrifices is governed by strict regulations, in order that we tangibly relate to God in a true, proper way.

Furthermore, korbanot address the human emotion of guilt. After a person sins, it is natural to feel guilty about having done wrong, having failed to live up to expected standards of behavior.

Instead of allowing a person to wallow in guilt, to feel disappointed and disillusioned and to succumb to a sense of hopelessness, the Torah requires the sinner to bring a sacrifice. One must purchase a living animal, bring it to the Temple, confess the sin, express a firm resolve never to repeat it and then offer the sacrifice upon the altar.

These steps allow for the individual to express natural guilt in a constructive manner and for one to perfect and improve one’s character instead of being paralyzed by guilt.

Even in today’s times, in absence of korbanot, the Torah continues to challenge us to use our yetzer hatov, or good inclination, to sublimate our yetzer hara, or evil inclination, and always channel them to achieve a higher purpose, to relate to God in a way that allows us to grow, improve and attain psychological and intellectual perfection.

Steven Weil is rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.