Welcome! I am Rabbi Jonathan Biatch of Madison, Wisconsin. "Pulpit Perspectives: My Observations as a Congregational Rabbi" is published every two weeks to reflect my observations about life in my congregation and with my members. The opinions expressed here are solely my own. I invite you to join the dialogue!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Madison Rabbis Speak Out Against Governor Walker’s Proposed Budget Repair Bill

All of the rabbis of Madison, Wisconsin’s liberal Jewish movements (Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative) signed on to the letter below.

Dear Rabbinic Colleagues and Friends,

Many of you have been watching what is going on in our beloved city of Madison, Wisconsin. As rabbis who live and work in Madison, we wanted to share with you some reflections on recent events.

This is an extraordinary time in Madison. We have never seen anything like it. The sheer number of people who have come to protest, testify, or attend vigils at the State Capitol is unbelievable. Through sunshine and freezing rain, we have been shocked at how long people have sustained this engagement. The overwhelming number of protesters has been respectful, peaceful, and well, downright friendly (this is the Midwest, after all!). The energy inside the Capitol rotunda is astounding. It has brought tears to our eyes to watch young people become so passionate about these issues, even sleeping there throughout the night. We have heard some grumbling about the school closures, but there could be no better civics lesson than watching strangers – young and old, workers and professors, from small towns and big cities, all holding hands all around the perimeter of the Capitol and chanting, “This is what democracy looks like.”

We have been very focused on the local level, but we understand that this is a national issue. The stakes are very high. They are so high because our very communities are at risk. Contrary to many news reports, this is not about greedy labor unions. If Governor Walker’s bill passes, it will destroy local economies throughout the state – and drastically reduce the quality of our public schools, universities, nursing homes, child care centers, and hospitals. Through its devastating changes to Medicaid it will jeopardize the health and well-being of the mentally ill, disabled, elderly, and poor. This will affect each of us personally and professionally, and it will spread to other states as well. Sadly, our children’s future is on the line, and Governor Walker has tried to prevent any public discussion or debate on these issues.

As rabbis we find this an affront to our values – the Jewish mandate to protect workers, as well as the poor and needy among us. It is an affront to our deep value for education, for supporting women’s rights, and for creating sustainable communities. And it is an affront to our belief that these issues should be debated openly and fairly under public scrutiny.

We humbly share the attached resources that we have compiled in the hopes that we can renew our commitment to social justice for all members of our society. What is happening in Wisconsin will likely spread to other states, and we hope that you will discuss these issues in your communities.

The organization that has been coordinating the interfaith religious response in Madison is the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin. Their members are a combination of grassroots activists, clergy, laity, congregations, community organizations, and labor unions. If you would like to support their work, please visit http://www.workerjustice.org. The issue of cuts to health care coverage for low income Wisconsin residents is also at stake. To read more about this or to support these efforts, please visit Save Badger Care, http://www.savebadgercare.org.

As Rabbi Hillel once said, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"


Rabbi Renee Bauer
Rabbi Joshua Ben-Gideon
Rabbi Rebecca Ben-Gideon
Rabbi Jonathan Biatch
Rabbi Kenneth Katz
Rabbi Bonnie Margulis
Rabbi Andrea Steinberger
Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Jewish Connection to Labor Issues

The controversy regarding Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to eliminate most of the collective bargaining agreements of public sector employees is, at the time of the publication of this blog, only a few days old. Yet this controversy has engendered heated debate, discussion, and disagreement on the issues.

For this Rabbi, it is difficult to understand the severity of Governor Walker’s proposal, as it runs completely counter to the history and direction of organized labor, and the benefits that organized labor has brought to our economy. The century-and-a-half stream of collective bargaining agreements in our country is a tide that has raised all boats: bringing the working class into the middle class; increasing the productivity and the profitability of the companies and public agencies that hire union workers; and providing lives of dignity for all participants.

The system of union representation has granted real human dignity to each person in our land, those who are union workers and others who have benefited – at some time in their lives – from a union agreement.

What is our connection?

Here is a brief synopsis of the Jewish position on labor and related issues, and perhaps hints as to why Jews can proudly support the stance of the labor union members who will be drastically affected by the proposed loss of the power of collective bargaining.

We Jews are heirs of a prophetic tradition that has ever sought to perfect the world that God gave to us. As the book of Genesis reminds us, we are all made in the divine image, and no one person is inherently better than another. That is why we honor the dignity of each person, for their being a member of the human family, and for their chosen work in the world.

The books of Leviticus [19:13] and Deuteronomy [24:14-15] demand that employers should be fair and honest in their relationships with their employees. From these Scriptures we specifically learn “You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. 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.”

And the book of Exodus [23:12] brought forth the ancient but sublime innovation of a day of rest. Specifically in connection with the laborer, it commands, “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household, and the foreigner as well, may be refreshed”.

The Talmud not only deals with working conditions and appropriate wages, but provides justification for the establishment of workers' unions and guilds. Later Jewish rabbinic tradition continues this trend, referring both to the need for people to work seriously and long, and the sanction for organizers to organize for their benefit and safety. Please contact me at rabbi@templebethelmadison.org if you would like information about specifics.

Textual references are important, but remember this: We in the liberal community follow the words of certain scripture passages not because God commanded them and/or out of a fear of punishment, but rather because they represent wisdom in building – together with God – a just world.

The American Jewish tradition of support for union organizing and collective bargaining began more than 100 years ago, beginning in earnest with the tragedy that we know of as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. One hundred forty-six women lost their lives that March day, whose centenary anniversary we will observe next month. From that event we strove to correct the unsafe and unjust conditions at factories and sweatshops all across the country. We moved forward and continued to honor the dignity of all workers who daily toil for themselves and for their family.

What does all this mean?

Our Jewish religious and civil tradition demands that employers treat workers fairly, from providing adequate wages and benefits, to ensuring safe and appropriate working conditions. And the ability of workers to bargain collectively has allowed us to achieve a higher standard of living for workers, such as a fair and safe workplace; to raise the profits and benefits of employers due to the hard work of dedicated employees such as you; and to receive many other benefits for working people in our country.

We therefore move onward with work and workers' right as sacred , because, our tradition states, “Great is labor for it gives honor to the laborer” [Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 49b].