The Phrase “A Living Wage” is Not an Oxymoron

The phrase “a living wage” is not an oxymoron! Today, with hundreds of others, I was at LA City Hall as part of a broad coalition of groups (I went as a member of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice Los Angeles – CLUE-LA) urging the City Council to vote to create a minimum wage that is designed to be a “Living Wage” ($15.25 an hour). So, why should Jews be concerned about this?

The Torah only really has a couple of verses that might apply, which doesn’t seem like much. On the other hand, the Torah can say a great deal in two verses:

“You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to God against you and you will incur guilt.” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15). (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).

First, this means that a living wage is not an oxymoron. In addition, these verses clearly state that paying a decent wage on time has nothing to do with whether the worker is “legal” or a “documented” (“countryman or stranger”). Rather, fairness in wages has to do with the reality the s/he is “needy and destitute.” People working today under the euphemism we call “Minimum Wage” are actually living well below the Federal Government’s official poverty line. They are certainly “needy” and are constantly on the cusp of being “destitute”. All it takes some sort of urgency (illness, a fire, a stolen truck or tools of a trade, etc.) and they will be destitute. Today, we call minimum wage workers (currently $9 an hour in California – going up to $10 an hour in 2016) “working poor”. AND THAT IS AN OXYMORON!

Paying wages “on the same day, before the sun sets” also applies. If we overlay the biblical proscription of paying workers on the same day they work onto minimum wage workers, than the true wages due that are due to them, that they have earned, have been withheld from them long after “the sun has set” –  not just for a day, but for for months or even years!,

We shouldn’t feel motivated to help the working poor because we will “incur guilt” neither should we put anyone in the position to complain to God because we, in some way, are responsible for them not being  paid enough. That  should make us feel guilty! Even though we don’t directly pay all the people who provide services for us, who bus our tables, who wash the toilets, who mop the floors, who clean our hotel rooms, who wash our cars, who shelve our groceries, who put the steel in our buildings, who care for and clean up after our elderly and infirm, we are all part of the system that keeps them where they are – working and poor.

It will be pennies on the dollar for us if these workers earn $15.25 an hour. That –barely! – living wage will enable these workers to perhaps have one job instead of two or three, to be with their children, to not have to choose between filling a prescription or eating. They will have more money in their pockets to feed into the economy – better for all of us.

The Torah is brief and to the point – these workers are “needy and urgently depend” on us, on a true living wage, – now. This is a city-by-city campaign. Seattle and San Francisco have already passed a $15 an hour minimum wage. Your city can, too. The Torah, or God or Adonai or Allah or Jesus or Krishna can’t make a phone call to your city council person – but you can. We are the spiritual made actual, manifest in the world – not by what we believe – but rather but what we do.

A Weekend of Inspiration and an Encounter with New Americans

This past weekend was Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday weekend, an annual event on the Beth Shir Shalom calendar for over two decades. Why do we keep this commitment? We keep it because Jews are “slavery-to-freedom” people, not just during Passover, but all year long – our whole lives long. We are constantly scanning the local and even the international “radar” for the oppression of one people by another – in other words, places where a Jewish presence is required. Our own history, beginning with ancient Egypt and the many oppressions that would follow, demands of us that we liberate those who are now sorely beset in any kind of way. We have a duty to be among the liberators. I said as much during my sermon (click here to read my sermon) this past Sunday at Macedonia Baptist Church, under the amazing spiritual guidance of Pastor Shane Scott. Pastor Scott’s assistant Pastor, Everett Bell, gave a similar message at Beth Shir Shalom on Erev Shabbat.

Even though we’ve been doing this pulpit exchange for many years there was something very special about this past weekend. We committed, as we have also done for many years, to get together more than just annually and to accomplish more together. This time, however, I believe that commitment is going to really stick. There was something in the air, something different in our hearts.

Perhaps it was because it’s been a particularly difficult couple of years for the African-American community, from the killing of Treyvon Martin to the gutting of the Voting Rights Act to the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Ezell Ford, the Black community has rightly felt as though a multitude of societal achievements have been undermined and a drastic regression has occurred. Jews have felt that, too. In the recent terror attacks in France, the offices of Charlie Hebdo were attacked because the terrorists were offended by the way in which the publication satirized Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. The kosher market was attacked because…there were Jews inside.

Perhaps this year’s MLK joint celebration was different because March 2015 is the anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march and August 2015 is the anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act with its original, intentional and still-necessary restrictions on local “adjustments” on voting regulations and gerrymandering of districts.

I am committed to walking forward (we can be inspired by the past, but we cannot change it). Our African-American partners are committed as well. I’m excited. I feel as though we are on the verge of something that will be monumental in the experiences of our communities individually and together.

RNCD and Pastor Shane Scott 2015

With the Voting Rights Act severely weakened and a major part of our conversation with Macedonia Church, I find it wonderfully bershert (meant to be) that I was asked by the Jewish social justice organization Bend the Arc to participate in voter registration of newly sworn in American citizens. What an amazing experience! I think I will never forget the faces of those people coming out of the LA Convention Center, all dressed up for the occasion, accompanied by family and friends. It was a true privilege to witness and to offer people one of the most important American rights – the right to vote.

Voter Registration New Citizens - Jan 2015

“Can We Make it Real?” – A Just-Past-the-Season Reflection

I love children’s books. Most of the really good ones are not exclusively for the kids, but also at least as much for the adults who are reading them to/with their children. For many of us, the “Velveteen Rabbit” by Margery Williams is just such a cross-generational work. It’s message of the power of love, the power of love to make the inanimate real, is enormous and has been so since it was first published in 1922. It’s a fantasy; we all know that. Still on some level we believe it.

NOTE: I’m about to engage, with no shame, in unabashed anthropomorphism.

As we do every late evening, my dog Siggy and I were taking a walk. That day was very much near the end of 2014. Even though it was past December 25th, most Christmas celebrators in the neighborhood had not yet taken down their decorations. Siggy, is not only filled with unconditional love, but also the firm assumption that every human, canine, feline, bird, squirrel, etc.are as interested in being friends with him as he is with them. It doesn’t always work out that way, but in his 10 1/2 months on the planet, he hasn’t given up.

We were walking past a lawn display with a couple of wire-and-light-topiaries that were in the shape of little polar bears – just about Siggy’s size. This he had to see. At first, he was cautious – approaching the “creatures” haltingly and with sort of a serpentine route. They looked like little bears, sort of. They had little black eyes and little black noses. They even moved their heads from side to side (with the help of a little motor at the base of their necks). Of course, they didn’t smell like any animal, bird or rodent that Siggy had ever experienced and that was probably what gave it away. Except for the repetitive and identical movements of their heads, they were completely still, unresponsive and totally “uninterested” in interacting. Eventually, Siggy gave up .

Like the little boy in the “Velveteen Rabbit”, Siggy tried to make the inanimate creatures real. (Big anthropomorphism warning!) I think he really wanted to. It appeared he could not, so he walked away.

The obvious lesson from Siggy’s topiaric encounter (animals teach us so much!) is certainly that others we encounter are not always what they appear to be. A more spiritual lesson for our new year, a velveteen lesson, is that to make things real that are not yet real takes time – a long time, commitment, consistency, belief that “real” can happen and, of course, love.

Adults who are beyond the toy bunny and bear stage (although we all have some of that in us always), we do have a good deal of “real making” to do. We’ve been wrestling with these stubborn things for quite a while and it seems like no matter how much passion and hope and belief and love we put into them, it doesn’t seem to be working. It seems like it might be easier to walk away. And that’s where the fantasy must end. We cannot walk away!

The task of love and commitment and belief and consistency is still upon us to make real:

  • The day when African-American and mixed race mothers and fathers won’t need to have “The Talk” with their sons about interactions with the police.
  • The reinstatement of the full Voting Rights Act so that all Americans can exercise their right to vote unencumbered.
  • Justice and dignity for a hard day’s work which translates into a living wage and decent and safe working conditions.
  • An immigration policy that sees America, once again, as a land of opportunity and welcome for all people of all origins.
  • Ways of dealing with those who would do violence to us that does not use violence in return.
  • Peace and a little bit of prosperity for all.

We cannot walk away! And when we are tempted to do so, we should remember the words of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot (the Sayings of our Sages): “You are not obliged to complete the work, neither are you to abandon it.” (Avot ii:20 – translation Rabbi Rami Shapiro in “Wisdom of the Sages”)


Siggy’s in the shadow on the right.