Moral, Just, or Legal? That’s the $15/hr Question

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“A truly moral agenda must be anti-racist, anti-poverty, pro-justice, pro-labor, transformative and deeply rooted and built within a fusion coalition.  It would ask of all policy, is the policy Constitutionally consistent, morally defensible and economically sane.  We call this moral analysis and moral articulation which leads to moral activism.”  —Rev. Dr. William, J. Barber, II

Judaism is often accused of being overly legalistic.  And, while it is true that Tanach (sometimes called The Hebrew Bible and most times referred to as The Old Testament) can seem long on statutes and short on morals, this characterization Is not accurate.  A more accurate assessment would be to say that the morals in Tanach are not expressed explicitly.  The authors of Tanach were operating under two assumptions: (1) G-d exists, and all things (including any moral code) exists because G-d exists, and (2) their readers shared this assumption.  In other words, there was no need to delineate a sets of morals because everyone knew that to live in the image of G-d meant to do so in a moral way. Of greater importance was not that a person espoused a set of morals but that those morals were reflected in that person’s everyday life and actions.

The reason Torah spends more time on laws and statutes and less time on morals is because G-d does not leave it up to us to live our morals. More important to G-d than morality is Justice, and Justice is when our morals lead us to act in ethical ways.  Let’s take, as example, a look at this week’s parsha, Ki Teitzei (Devarim 21:1-25:19).

Most people, I hope, would agree that honesty is a moral value we should all adhere to.  But what does “honesty” look like?  How do we know when and where we should be honest?  Ki Teitzei provides some specific advice:

You shall not have in your pouch alternate weights, larger and smaller.

You shall not have in your house alternate measures, a larger and a smaller. (25:13-14)[i]

Ok, so we should be “honest” when conducting business.  But what if I can make more money by not being honest, why should I be honest and moral?  Again, Torah not only gives us a specific way to be moral but also gives us an explicit reason for doing so:

You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that the LORD your God is giving you.

For everyone who does those things, everyone who deals dishonestly, is abhorrent to the LORD your God. (25:15-16)

It is important to note that Jews have taken Torah literally, and so many commentators have pointed to these verses, particular to the phrase, “everyone who deals dishonestly,” to be the foundation for having a just economy.  A just economy, to steal a phrase from a former Presidential candidate (and, BTW, fellow member of the Tribe), is an economy that works for everyone.  Ki Teitzei, among the various statues enumerated, includes laws recording the charging of interest, the holding of collateral, and torts.  There is even a discussion of wages, more particularly of wages for workers at the lowest, or minimum, end of the wage scale.  Two passages are particularly important for this discussion.  Devarim 24:14 says,

You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land.

The meaning of this verse, according to Rashi, is not “thou shalt not wrong a hired servant, the poor and the needy,” but is actually “thou shalt not suppress the wages of a hired servant who is poor and needy.”  Rashi goes on to explain, as do other commentators, that to “suppress” the hired servant’s wages means that the wages should be fair and should never be withheld, for the life, as well as the livelihood, of the poor and needy servant depends on this.  Anyone who has ever lived paycheck-to-paycheck can understand this situation.

The minimum wage was never meant to be the maximum a business pays its lowest wage workers; it is meant to be the minimum below which no company would pay its lowest wage workers. More importantly, the minimum wage must be a just wage.

[i] JPS Tanach, 1985

One response to “Moral, Just, or Legal? That’s the $15/hr Question

  1. In Medieval times there was a such thing as “just price”. This means that the guilds would establish a price for an item that would allow an artisan to charge enough to allow a comfortable life for himself and his family. He/she should charge no more or no less because to do so would result in punitive measures. Case in point: a traveler comes into a shoe store and his feet are sore and bleeding because his shoes are worn out and the just price for a pair of shoes has been determined to be $2.00. The traveler offers to pay $100.00 for a pair of shoes. What should the cobbler charge? According to the concept of just price the cobbler should charge $2.00.
    Just price is a pre industrial concept, but it can be modified to fit a post industrial economy and that translates to a “just wage”. If businesses are charging a “just price” it follows that they should be paying a “just wage”.
    Whether this concept comes from a specific religious tradition or a universal moral concept is irrelevant. Both concepts ( “just price” and “just wage”) are the moral thing to do.

    Liked by 1 person

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