Rabbi Rappaport's Testimony for Raising the Minimum Wage

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On June 22nd Jewish Community Action brought four testimonies to the floor of the Minneapolis City Council calling for the minimum wage to be raised to $15 an hour. We wanted to share these powerful testimonies with the community as we continue to call for a livible and sustainable wage. Below is Rabbi Deborah Rappaport's testimony.

My name is Debra Rappaport. I am a rabbi at Shir Tikvah congregation in South Minneapolis. I am here today as a grandchild of immigrants , who on both sides of my family made it in this great country by starting businesses. I am a first generation rabbi, and (members of my congregation might recoil at this) at least a fourth generation capitalist business person. 

Much of what follows is excerpted from the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, speaking in Rome in 2011.

Our market system gives more freedom and dignity to human choice than any other economic system. The biblical laws and narrative indicate respect for individual property rights and for labor.  Job creation, in Judaism, is the highest form of charity because it gives people the dignity of not depending on charity.  According to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi if Britain, “From a Jewish perspective, the most important thing about the market economy is that it allows us to alleviate poverty. Judaism refused to romanticize poverty. It is not, in Judaism, a blessed condition. It is, the rabbis said, ‘a kind of death’ and‘worse than fifty plagues’”.

The rabbis favored markets and competition because they generate wealth, lower prices, increase choice, reduced absolute levels of poverty, and extend humanity’s control over the environment, narrowing the extent to which we are the passive victims of circumstance and fate. Competition releases energy and creativity and serves the general good.

This same source of our ethics also preaches the limits of capitalism. As I see it, there are two problems, two reasons we need to call on our legal system to mediate the free market:

1.     The market itself becomes the diety.  Adam Smith saw this system as a means of directing self- interest to the common good. But it also can become a means of empowering self-interest to the detriment of the common good. Instead of the market being framed by moral principles, it comes to substitute for moral principle. If you can buy it, negotiate it, earn it and afford it, then you are entitled to it –because you’re worth it. The market ceases to be merely a system and becomes an ideology in its own right.

2.     The market might be the best means we know of for generating wealth, but it is not a perfect system for distributing wealth. Some gain far more than others, and with wealth comes power over others. Unequal distribution means that some are condemned to poverty. And poverty is not just a physical disaster for those without the means to sustain themselves. It is a psychological disaster. Poverty humiliates. It can also force the poor into a cycle of dependence. 

The concept of distributive justice – i.e. fairness - is Judaic in origin and flows ultimately from the same source as the free market itself, the idea that every individual has dignity in the image of God and that it is our task to develop social structures that honor and enhance that dignity. So a Judeo-Christian ethic calls us to recognize the limits of the market and to supplement it with a legal system that supports the dignity of all, and in particular today the ability for people who work hard to make a livable wage.

We’ve heard the call of Isaiah, “Learn to do good, seek justice, rebuke the oppressor, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.”

Please consider this actionable item today, and enact $15 minimum wage. Businesses are resourceful and can handle the repercussions.


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