Our guest blogger, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, Ph.D, is associate professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University. He is the author of the forthcoming book Justice in the City: Toward a Community of Obligation (Academic Studies Press) and blogs at Justice-in-the-City.com. He sits on the boards of the Progressive Jewish Alliance/Jewish Funds for Justice and Rabbis for Human Rights-North America.
We have moved into the second stage of OWS, in terms of media perception. Now, the refrain is: “What do they want?“ This raises the question: What is the society that we want? What would a just society look like? As a rabbi and a scholar of the classical Jewish tradition, my first instinct is to look for answers in the tradition.
The just society that emerges from a reading of the classic canon of Rabbinic literature, is what I call a “community of obligation.” Residency in a city is determined by the assumptions of the obligations of the city. According to the Talmud a person is considered a resident at different times for different obligations. At thirty days one is taxed for the soup kitchen, at six months the clothing fund, etc. There is no term of residency required in order to eat from the soup kitchen. In fact the discussion in the third century Mishnah takes the opposite tack. The obligation is placed upon the community to provide for a poor person wandering from town to town, who is not a resident of this town, at least two meals worth of food and the necessities for sleeping.
So the first point is that being part of a city entails the obligation to fulfill the needs of others in the city who are in need through the social welfare institutions of the government. Redistributing resources so that everybody has enough to be able to support themselves with dignity.
The tradition does not envision this relief coming from voluntary charity organizations. The money that is distributed is assessed and collected by the institutions of the city. It is a tax. In the community of obligation, once everybody’s basic needs to be able to exist with dignity (food, shelter, clothing, education, health care) are met, individuals are free to amass as much wealth as they wish. However, until that time, individual wealth is under lien by the community.
In a community of obligation labor is not a commodity which is bought by an employer from a worker. Rather, an employer pays a worker enough to support herself with dignity in order that she might do the work that is necessary. Labor relations, according to one story in the Talmud, are governed by the Biblical verse: ”So follow the way of the good, And keep to the paths of the just.”
Now, that an investigative report revealed that Amazon.com, the global multi-billion dollar corporation, was penalizing and firing workers for not keeping productivity up in 105 and 110 degree heat, it bears repeating that if righteousness and justice are not embedded in labor law, then it is neither law nor justice.
So for now, my humble shout out to the holy community in Liberty Square, New York, hoist a sign for me which reads: So follow the way of the good, And keep to the paths of the just.