Commentary Magazine


Wisconsin Rabbis Try to Turn Budget Battle into Holy War

Just when you thought the standoff in Wisconsin couldn’t get any worse: a group of rabbis in the state are now attempting to turn the nasty dispute over the budget into a religious holy war.  A statement organized by the Religious Action Center of the Union of Reform Judaism that was signed by the rabbis of every Reform temple in the state, as well as some from other denominations, has declared that Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to end the entitlement nightmare that has brought Wisconsin close to bankruptcy is contrary to the Torah. Their rationale for this stand is this verse:

“You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow Israelite or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay out the wages due on the same day, before the sun sets, for the worker is needy and urgently depends on it…” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15).

While we can all dispute the meaning of any section of Scripture and the Oral Law that Rabbinic Judaism has used to guide that interpretation, the problem here is that the state employees whose generous salaries, benefits, and pensions are at stake in this debate are far from being either “needy” or “destitute.” In fact, they are better off than many ordinary citizens of Wisconsin that the unions and their Democratic Party allies would prefer to see pay higher taxes in order to continue the privileges of state workers. While some state workers with college degrees are not as well off as doctors and lawyers and other professionals, those without such degrees (who make up a large part of the state workforce) do far better than their counterparts in the private sector. But no matter how you slice it, the Torah’s mandate for treating the working poor fairly has nothing to do with Wisconsin’s greedy public-sector unions and their thuggish supporters, who have been besieging the state capitol in Madison in order to thwart the will of the democratically elected majority of the legislature.

While the Reform movement may declare collective bargaining a universal human right, that is no more a religious ruling than their earlier statements opposing the war in Iraq, tax cuts, or a host of other purely political issues. Moreover, since Governor Walker and the majority of the legislature wish only to restrict the right of unions to use collective bargaining on issues such as pensions and benefits, and not wages, the proposed measure doesn’t even apply to Reform’s absurd decision to try and make every conceivable political issue a matter of religious principle.

There is also a degree of hypocrisy here. Liberal Jews are among the most ardent critics of conservative Christians who have at times sought to enunciate a religious political agenda on social issues. But is there any real difference between the attempts by Reverends Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to inject faith into politics that scared liberal Jews so much and the Wisconsin rabbis’ stand?

The point here is not that these rabbis have no right to express their opinion about this issue. They have every right to do so. But they are wrong to try and cast the attempt by powerful unions to retain their stranglehold on the budget process as a specifically Jewish issue. The Wisconsin rabbis may speak for themselves, but they cannot speak for Judaism when it comes to such issues. Judaism may have a lot to say about virtually all aspects of our lives, but there is no basis for claiming that it can define the proper rate of taxation for the citizens of Wisconsin or the proper balance of power between a legislature and executive elected by the people and labor unions. These are issues upon which reasonable people may differ. But rabbinic statements cast in terms such as the one organized by the Religious Action Center are attempts to stifle debate and brand those who disagree as irreligious or enemies of religious principles. And that is not an appropriate tactic for any faith group.