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Contentions

Were Wisconsin Rabbis Right to Take Sides in Union Battle? An Exchange.

On March 3, I wrote in Contentions about a public letter organized by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and signed by a group of Wisconsin rabbis that took the position that support for the state-worker unions in their dispute with the governor and the majority of the legislature of that state was mandated by Judaism. The RAC has replied to that blog post with the following letter. My response follows.

Responding to the effort in Wisconsin to sharply curtail collective bargaining rights of public employees, Wisconsin rabbis wrote a letter to the State Senate opposing Governor Scott Walker’s so-called “budget repair bill.” They asserted that Jews are inspired by our tradition to defend the rights of organized labor.

COMMENTARY’s Jonathan S. Tobin sharply criticized the letter, suggesting the rabbis overstepped their bounds as faith leaders. In doing so, he ignored central Jewish tenets commanding us to pursue justice and to serve as a moral goad to our communities. Jews are commanded to engage in tikkun olam — repair of the world. Government, with its immense resources, is indispensable in this task.

The Talmud alludes to a right to strike and to a precursor form of association akin to collective bargaining. Similarly, the medieval commentator Rashba talks about the right of the equivalent of trade associations and guilds to organize to protect the interests of workers. For the rabbis, the Jewish mandate of social justice included protection of workers and their rights. We do not believe Jewish law is binding upon non-Jewish societies, but we do believe that the manner in which rabbis applied the universal values of Jewish tradition to their own societies can be a model for us today. In that spirit, I am proud of our rabbis who spoke out on this issue.

What seems to irk Mr. Tobin most is reflected in his argument that the Reform Movement, so critical of the Religious Right’s injection of religion into politics, was hypocritically doing just that on this issue. But no Jewish organization of which I am aware believes that the Religious Right does not have a right to speak out on public-policy issues or that religion in politics is bad. We have always defended the right of such groups to speak out. But just because you have a right to speak does not make what you say right. And in the free marketplace of ideas, based on insights from our own faith tradition, joined by almost every mainline religious organization, Jewish and Christian, we have challenged and criticized the narrow, extreme agenda of the Religious Right.

Further, some of what the Religious Right advocates is different from what other religious groups do. Based on their understanding of their own faith tradition, the Religious Right has advocated the use of the coercive power of government to impose religious practices on others (e.g., school prayer, banning evolution in science classes, religious symbols on government buildings). In order to avoid bumping into First Amendment limitations, they then support changing the Constitution.

Religious Right leaders have the right to make such arguments, but were they to succeed, the America that has given Jews more rights, freedoms, and opportunities than anywhere else in Diaspora life would be greatly altered. Those are the intrusions into our freedoms for which we have criticized the Religious Right.

In contrast, we defend the right of all religious groups to bring their moral perspective to the recent public debates over labor rights, whether in agreement with us (Catholic bishops, mainline Protestant denominations) or opposed. Anyone may disagree with the Wisconsin rabbis’ interpretation of Jewish text, law, and historical experience. But applying the lessons from our faith to current events is a sacred task for all Jews, especially our teachers and leaders, and I commend them for stressing the relevance and importance of values derived from their faith in the most urgent political decisions our nation is making.

Rabbi David Saperstein
Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Jonathan Backer
Religious Action Center Eisendrath Legislative Assistant

Jonathan S. Tobin writes:

No one disputes the right of any rabbi or group of rabbis to express their opinions about legislation in Wisconsin or any other issue. But an attempt to transform what was primarily a budget dispute as well as an open attempt to override the democratic will of a state’s voters into a matter of Jewish religious doctrine is the sort of overreach that brings no credit to either the rabbis or the cause they support.

Liberals can certainly mine Judaism’s sacred texts to bolster their partisan political stands much in the same way that some conservatives do. But the point here is that invoking the Rashba or the Talmud in order to preserve the political muscle of state-employee unions in 2011 and to counter the attempts of a state’s democratically elected government to bring their benefits into line with budget reality is the sort of implausible exercise that inevitably undermines respect for faith. The precepts of Judaism inform the full spectrum of Jewish life, but those who seek to use them, as the RAC has done in this case and other questionable causes, to gain an advantage in a bitterly divisive and partisan dispute does neither Judaism nor civil society any good. There are such things as political issues on which Jews can take a stand as Jews, but that does not mean that every conceivable political dust-up is a Jewish issue. Most Jews may be political liberals, but that does not mean that Judaism is itself liberal, let alone a partisan creed. Those who enter the public square to take stands on what are entirely secular issues need to be careful not to be perceived as speaking for all Jews, let alone Judaism, and that is precisely the danger that the Wisconsin rabbis and the RAC ran in their zeal to get in their two cents in favor of the unions and against the Republican governor and legislators.

As for my comparisons between this statement and liberal criticism of the Religious Right, the RAC is right to say that there is a difference between arguments over the extent of the right amount of separation between religion and state and purely secular disputes. Rabbi Saperstein and Mr. Backer claim to know of no liberal Jew who is critical of conservative Christian political activism per se. But the general disdain for such Christians and their political stands on a host of issues — and not just school prayer — among liberal Jews is so widespread and so adamant that it strikes me as highly unlikely that they have never encountered it. It is not difficult to imagine the scorn that a letter in support of Governor Walker and the Republicans signed by a group of conservative Christian clerics would provoke from the same liberal Jews who applauded the Wisconsin rabbis that signed the RAC’s letter.

Moreover, even on separation issues, the notion that Jewish interests demand opposition to religious conservatives is a matter of opinion. On school choice as well as on questions of state aid to religious schools, it can be argued that the extremist view of separationism that the RAC endorses is contrary to the best interests of the Jewish community as well as society in general.

A “naked public square” in which faith has no role in public policy is something that conservatives have always opposed. But those who enter that square to speak on behalf of Judaism need to be careful not to do so in a manner that attempts to place Judaism or any faith in a partisan context. Unfortunately, I believe that is exactly what the RAC’s Wisconsin letter did.



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