I’m involved in an initiative that I want you to know about — the $15 and Fairness Campaign. This initiative is working to raise Ontario employment standards, affecting a range of concerns from fairer wages, to sick leave, to the protected right to unionize. Currently, a person in Ontario could struggle to get by working two or three low paying jobs, working full-time hours, yet still live in poverty. It is a very positive stride forward that on June 1st, the Ontario government tabled Bill 148, the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act. The bill includes a package of legislative reforms that would take clear steps in the direction of more livable, equitable wages and working conditions — including raising the minimum wage to $15 within 18 months.
I’ve become involved in the $15 and Fairness Campaign alongside other rabbis from the Toronto Board of Rabbis (on which I serve as part of the Executive) and alongside other religious leaders through ISARC (Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition). In addition to this being an issue of political and socio-economic importance, for this group of religious leaders and for us as a Jewish community, it’s an issue that addresses us with moral responsibility as well.
“There shall be no needy among you,” the Torah asserts boldly in Deuteronomy 15:4. The verse goes on to make a link between the abundance that we have and the call to eliminate poverty. Essentially it is saying that there is enough collective wealth to ensure that everyone’s needs are met. We are being challenged to notice where there is abundance, where there is lack, and to ensure equitable distribution of resources. This makes a moral claim on us, saying that our lives are interwoven in mutual responsibility, in interdependence, and in the sacred worth and dignity that all human beings share. Poverty disrupts the ways we are able to care for and sustain each other. It assaults human dignity and, says this verse, poverty must not be accepted as simply a part of reality.
But then, as if to backtrack from this audacious vision of economic equity and justice, verse 7 of the very same chapter reads, “If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that YHVH your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.” So which is it? Is the Torah giving instruction on how to respond compassionately and wisely when there are people in need, teaching us how to use our privilege and blessings to help others, or is it a mitzvah, a call and command to ensure that there are no needy, that poverty is eradicated? The answer is … both (very Jewish — one question, two answers).
These two imperatives make different demands on us. Through acts of chesed (lovingkindness) and tzedakah (giving justly), we take responsibility for providing for people’s immediate and often ongoing needs — food, clothing, shelter, access to education, health care. We donate money and goods. We support organizations like Jewish Family and Child that provide services for people who are struggling in poverty. Verse 7 also reminds us to keep our eyes and hearts open so that we don’t become numb or callous. But this isn’t enough.
What we are called to aspire to is the total elimination of poverty, to work for the societal conditions that enable every person to live life with dignity and stability without needing to ask for assistance, and to provide for their families. The great medieval Jewish thinker, Moses Maimonides teaches that the highest level of tzedakah is one in which a person is able to earn a sustainable living and get out of poverty altogether. This is ultimately what we are aiming for.
Bill 148 has yet to pass in the Legislative Assembly before it can become law. There is work to do this summer! Over the summer, the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs will hold public hearings and consider amendments to the proposed legislation. This is an important time to mobilize to strengthen the Bill and advocate for it. Amid the lush abundance and delights of summer, please consider learning more and adding your voice to the campaign, helping to move us closer to a society without poverty.