In many Jewish communities in the United States, Mitzvah Day is celebrated annually. Mitzvah (literally: commandment, colloquially: a good deed) Day is a day on which Jewish communities come together to perform all manners of community service. Atlanta’s Mitzvah day announces that it contributed 570 hours of service by 190 volunteers at ten project sites. At Temple Emmanuel in New York City people made totes for women undergoing chemotherapy, sandwiches and 300 meal bags to combat hunger, and baked fresh cookies which were packaged with organic milk boxes for children at the local day-care and after-school programs. In Los Angeles, (which seems to have been the originator of the concept) Mitzvah Day outgrew the Jewish community and was adopted by the whole city as Big Sunday.
All the Mitzvah Day projects seem to be well-attended and worthwhile (at least the ones I’ve seen). However, I want to suggest that the vision of Mitzvah Day is too narrow. There are some commandments which are not included in any Mitzvah Day or Big Sunday I’ve seen. These are the commandments to protest against injustice and to treat workers fairly. Therefore, I would like to think that this Thursday (November 13) in front of the Walmart in Pico Rivera, California will be Mitzvah Day 2.0. Workers, clergy, and community members will be protesting against Walmart’s mistreatment of its workers and demand that Walmart pay its employees at least fifteen dollars an hour, and that they have access to full time employment.
One of the foundations of a just society is that relationships between workers and employers be based in mutual respect. This means, at the very least, that the employers recognize that a worker is different from a cash register or the stock on the shelves. The worker is a person, not merely an expense line on the budget. The implication of this is that part of the obligation of an employer is to pay a salary on which a worker can live. That type of living wage (which is about fifteen dollars an hour with full time employment) would allow a worker to afford food and shelter, education, and healthcare. (It would of course be higher if we were to take into account the ability to raise children.) It is the obligation of a just society to ensure that this happens. When it does not, society must be held responsible.
The Talmud (the 7th century cornerstone text of Jewish law and values) states this in an unequivocal fashion:
All who can protest against something wrong … that any resident of their city is doing and does not protest, is held accountable for what those residents are doing. (Tractate Shabbat 55a)
Walmart has been a consistently bad corporate citizen. Many Walmart workers cannot afford to support themselves and must rely on public assistance to get by (about $6.2 billion). The rest of the community then is allowing Walmart to pay poverty wages by subsidizing those wages with our tax dollars.
Walmart actively fights against union organizing among its workers. When a store successfully unionized (in Canada), Walmart closed the store.
The Rabbinic tradition is clear about the right to organize, and the prohibition against abusive labor practices (such as not allowing workers to get enough hours to collect benefits or gain full time employment). When Walmart recently decided to cancel its healthcare coverage to its workers, a small percentage of its workers were affected since Walmart has a thirty-hour threshold to get coverage in the first place – a minimum that most workers are not allowed to reach. As the Rishon Le-Tziyon, the Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel wrote in 1938:
Reason also dictates that we should not leave the worker alone, isolated as an individual, so that he would have to hire himself out for minimal wages in order to satisfy his and his family’s hunger with bread and water in meager quantities and with a dark and dank apartment. In order to protect himself the law gave him the legal right to organize, and to create regulations to his fellows for the fair and equitable division of labor amongst them and the attaining of dignified treatment and appropriate payment for his work – so that he might support his family at the same standard of living as other citizens of his city. It makes sense that included in this is also a cooperative organization to establish cultural institutions in order to enrich his scientific and artistic education and his Torah knowledge. Institutions of healing and convalescence in order to renew his strength which was utilized for work and to heal the wounds which were caused by it. Also to create a savings plan for his old age or if he becomes an invalid. For with every passing day the worker’s strength is dissipated and he cannot continue in his labors at the same pace as in his youth. Scripture explicitly notes this: “but at the age of fifty they shall retire from the work force and shall serve no more.” (Numbers 8:25) All these matters cannot be accomplished except by way of an organization of workers or craftsmen. Therefore the Torah of Israel conferred complete and legal right upon this organization even though it could cause losses to owners. (Mishpetei Uziel Vol. IV – Hoshen Mishpat 42)
So this week on Thursday we inaugurate Mitzvah Day 2.0. We (clergy of all faiths and community members) will take to the streets in front of Walmart (8500 Washington Blvd, Pico Rivera, CA 90660) and stand together with workers to demand respectanddignity – to fulfill our obligation to protest against the injustices that Walmart is carrying out against its workers, lest we too be held responsible. Join us. Together we create a more perfect and just union.
Aryeh Cohen, Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University, is the author most recently of Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism (Academic Studies Press). He blogs at Justice-in-the-City.com.