Torah, ENDA and Our Mandate to Act (Now)

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November 4, 2013

Center for American Progress (10/18/12)

The US Senate could vote this week on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, aka ENDA.

May this bill pass in 2013, ending the 19-year struggle to ensure recourse against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Why is passing this federal legislation so critical?

Right now, transgender people can be fired in 33 states while lesbian, gay and bisexual people can be fired in 29, merely for being ourselves. Seeking fairness and justice state by state has been a tortuously slow process that leaves millions of people at risk for joblessness and its potential ramifications: poverty, homelessness, shame, depression, illness.

Why as Jews should we attend to this travesty? Regardless of our sexual orientation and gender identity, why should we make this struggle our own?

Being Upright

Rav Dr. Yosef Breuer, z”l, has a beautiful teaching connecting the people of Israel’s commitment to kashrut/sacred eating and our social contract. He said:

God’s Torah not only demands the observance of kashrut and the sanctification of our physical enjoyment; it also insists on the sanctification of our social relationships. This requires the strict application of the tenets of justice and righteousness, which avoid even the slightest trace of dishonesty in our business dealings and personal life.

God’s Torah not only demands of us to love our neighbor in that we concern ourselves with his welfare and property, but it insists further on a conduct of uncompromising straightness (“yoshor”) which is inspired not only by the letter of the law but is guided by the ethical principle of honesty which, then, would deserve the honorable title of “yeshurun.”

I would expand his framing of what yoshor means well beyond the realm of honesty and integrity. Being upright also requires attending to every one of our profound teachings that guide us to the creation of a civil society based on holiness, respect and integrity.

Being upright means we remember that we are all created btzelem Elohim, in the image of G-d. (Breishit/Genesis 1:26) In remembering, we see the Divine in all we encounter, and we honor the unique and precious gifts, power and teaching of each individual.

Being yoshor means that we remember our alienation and oppression as strangers in Egypt. In so doing we honor and respect those different from ourselves. The mitzvah of honoring the stranger arises more than any other in Torah: 36 times. It requires that we chose the path of love, v’ahavta l’reacha comacha, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself (Vayikra/Leviticus 19:18); that we act as Isaiah instructs us: to be a light to the nations, and pursue holiness, peace and justice with every fiber of our being. It means that unfailingly we abide by the command: tzedek tzedek tirdof, (Dvarim, Deuteronomy 16:20) and pursue righteousness with every fiber of our being.

While Torah doesn’t tackle head on the issue of employment discrimination, it clearly prohibits oppressing workers (Vayikra 19:13 and Dvarim 24:14-15) and acknowledges that the work of our hands is critical to our well being. (Psalm 90, “Let Adonai’s pleasure be upon us, and the labor of our hands make it secure.”)

Rabbinic interpretations of these texts lift up the importance of dignity and respect for all workers. In Sefer HaYirah, Rabbeinu Yonah we read:

Be careful not to afflict any living creature, whether animal or bird, and all the more so, one should not afflict a person who is created in the image of the Divine. If you want to hire laborers and you find that they are poor, they should be [regarded as] poor members of your household, and do not degrade them, for you were commanded to have a respectful manner with them and to pay their wages.

What does it means to be Yeshurun, upright? Together these teachings call us to end discrimination in all its forms, for ourselves and for others, in all manner of business and civil dealings, including employment.

Of course, text, abstraction, philosophy and commandments from a religious tradition you may or may not have an ongoing relationship with do not impel everyone to act, even if you find the ideals and values consonant with your own.

The Choice to Act

So I’d like to share a firsthand account about how easy it can be to change the course of history. How all it takes is a little awareness, an opportunity to seize, and a choice to act.

In the late 1980s I negotiated collective bargaining agreements for a labor union. I was also a national leader in the bisexual movement. The union represented more than 100,000 people. At that time federal legislation did not protect people from being fired for health and disability issues. HIV/AIDS was breaking into public consciousness as a terminal diagnosis preceded by years of debilitating illness. Medications were offering little hope. Misinformation about disease transmission was rampant, and the fear of those infected was mind-boggling. I raised the need to negotiate job protection for those diagnosed with or perceived as having HIV/AIDS to my union’s leadership. I got immediate support. In the coming three years, through my efforts and that of everyone on the negotiations staff, every contract secured a prohibition against discrimination for people with HIV/AIDS. The cause was just. The need obvious. It just took one person to help labor and management leaders alike see that truth, understand the mandate and act.

What Can You Do — Right Now?

What can you do to secure the passage of ENDA? Contact your senators now. Make clear that you support ENDA, and that you expect them too as well if they want your support. If your senator is a religious person, explain that the Bible makes clear that voting for ENDA is the only option. Then tell your friends to make their calls. Tell every one of them. Today. It is easy. It is necessary. We are obligated.

Rabbi Debra Kolodny is the executive director of Nehirim and spiritual leader of P’nai Or of Portland, Oregon.


Editor’s Note: On November 7, the Senate voted to pass ENDA, 64-32. Now onto the House.

On November 4th, ENDA passed a major hurdle when the Senate voted to end the filibuster. With this hurdle passed, a vote is expected this week. Read more about Jewish efforts on behalf of ENDA. Please post action links in the comments section!

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