Ancient Teachings, Modern Injustice

Co-authored by Rachel Laser and Rabbi Marla Feldman

Today, women's earnings finally catch up to what men earned last year. At 78 cents to the dollar, Equal Pay Day marks how long into the next year women on average need to work to earn what their male counterparts earned the previous year, a stark reminder of the disparity between women's and men's earnings in our country. We draw from the teachings of our distinct, yet overlapping communities -- working women, Reform Jews, moral Americans -- in decrying the deep injustice of unequal pay for equal work.

We are rallying behind the Paycheck Fairness Act, a critical legislative update to the Equal Pay Act. The bill would strengthen existing law by barring retaliation against workers who disclose their wages and by allowing women to receive the same remedies in court for pay discrimination as those subjected to discrimination based on race or national origin. These provisions would provide long overdue solutions to the persistent barriers to filing a sex discrimination claim. Federal policy is an indispensable tool to bridge the gulf between the promise of existing law and the ongoing reality of pay discrimination.

As inheritors of Reform Judaism's prophetic tradition, we must also lead by example by continuing to address these inequities in our own community. We are proud that our many decades of statements and policy resolutions, adopted by vote of our congregations, have always called upon Reform congregations to uphold the policy of non-discrimination based on gender in all employment practices. Reform Judaism grew from a desire to adapt to modern times and incorporate modern thinking. Modern thinking meant women's equality -- in Jewish life and in the rabbinate, in secular life and in the workforce. Yet, numerous surveys relating to clergy salaries within our congregations, as well as salary levels within other Jewish organizations, suggest that we have more work to do.

Our support for pay equity is informed by our most sacred texts. Jewish tradition has long recognized the importance of paying fair wages as a matter of justice. Leviticus 19:13 teaches us that to withhold a worker's wages is to defraud her, an act akin to robbery. While existing law enforces protections against wage withholding in a literal sense, millions of working women face wage withholding in the form of wage discrimination, earning less than the value of their work simply because they are women.

In Genesis 1:27, we learn that all human beings are created b'tzelem Elohim, in the image of the divine, and are thus deserving of equal rights and treatment. Current federal policy prohibits sex discrimination, yet we know that the gender wage gap persists within many occupations and across many industries. The pervasiveness of this disparity indicates that deeply embedded pay discrimination, rather than women's occupational decisions, is responsible for the injustice of pay inequity.

Today, on Equal Pay Day, we lift up the fight against wage discrimination, an affront to our moral sensibility and, more importantly, a profound injustice to the millions of women across the country who earn less than their coworkers solely because of their sex. Unjustly paying some workers less than others undermines their value and their dignity as human beings and constitutes an intolerable act of discrimination.

We remember proudly the words of the Reform Jewish Movement's 1875 foundational Pittsburgh Platform: "We deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve on the basis of justice and righteousness the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society." Together, we must march forward in the long struggle for equality for women and for all people.


Rachel Laser is the deputy director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the social action arm of the Reform Jewish Movement. Rabbi Marla J. Feldman is the Executive Director of Women of Reform Judaism, the women's affiliate of the Reform Jewish Movement.