In 1971, Republican President Richard Nixon declared in his State of The Union address that highest on his legislative agenda was a plan to “place a floor under the income of every family […] in America.” It called for $1,000 per month in today’s dollars. Nixon’s bold goal was to eradicate poverty. The bill floundered in the Senate, paradoxically, because the Democrats insisted on a higher basic income. Today’s idea of a $1,000 guaranteed monthly minimum income is causing us to reconsider the meaning of work and redefine success for a human life.
Judaism, as most spiritual paths do, frowns upon the accumulation of wealth, prestige and material possessions for its own sake, equating such pursuit with idolatry. Workaholism that leads to neglecting one’s familial, communal and religious duties is also vehemently opposed. Judaism seeks to strike a balance whereby the primacy is placed on Torah (religious study,) Avodah (spiritual practice) and Gemilut Chasadim (acts of loving-kindness) as life’s main pillars. Work is seen as a means to financially support the pursuit of these ends and is, therefore, highly valued. In Tractate Kiddushin [29a], our sages mandate that — in addition to teaching him Torah — a father teach his son a profession. In “Pirkei Avot” Rabbi Gamliel states: “Excellent is the study of the Torah, together with a worldly occupation.” [2:1] Having a profession is seen as a way to develop a strong sense of right and wrong and test one’s moral bearings, confronted with the often-insatiable drive for money and fame. Work is seen as applied spirituality.
For Judaism, work means earning a living in order to achieve self-sufficiency in service of one’s ongoing personal and spiritual development; finding balance in one’s life in order to foster a rich family life, strong communal ties and involve oneself in creating a just and compassionate society. Such is Judaism’s definition of success, of a fulfilled human life. This is, however, what is ailing our society today. Too many Americans find themselves working multiple jobs just to make ends meet. They live in fear of falling into poverty, a paycheck away from losing everything. These are the families that would be most helped by a Universal Basic Income. They are not the lazy ones who critics of a UBI would like us to believe; they are the hardest-working families who might be able to quit one of these jobs and finally have the time to be with their children, care for an aging parent, volunteer in their local community, start a small business or go back to school part time to train for a better paying profession.
Too many Americans find themselves working multiple jobs just to make ends meet. They live in fear of falling into poverty, a paycheck away from losing everything. These are the families that would be most helped by a Universal Basic Income.
A “Basic” income is exactly that: basic. A $1,000 per month will not allow anyone to retire and live a life of idle leisure. It is Nixon’s “floor” beneath our feet that would eliminate our greatest fear — that we may go hungry or homeless. Liberated from this fear, I believe the American spirit would soar, our nation’s creativity and talent would be set free, its instinct for discovery and entrepreneurship would be unleashed. What, indeed, couldn’t we achieve if we could live fearlessly? And wouldn’t that be the true measure of a human life?
Olivier BenHaim is the Rabbi of Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue in Seattle.
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