What Ancient Jewish Wisdom Has to Say About Dignity Through Work


Cardinal Team

Work Shouldn’t Be About Left or Right

Every American deserves a chance at earned success. It’s energizing to live life on our own terms through a career we enjoy. However, for too many Americans, poverty is something they can survive but not escape. The system makes choosing not to work a rational decision.

Some on the Left say that trying to force people to work is a form of punishment. Often, safety net benefits require people to meet work requirements to keep their benefits. There is room for debate on whether these work requirements are fair or effective. However, Right or Left, we must find a way to create a bi-partisan vision for encouraging upward mobility in the form of meaningful work. We should not inherently view work as punishment for those in poverty but as a pathway to establish new financial security and a chance to pursue happiness.


Maimonides on Work & Charity

Maimonides, the Jewish rabbi and philosopher, shared his “Eight Levels of Charity” where “each [is] greater than the next.” He describes the first and highest level:

“The greatest level, above which there is no greater, is to support a fellow Jew by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, to strengthen his hand so that he will not need to be dependent upon others . . .

For Maimonides, keeping people dependent on charitable offerings did not cut it. It’s cruel to keep people dependent on a revolving door of either charity or government handouts. In the Cardinal Institute’s recent policy report, Dr. Jessi Troyan shared how benefit cliffs are keeping people on safety net benefits from getting ahead. A benefit cliff is when someone loses benefits because their income increased, but the benefits they lose are worth more than the additional income they’ve gained.


How Benefit Cliffs Discourage Work & Opportunity

Here’s another example to help understand the concept of a benefit cliff. Imagine a single mother with two kids. She works as a receptionist where she makes $45,944. She depends on safety net benefits to care for her family. On her current salary, West Virginia gives her $12,227 annually in childcare benefits. Her boss recognizes her hard work, offers her a $500 raise, and tells her a promotion could soon follow. While she is excited about her boss’s recognition, she sadly has to decline both the raise and any possible promotion. This is because the small pay increase would lead to the loss of her childcare benefits. The benefits would decrease from $12,227 to $0. The pay raise does not recoup her lost benefits.


Does Maimonides Offer Solutions?

Let’s turn back to Maimonides. He does call for getting people back to work, but it would be foolish to make Maimonides out to be a libertarian or a supporter of small government. In his work, Mishnah Torah, he outlines commandments for how Jews should practice generosity. He often prescribes lashes for those who fail to comply. It’s important not to try to thrust our modern political views on a figure who lived in the 12th century.

Maimonides wanted to create a more compassionate world. One where the Jewish community had expectations of creating safety nets for the poor. To people in Maimonides’ day, the prosperity and civil liberties that we enjoy were unimaginable. Using religious law to mandate these actions was one of the only tools the rabbi could think of to create a more prosperous society.


Questions to Ask About the Dignity of Earned Success

In our day, we are not bound in the same way. We should create a vision for how people can find earned success through their work. That said, many jobs fail to bring meaning. Few people want to work in fast food for the rest of their lives. Disingenuously saying “It’s my pleasure” to customers begins to wear on one’s soul. The solution here requires us to think through some deep questions. What is meaningful work? How does one move past economic barriers to secure that kind of work? How do we use our education system to create those kinds of pathways?

The Right calls for work requirements for individuals receiving benefits. The Left in turn criticizes these requirements as a form of punishment. Instead, we need to find a solution that honors human dignity and empowers people to build the life they want to live.


Nate Phipps is the Communications & Social Media Associate for the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy.

Cardinal Team


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