The Talmud records a disagreement between two eminent ancient rabbis. They were arguing about what was the foundational principle of the Torah. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), argued Rabbi Akiva. Loving one’s neighbor as oneself is of course a beautiful and deeply important principle. It demonstrates our awareness that the world was not created only for our sake, that we must be aware of, concerned for, and committed to the well-being of all our human brothers and sisters, just as we look out for ourselves.
But Rabbi Akiva’s colleague Ben Azzai responded, “This is the book of Adam’s descendants, on the day that God created Adam, in the image of God, God made the human” (Genesis 5:1) is an even more fundamental principle. That is, prior to the concept of brotherly love is the notion that all human beings are created in God’s image, and are therefore endowed with uniqueness, equality, and infinite value. Indeed, as the Talmud teaches elsewhere, Adam’s creation teaches us that no human being may say that ‘My father was greater than yours,’ because we all come from the same person. At the same time, the Talmud teaches, one who sustains the life of another is as if he had sustained an entire world — because of each of us contains within us the multitudes of humanity.
It is with this sensibility that I write that, as Jews at Northwestern, we are committed to the proposition that all members of the university community must be able to live their lives in dignity. Jewish notions of *tzedakah*, economic justice, mandate that workers be paid fairly for their output. While Jewish tradition recognizes the realities of the marketplace, the essence of the Jewish idea of *tikkun olam* is redressing inequities inherent in human economic and political systems. It is not a pie-in-the-sky idea, some grand far-off hope, but an operative principle that mandates that we adjust our systems in order to make sure that they function well for all members of society. And while Jewish law recognizes the minimum obligations of employers, it also lauds those who go beyond the letter of the law, *lifnim meshurat hadin*, and show maximum care and respect for the human dignity of their employees.
All of us in the Northwestern family are proud of our institution, for the great things it contributes to the world, and for its history of inclusion that goes back to its early admission of women as students alongside men. Ours is one of the great universities in the world, and we therefore bear a responsibility to conduct ourselves beyond the letter of the law. Paying everyone who works at Northwestern a living wage, making sure that none of us go without food or home or health: these are both the aspirations and the obligations of a great university.
Our religious and secular traditions tell us that this cause is just and right. I believe we all agree on that. And I will do whatever I can to help bring about a solution that is fair, equitable, and in the great tradition of Northwestern.
Campus Rabbi & Senior Director for Educational Initiatives
Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University