Long gone are the days when teachers were those who could find no other employment. Thank G-d our schools have many talented teachers who could be successful in a host of other professions which offer higher salaries. Yet the CJN (January 17) reported that suggestions have been made that "options for lowering the cost of education include decreasing teacher salaries". Emotions aside it behooves us to examine the perspective of Jewish law on this issue.
Jewish law prohibits receiving compensation for the performance of mitzvoth. Torah observance links man to the Divine; "the same way I [G-d] (taught Torah) for free so to you (are to teach for) free". Interestingly a similar issue exists regarding doctors who perform the vital tasks of tending to our physical health.
While such a volunteer system may have been viable when parents were the main teachers of Torah, (and as a result sadly most Jews remained ignorant), clearly it is impossible to expect those who dedicate their lives to teaching (or healing) to do so gratis. The Talmud (Ketuvot 105a) records that judges were to be compensated from public funds. Noting that the a judge who accepts payment for his judgments renders those judgments null and void, the Talmud asserts that payment is not actually given for rendering judgment but as shechar batala , what we would call today opportunity cost. By eschewing other forms of employment, making themselves available to serve the public, they are to be compensated from the public treasury, much a like civil servant s of today.
Th at the public and not the litigants themselves compensate the judges has the added benefit of justice having no correlation to income , something which sadly is not always the case today. By paying public servants from public and thus charitable funds, they would be paid, the Talmud notes, according to need. Those with larger families would receive greater levels of compensation (a big baby bonus).
The concept of paying public servants according to a charity scale does not resonate in our egalitarian culture (and I imagine might very well be illegal in Canada) in which we live. Equal pay for equal work irrespective of personal circumstances is the way the marketplace operates (in theory). In any event such a payment scale only applies to those who are permanently on call for public service and thus have no opportunity for other employment.
Whether such needs based salaries would apply even in theory to modern day full time teachers is quite debatable. For better or worse teachers are often expected to seek other employment to make ends meet, yet no doubt a teaching schedule severely limits one 's options. (It is worth noting that Jewish law generally prohibits moonlighting recognizing that it would impair ones ability to properly perform one's regular job). Nonetheless all who engage in teaching Torah whether part time of full time are entitled to payment in lieu of wages they could have earned elsewhere. Calculating such an amount is no simple manner. Does it mean what they could actually earn in practice which might be very little, or what they theoretically could have earned which could mean six or seven figure salaries. Does it make sense to pay more to one who gave up a lucrative job rather than one who enters the fields of education straight out of school?
It is understood that public service salaries cannot and perhaps should not be able to compete with those in the private sector. Yet by not offering salaries that are at le ast in the same ball park we are unable to attract many who would contribute greatly to the Jewish people. And for that we are all poorer.