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Jewish texts offer no easy answers on labor rights issues

By Shira Stutman,

Shira Stutman is a rabbi at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to The Washington Post's local faith leader network.

When my great-grandfather came to America from Russia in the early days of the 20th century, his name was Joseph Address. The name remained intact as he was processed at immigration, when he landed in South Philadelphia, and through the years that it took him, a tailor, to scrape together enough money to open his own shop. With his final pennies, he hired someone to write his name, in golden script, on the front window: “Andress’ Tailor Shop.”

My great-grandfather did not have the English skills to fight it out with the painter, nor did he have the money to get the sign repainted. The extra “n” remained, and Andress he became.

Many Jews have a story like mine — not the exact same story, of course, but a story of a poor ancestor who came to this country with little to nothing and built it into something. I love these stories, romanticized and hyperbolized as they often are, because to some extent it is this story that connects me to the labor tradition here in the United States. My great-grandparents emigrated and were laborers so their children and grandchildren could go to college and graduate school. And here I am.

My family’s story is not my only personal connection to the labor movement. Over the millennia of Jewish history, rabbis and scholars have spilled a lot of ink on the subject of labor relations. The “answer,” as usual in Judaism, is not uncomplicated.

Judaism is a law-based religion and understands that, to create a holy society, we must not only find holiness in our prayers and our synagogues but also in our daily actions and our workplaces. Isaiah speaks clearly in the passage that Jews will read, in just a few weeks, on Yom Kippur:

Is such the fast I desire, A day for men to starve their bodies?

No, this is the fast I desire: To let the oppressed go free;

To break off every yoke.

It is to share your bread with the hungry,

And to take the wretched poor into your home;

When you see the naked, to clothe him,

And not to ignore your own kin.

The poet bell hooks understands Judaism implicitly when she teaches “there is no love without justice.” Judaism is profoundly concerned with justice, and our traditional texts contain the rabbinic attempt to create a just civilization.

But who deserves justice? Who protection? The legal texts are careful around the issue of the rights of the laborer in the Jewish tradition. Some texts seem to tilt toward protecting the rights of laborers over that of employers. The ancient rabbis consider physical labor to be honorable work.[1] The Talmud teaches that employers have to create clear contracts for their employees and that laborers should have dignity in the workplace no matter what their job. One text even teaches that employers are required to go over and above what is “fair” to set contracts to make sure that laborers have enough food to eat and feed their families.

Other texts seem to tilt toward the employers, implying that they should always follow “minhag hamakom,” the tradition of the local community, when hiring. If there is a minimum wage, some texts report, then that’s all the employer need pay. That would mean that today, even though study after study shows that in many locations minimum wage is not a living wage, employers have no responsibility to increase wages. One text even implies that if an employer doesn’t like the terms employees receive in his own community, he is allowed to go to a different community to find employees and follow their rules. (Here in the United States, we call that “outsourcing.”)

Is God a Republican or a Democrat, pro-business or pro-labor? I certainly have my opinion, but when I’m honest with myself, the text is not absolutely clear. Different texts reveal multiple biases. That being true, though, does not afford me the right to walk away and not be educated myself.

What Judaism does require is that we educate ourselves on the subject. Having a job, the Mishnah argues, is not an excuse for forgoing Torah study. We have the responsibility to learn “Torah,” which can include not just traditional texts but also, arguably, contemporary studies on the subject. And then, when we have learned all we can learn, we privilege one value over another and make a values-based decision. And then we act.

In many Orthodox communities, the rabbi would make the decision for the whole community. But in the liberal Jewish community, Jews feel more of a sense of autonomy when making values-based decisions. Rabbis provide guidance but not a veto.

My decision is in favor of dignity over freedom. I’m not pretending that Judaism has made my decision for me, but I’m grateful to Judaism for helping me discern that when dignity comes up against personal freedom, human dignity wins.

When I retell the story about my grandfather, 100 years later, it’s cute, a great opener for the sermon of his great-granddaughter the rabbi (can you imagine?). But consider what it must really have been like for him, to have someone write the wrong name on his store and not have the education or financial wherewithal to do anything about it.

Human dignity — paid sick days, fair pay for overtime, the ability to participate in unions, a living wage even when it’s significantly more than minimum wage — is what I’m thinking about as Yom Kippur approaches. Judaism doesn’t always tell you what to do, just that you need to do something. I’d like to imagine that’s what my great-grandfather would have wanted.

 Shabbat Shalom.



[1]Editors note: All texts are sourced from Rabbi Jill Jacobs’s “There Shall Be No Needy,” a look at issues of justice in the Jewish tradition. Conclusions, however, are the author’s.

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