Monday, June 04, 2007

Do you have clean hands?

There is a story told about Rabbi Israel Lipkin of Salant, better known as Rabbi Israel Salanter. One day he was awshing his hands before a meal, when his guests noticed that he was not immersing his hands in the water in the way preferred by Jewish law. His guests asked him why he was using so little water in his washing.
He answered, "I did not draw the water for washing myself. My servant, that peasant girl there, must go out to the well and break the ice, hauling back the heavy pails of water on her shoulders. The more water I use, the more work there is for her. I do not want my piety to rely on the shoulders of her suffering."

Rabbi Salanter, founder of the mussar movement, used domestic labor in his home, as do many of us. And yet unlike many of us, he was able to see his servant as more than a means for him to carry out his own desires, but as a person whose labor contributed to the household, and whose sufferings must be considered.

I wonder what percent of the Jewish community in the United States make use of domestic workers? I would think quite a few - certainly enough so that a major Jewish magazine ran an -admittedly appalling- issue on Jewish girls and their African American nannies. But the truthis these days, it is difficult to manage a middle class- that is to say, two career- household without some assistance.
Certainly there is nothing shameful in either being or hiring domestic labor.

What is shameful, rather, is how domestic workers continually fall off the radar screen when we talk about social policy. Domestic workers have been excluded from most federal and state labor laws, including the National Labor Relations Act. To be clear, they are unable to organize for safe workinng conditions, decent pay, and the things that "professionals" take for granted.

Partially, this is a result of the fact that domestic workers are largely women. In our still patriarchal society, the work that women do still often fails to register as work, let alone as meaningful or important - and is remunerated in accordance withsuch attitudes. It is to most men, and many women, simply the backdrop against which the world revolves - nevermind that without someone doing this work, their own lives would grind to a halt, and their work would be out of reach while they had to deal with the necessities of daily home life. "Women's work" has been largely invisible since the industrial revolution.

There is, of course, another factor in the invisibility of domestic labor. Many domestic workers are not just women, but are immigrants as well - double whammy! And Jews historically were part of several waves of immigration in which we were the bottom of that ladder, and we were part of the labor movements that changed America, giving us safer working conditions, decent wages - and a chance for our children.

Judaism is explicit that what is for us, is for everyone in terms of justice
In fact, the talmud that one who acquires for himself a slave, acquires a master -
the tosafot clarify this point in the talmud (Kiddushin 20a), saying: There is a problem - why 'a master?' It is sufficient for him to be likehis master. One can say it is like in the talmud yerushalmi that sometimes the master has only one pillow. If he sleeps on it himself, the master has not fulfilled 'he is happy with you.' (Deut 15:16) If he does not sleep on it, is he not going to hand it to his servant? This is a great creulty. therefore he needs to hand it to his servant and the servant is a master to himself.

The Torah classifies workers with those who are the most vulnerable in society: the widow, the orphan... these are the classes protected by God, Who, when they cry out, takes vengeance for them, and for whom God lays responsibilty at our doorstep; Jewish law spells out in great detail what the jewish obligation to the worker is - and it is extensive.

The famously cranky Kotsker rebbe also has something to say about washing hands: he commented on the talmud tractate Eruvin (21b), "When Solomon ordained the laws of 'eruv and the washing of hands, a bat kol (heavenly voice) proclaimed: My son, if your heart will be wise, my heart will rejoice, also mine (Proverbs 23:15); and furthermore it says in scripture: My son, be wise, and make my heart glad, that I may answer him that taunts me (Prov. 27:2).
The Kotsker commented: King Solomon instituted many other practices as well; what makes these two special?
The answer lies in their connection. The Hebrew 'eruv, is from the root meaning 'to include,' 'to be involved.' washing the hands symbolizes holiness; separation from the mundane. This is the great wisdom beneath this concept: to be involved and yet to maintain clean hands - that is indeed laudable (trans. Rabbi Ephraim, And Nothing But The Truth: According To The Rebbe of Kotsk)

Even the salanter rebbe, the leader of the mussar movement, had domestic laboroers in his household; but he saw them. He treated them well, and he made sure that they were recognized as humans. Today, many of us in the jewish community are wealthy enough to have help in our homes -we must be careful to be sure that we honor the people who help our lives run smoothly as we honor ourselves; to ensure that they are able to make a wage they can live on, and in safe work conditions. Support the Domestic Workers Union (DWU) and the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. In Washington, D.C., join JUFJ, and work with them for Domestic Workers rights.

See Saltyfemme's post here


Reb Barry said...

So I have someone who comes and cleans my house for $12/hour. Is that a "wage they can live on?" I don't know, I wouldn't want to try and live on it. On the other hand neither does she -- her husband works and the $12/hr I can afford to pay her is a nice supplement to the family income which probably buys them some luxuries they wouldn't otherwise afford. If I had to pay a wage someone could afford to live on, I wouldn't be able to afford to hire anyone. Would that be progress?

I'm not embarrassed about paying her $12/hour -- it's a heck of a lot better than minimum wage -- but I think care should be used not to put people out of work because the salary doesn't meet someone else's standard of adequate...the rabbis also paid their workers so poorly that care had to be taken to pay them each and every day so they could afford to buy that day's food. I suspect it was the equivalent of a lot less than $12/hour...

Reb Barry

Arieh Lebowitz said...

It's not totally clear that "domestic workers continually fall off the radar screen when we talk about social policy."

See, for instance, these articles:

"Today’s nannies," in the New Jersey Jewish Standard, May 31, 2007
"They are our live-in household workers, and whether they’re nannies, babysitters, housekeepers, or au pairs, the ones who work for observant Jewish families ..."

"Like a member of the family?", also in the New Jersey Jewish Standard, May 31, 2007
"I’ve heard some horror stories about nannies, but I feel very strongly that they should be treated with respect. When she lived with us, I always felt that ..."

and also

"Our domestic workers deserve bill of rights," in the
New York Daily News, NY, May 31, 2007
"This bill would, for the first time, give thousands of nannies, housekeepers, elder companions, cleaners, baby-sitters and cooks in private households in ..."

>> Arieh Lebowitz
>> Jewish Labor Committee

Jack's Shack said...

I am willing to bet that most nannies are illegal immigrants. That is a hot button for me for numerous reasons. Not the least of which is that illegal immigration provides the framework for exploitation of people.

But that is a post for a different day.