The Jewish community in the United States has been supportive of worker and trade union rights for many years, even as it evolved from a predomnantly working-class community in the first part of the 20th century to a predominantly professional and entrepreneurial-class communiyt today. This support stems in part from a collective memory of an earlier perios of mass Jewish immigration to the United States, when an overwhelmingly immigrant community toiled in diffucult and often desperate conditions in the garment industry and other trades. This support is also consistent with Jewish religious lay (“Halacha”). Both in spirit and in practice, religious commandments relating to the hiring of workers are imbued with respect for labor rights, and some Jewish religious laws anticipate current secular labor law by thousands of years. The following is a description of labor rights found in Jewish religious sources and an analysis of current industrial relations issues in lights of this tradition.
II. Judaism and the Dignity of Labor
Respect for the dignity of labor has been an imprtant theme in Jewish religious wrtings for centuries. This attitude stems from Biblical commandments relating to work and to the relationship, as seen by rabbinic authorities, between God and humanity.
An number of impertant passages in the Bible stress the value of work. In Exodus, the commandment to observe a day of rest is preceded by the phrase “Six days thou shalt do thy work,” which is interpreted to mean that “…just as Israel [i.e., the Jewish people] was given the positive commandment of Sabbath, so were they given the commandment of working.” In Psalm 128, this is stated succinctly: “when you shall eat the labor of your hands, you will be happy and it shall be well with you,” and “the Talmud [the compilation of Jewish Oral Law] comments ‘You shall be happy in this world and it shall be well with you in the next world,’ which indicates that labor is an ethical commandment even apart from its practical value.” Indeed, Talmudic sages interpreted this passage to mean that “he who enjoys the fruits of his own labors is greater than then man who fears G-d.”
Thhe Talmudic ideal of work stood in sharp contrast to other views prevailing in the ancient world at the time that Jewish oral religioud law was codified. Both the ancient Greeks and ancient Romans looked down on laborm and freedom from owrk was considered a right of rank and privilege. According to Aristotle, “Labor stupefies both mind and body and deprives man of his natural dignity… The title of citizen belongs only to those who need not work to live.” In reaction, Jewish scholars of the day countered: “Love labor and hate mastery and seek not acquanitance with ruling power.”
A legacy of supprt for worker rights also stems in part from the broad social justice imperative in the Bible and Jewish religious sources. In these sources, God is viewed as the ultimate owener of all the earth’s resources, and humankind, its temporary owners, is commanded to act ethically in the distribution of those resources:
“In contrast to G-d’s supreme and eternal mastery of the universe, man’s dominance over his acquisitions is qualified, limited in time and restricted in scope…This recognition of absolute Divine ownership and of limited temporary human ownership is a basic principle in all social legislation of the Torah… Personal ownership is valid as long as it does not conflict with tthe welfare of society and with moral standards.”
Thus, for example, landowners are commanded to share their bounty in the Biblical commandment to leave the gleanings from the “corners” of their fields for the poor. Similarly, employers are commanded to act justly in their own treatment of the they temporarily “own,” or hire. (As noted below, the act of hiring-out is viewed as a temporary surrender of one’s independence.) A socail justice imperative appears repeatedly in Talmudic decsions concerning worker rights, and many decisions were based on the spirit rather than the letter of the law, in order to favor workers and the poor.