There is a story told about Rabbi Israel Lipkin of Salant, better known as Rabbi Israel Salanter. One day he was washing 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 rest 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 working conditions, decent pay, and the things that “professionals” take for granted, but are out of reach for so many American workers.
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 with such 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 -Kapow! 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 there is one law for everyone – what is fair law for Jews is what we should also be dealing out to those among us who are not Jews. In fact, the talmud states that one who acquires for himself a servant, 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 like his 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 cruelty. 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 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 laborers in his household; but he saw them. He treated them well, and he made sure that they were recognized as humansdeserving of fair treatment. 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 working 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.
In New York, go to the town hall meeting to see Saltyfemme’s post and work for the bill:
Thursday, 6/7, 6:30pm
Location: Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Square South
To RSVP and find out more, contact: [email protected], 212-647-8966 ext. 11
Everywhere else, raise a ruckus and ask why your state hasn’t passed a bill like this yet!