Global, Justice, Mishegas, Politics, Religion, Uncategorized

The Torah of Justice in the streets of Los Angeles

As President Obama said today, the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice. However, there are some places where justice is taking longer than in others. While we celebrate one step in the Egyptian people’s march toward freedom and democracy, we cannot forget that there are other struggles for justice that are not yet won. In the US, the recession has provided corporations with an excuse to try to roll back hard won gains that workers have made. The Hyatt Hotel chain (run by the Chicago Pritzker family, close to the Obama administration and generous to the Jewish community) is using supposed recession losses to try to roll back health benefits, deny raises and outsource jobs. img_6582
Last night there were actions at several Hyatt Hotels to draw attention to the fact that the workers were working without a contract for two years; that hotel worker injuries are unacceptable high—at one Los Angeles hotel, the Hyatt Andaz in West Hollywood, the 2009 injury rate was twenty percent higher than the industry rate statewide; that though the tourist industry is the face of Los Angeles in many ways, the people who work in that industry are made invisible.
I was asked to speak to the hundreds of workers and community members who gathered at the Hyatt Century Plaza. Here is the Torah that I shared:
God introduces Godself at Sinai by saying: I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (Exodus 20:2) How are we to enact in our lives this commandment? In what way is this a commandment? The fourth century Babylonian Sage, Rav, one of the the founders of the Academies in Babylonia, says that this verse teaches us that a worker can go back on a labor contract even in the middle of the day, before the work is done. In other words. The way we enact the fact that God is the God who took us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, is by drawing a sharp, clear line between wage labor and slave labor. The way we enact the fact that God is the God who took us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, is by struggling for economic justice, by standing with workers against the corporations who would abuse them.
When Moses first brought God’s demands to Pharoah: “Let my people go that they may worship me.” Pharoah brushed Moses off with “Who is God?” When the Israelites foremen came to plead to Pharaoh for better working conditions, Pharaoh ignored them saying: “You are shirkers, therefore you make these demands.”
img_6550Those of us who stand with the workers (and perhaps especially the workers who have not yet won the right for union representation) against the corporations, stand as Moses before Pharaoh demanding that justice be done. We also know, as Moses might not have known yet, that though Pharaoh thought he was all-powerful, justice was more powerful. In Egypt then, in Egypt today, and in the struggle for economic and social justice everywhere.
photo credits: Danny Feingold, CLUE LA

8 thoughts on “The Torah of Justice in the streets of Los Angeles

  1. 1/ Is Hyatt forcibly preventing workers from leaving in the middle of the day?
    2/ Are the staff at the American University of Judaism unionised?

  2. Aryeh, please give a source for Rav’s teaching, (or an extended quote). I’m not familiar with it, and the jump from “I am the Lord your G-d”, for which commentary is voluminous, to “a worker can go back on a labor contract even in the middle of the day” is, at least for me, wide enough that I do not see the connection between the two. I understand that your point is to get to the contemporary, take-away lesson, but I would appreciate more attention paid to how you derived that take-away from the source text. Thank you in advance.

  3. @Dave faculty at private universities are not allowed to unionize by Supreme Court decision. The staff is not unionized.
    @Victor Baba Metzia 10a. Rav’s direct reference is to Leviticus 25:55, “For unto Me the children of Israel are servants; they are My servants” on which he comments midrashically “and not servants of servants.” The interpretive move to the beginning of the ten commandments is mine, but I would argue that is not unwarranted. The question “how do we enact this in our lives” is based on the Kedushat Levi on the ten commandments.

  4. @Aryeh
    I did say ‘staff’.
    So why don’t you unionise (in union parlance, organise) them? If you’ve got the time to go somewhere else to give speeches, for UNITE you’ve got the time to help UNITE in your own backyard.
    Unless you don’t believe that this ‘Torah of Justice’ applies to the American University of Judaism, which apparently it currently doesn’t.

  5. About 300 rabbis, cantors, and community leaders have signed a statement in support of Hyatt workers and to “express our willingness to boycott Hyatt properties in support of these principles if requested to do so by the affected workers.”
    On the home page of the Justice at Hyatt website is a video clip from an interfaith service held outside the Hyatt Regency Chicago in which Rabbi Peter Knobel says that the Hyatt is not kosher.

  6. Dave, the logic of your argument is that if there is some condition present/not present in your home, then you have little standing to demand the same of others.
    Why help hotel workers unionize if staff at your workplace are not in a union? Well, maybe they don’t care enough over there. Our job as seekers of justice is to heed the call made by workers struggling for recognition.
    Dave’s job is to denigrate and minimize the mindset that seeks to show support for struggling others.

  7. @JG
    ‘maybe they don’t care enough over there’
    Or at virtually every other Jewish organisation in America, amazing that.
    For a partial list of such union-less organisations, just check:

  8. Mr.Boxthorn brings a straw man to this discussion, the American University of Judaism, by which I presume he means American Jewish University.
    If he can’t get the name right, why should we presume he gets anything else right (especially based on his track record)?

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