Matzah, teachers, and labor unions (On the Perelman Jewish Day School Decision)

The story is told of a very prominent rabbi in Europe before World War II who was approached by a freshly minted colleague who had just been hired to supervise the baking of matzohs for Passover. The younger rabbi asked: “There are many, many laws governing the baking of matzah for Passover. Is there any one which I should be especially strict about?” The elder rabbi looked at him intently and said: “Make sure the women who roll the dough get paid a decent wage. This is probably a good deal of their income and they have many mouths to feed. If the matzah bakers are not paid well, the matzah cannot be kosher.”

It should not be surprising that there is such concern placed on the dignity and well-being of workers in the run-up to the holiday which celebrates freedom from slavery. The Babylonian Talmud itself quotes the fourth century Sage Raba as grounding a worker’s freedom to break a work contract in the idea of the Exodus from Egypt, the freedom from slavery.

It is distressing then, that in the weeks before Passover the Perelman Jewish Day School (PJDS) has unilaterally decided to cease recognizing the union that has represented its teachers for decades. (Stories here, here, here, and here) In a letter to parents, the board president wrote that the board had “voted to transition the management of our faculty from a union model governed by a collective bargaining agreement to an independent model guided by our school administrators under a new Faculty Handbook.”

In a FAQ available on its website, the PJDS administration uses all the familiar anti-union code words: “more flexibility,” “direct relationship between administration and teachers” “retaining and recognizing excellent teachers.” Essentially, this means that deprived of the ability to collectively bargain, the teachers are forced to bargain individually with the administration, with no counterweight to the corporate power of the school. There is no grievance or appeal process, and the administrators are free to hire and fire at will.

While the board’s letter claims that there will be no salary cuts during the upcoming year, there is no guarantee beyond that.

This situation is doubly distressing. First, PJDS was one of the few points of light in a bleak labor horizon in the institutional Jewish world. Almost no Jewish Day Schools have teachers represented by a union. It is distressing that after 38 years of following the vast majority of recognized halakhists who all say that union representation is both admirable and recognized by Jewish law, PJDS—a Solomon Schechter school, endorsed by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism—has turned their back on this legacy.

The tradition of worker protection is grounded in the Talmud, with the obligation of an employer to follow local custom in the case of work conditions, and the ability of workers to construct agreements which can then be upheld in court. The Rabbinic tradition grants the community the right to intervene on behalf of workers in the “private contracting” of workers and employers. This halakhic tradition continues to this day, with one of the Chief Rabbis of the State of Israel writing in the last century that it is not believable that we would leave workers alone to face corporations without the benefit of a union, and more recently (2008), the Committee on Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement passing a decision (authored by Rabbi Jill Jacobs) that says, in part: “Jewish  employers should allow their employees to make their own independent decisions  about whether to unionize, and may not interfere in any way with organizing drives  by firing or otherwise punishing involved workers, by refusing workers the option for  ‘card check’ elections, or by otherwise threatening workers who wish to unionize.”

On its side, the PJDS claims that they are upholding the Talmudic teaching that “the world exists only by virtue of the breath, which comes from the mouths of school children” who study Torah. This is of course an important value. The irony here is that in one of Rabbi Feinstein’s first responsa concerning unions (1954), the issue at hand was exactly a teacher’s strike. Rabbi Feinstein rules that the obligation to teach Torah does not override the obligation to treat workers (including teachers, of course) with dignity. While Rabbi Feinstein is wary of the impact that a long strike might have on the teaching of Torah, he is however sympathetic to plight of the teachers, and sees no problem with the union and approves of collective bargaining. In any event, his cautious response in regards to teaching Torah would not in any way apply to the teachers who teach other subjects—for whom there is no obstacle to organizing or, if necessary, striking.

There is a second issue here — the growing class divide in the Jewish community. Tuition at schools like PJDS (and PJDS is far from the only school at this tuition level) is around $20,000 and senior administrators at PJDS make two to four hundred thousand dollars (according to the publicly available  2011 IRS 990 form) (some of the personalities have changed since then, but there is no reason to think the salary schedule has drastically changed). These are corporate salaries, and tuitions that are hard to afford on a middle class income. There is a growing concern that a Schechter or Community School education will only be available to the Jewish 1%. At the same time, the administrative mindset is increasingly impacted by a corporate culture which is overtly anti-union. This is an unsustainable model for a community that sees day schools as a way of training the next generation of Jewish leaders. What lessons do we teach when we put  tuition out of reach of a large segment of the Jewish population, and stand against rather than with our teachers who educate these future leaders?

It is important for the community as a whole, and communal leaders specifically, to remember that compensating the workers who make the matzot in a dignified manner is as important a mitzvah as eating the matzah itself.

The King and the Ring (On Purim and Violence)

The question, twenty years after Baruch Goldstein slaughtered 29 Palestinians at prayer, wounding tens more, is this: How can we celebrate Purim? Goldstein, heard the reading of the Megillah on Purim night, heard (for the fortieth time?) that the Jews took vengeance on their enemies, slaughtered thousands of men, women, and children. Twice. Goldstein, a medical doctor, then rose early in the morning, went to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and shot his M16 until he was overpowered and killed, having killed or wounded tens of praying innocents. How do we read this tale of revenge when we know that that revenge, the Purim revenge, the revenge of “the Jews got their enemies in their power” (Esther 9:1) has been wreaked?
For centuries we were safe from the bloodletting that we fantasized about, because we were powerless on the whole, and our blood was being let. The fantasy of turning the tables—on the very day that the decree was to be carried out “the opposite happened”—was a fantasy of comfort. Someday our oppression will end.
Now, however, our oppression has—in most parts of the world—ended. The State of Israel is powerful, armed, mighty. Yet, we continue to read and celebrate the fantasies of revenge. On Yom Yerushalayim, yeshivah students dance through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem singing ki lashem hamluchah umoshel bagoyim/״for kingship is the Lord’s and He rules the nations״ (Psalms 22:29) while banging on the shutters of the closed Palestinian shops. (Meticulously not repeating the name of God, but rather singing hashem over and over again, according to the precepts of the pious, while striking fear and humiliation in the hearts of other human beings.)
The Sages of the Talmud, especially the fourth century Babylonian Rava, were neither so simplistic nor were they naïve. It is to Rava that we owe the free flow of alchoholic drink on Purim. Rava says: “A person is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim, until he cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed is Haman,’ and ‘Blessed is Mordecai.’” The statement is immediately followed by a story:

Rabbah and Rav Zeirah made a Purim feast together.
They got drunk, Rabbah rose, slaughtered Rav Zeirah.
On the morrow, when the wine had left him,
he [Rabbah] asked for mercy on him [Rav Zeira], and he revived him.
A year later, he said to him, “the gentleman should come and we will do the Purim feast [together].”
He said to him, not in every hour does a miracle happen.

Why does Rava choose, as his criterion of drunkenness, not being able to distinguish between Mordecai and Haman? That is not being buzzed, nor even inebriated. That is being fall on the floor, passed out drunk. Rava’s Purim drinking does not bespeak the comradery of friends around the Shabbes table, or at the pub. Rava’s Purim goes much darker. Then, the editor of the Talmud follows it up with the disturbing story of Rabbah and Rav Zeira who did get that drunk, whereupon Rabbah killed Rav Zeira. This story is illustrative, not dispositive. It is as if the editor was saying: “Yes. This drunk.”

If we read the megillah carefully we are left unsettled. In the beginning of the story (after the King kills Vashti and takes Esther in her stead) he gives Haman his ring and tells him that, yes, he can “destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on a single day.” After we are led through the intricate paths and byways of the royal intrigue for the next six chapters, Haman is found out and killed. The King then takes the ring from Haman’s cold, dead hands and gives it to Mordecai. He grants Mordecai and Esther permission to “destroy, massacre, and exterminate its armed force together with women and children, and plunder their possessions—on a single day.” For good measure, the Jews of Shushan repeat this on the morrow.

The question we are left with is this: In the next scene, the scene after the end of the megillah, who will get the ring then? If Ahaseurus the King is still in charge, and his rule is based on whim (and the last person who paid him) and not justice, we suspect that another Haman will get the ring, then another Mordecai, forever. Mordecai and Esther’s victory is not redemption. As Rava says further on: “We are still slaves of Ahaseurus.” The point of getting drunk on Purim is not celebratory. It is to look into the darkness of the unredeemed world.

It is not coincidental that in that unredeemed world Rabbah slaughtered Rav Zeira. The point of the story is just that. It is a miracle in an unredeemed world that people don’t kill each other. Not being able to tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai means living in a world of constant enmity where there is no solid ground to stand on.

If we “celebrate” Purim this year, and any year, it can only be as a way of looking into the darkness of the unredeemed soul of the world. That is the place where we will stay—the place of Haman slaughtering then Mordecai slaughtering, Palestinians slaughtering then Jews slaughtering—until we all move to solid ground, when we get rid of Ahaseurus and throw away the ring—when we create political structures, states and societies, which support justice rather than fomenting injustice and fantasies of revenge.

A Time for Righteous Rage (on Martin Luther King Day)

(Here is my latest post published on Zeek.)

Any Sage who is not vengeful or does not hold a grudge is not a Sage. –Yoma 22b-23a

On the official anniversary of the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, one might think that I could have found a more appropriate epigram than the one that graces this essay. Yet, this is the statement that comes to mind, and I think it appropriate.

“But wait!” you might object along with the anonymous editorial voice of the Babylonian Talmud, “Doesn’t Torah say ‘You shall not take vengeance, and you shall not harbor a grudge?!’” “This is true,” that same anonymous sage answers, “but it only applies to monetary matters or business dealings or interpersonal relations around material things.” If I ask to borrow your shovel and you refuse, I may not tomorrow refuse to lend you my hose saying: “You did not lend me your shovel.” Nor may I lend you my hose and say: “I am not like you. I lent you my hose even though you refused to lend me your shovel.” In these instances, vengeance is forbidden and grudge-holding is prohibited.

However, there is an obligation and a place for righteous rage. The mishnaic Hebrew word for it istar‘omet, which has the same root as thunder. The Sage who witnesses an injustice and does not burn with righteous rage is not a Sage. The Sage who does not carry the memory of unjust treatment, and does not rage against it is not a Sage.

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Standing before God (On Hillel and Open Hillel)

In a powerful display of moral imagination The fourth century Babylonian Sage Rava (in Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud 31a) claims that when a person is ushered into their final judgement before the Heavenly court, the person is asked six questions. 1. Did you conduct your business dealing justly? 2. Did you study Torah regularly? 3. Did you have children? 4. Did you yearn for redemption? 5. Did you engage in learned discussions of matters of wisdom? 6. Did you derive understanding by analogy? Rava then concludes by saying that even if the person answered yes to all these, his fate is decided by whether or not he feared God.

This exercise in imagination is a powerful one. The most interesting thing about this specific example of the exercise is that Rava, one of the greatest of the Babylonian Sages, starts his list with just business dealings. He mentions Torah study as the second question but only gets to the heart of his life’s mission at question five. Even then, all this is overridden, for Rava, by the fear of God.

This piece of wisdom came to mind as I was thinking of the brouhaha stirred up by the Open Hillel movement’s challenge to the Israel guidelines set by Hillel International, and Eric Fingerhut’s strong reaction to Open Hillel .

As John Judis reports in the New Republic Hillel’s evolving stand on Israel has now moved it into partnership with AIPAC. Further, towing the AIPAC line has become, for Hillel International the meaning of being Jewish.

Rava’s intellectual and spiritual honesty made him realize that despite the fact that his life’s work was in the study hall, deriving mountains of law from the crowns upon the letters in the Torah scroll, still and all, what was most important was whether or not he dealt justly with others. In Hillel International’s guidelines for who might be allowed to use the Hillel name, the only criterion is that a person pledge fealty to the State of Israel “as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders as a member of the family of nations.” Those who don’t sign the pledge are not able to partner with Hillel.

One might have thought that Hillel, which has somewhere in its portfolio the mission to be a home to Jewish life on campus, would have articulated something about its ethical commitments. Something along the lines of: “Hillel does not accept donations from anybody who has not been faithfully honest in their business, who has not done their utmost to ensure that they were just to their workers.” Perhaps “Hillel will not partner with an organization that uses religion to oppress others, or whose religious practices give religion a bad name.” Unfortunately, none of this is on Hillel’s website. The only guidelines, as far as I could tell, are in regards to one’s Zionist fidelity.

This is the difference between a Sage and a politician. When the values of the Jewish people are articulated by a politician, they ignore ethics and go straight to politics. You are Jewish if you will go to the AIPAC convention. You are not Jewish if you “hold Israel to a double standard.” The Sage realizes that the core values are beyond the realpolitik of the current moment.

How can we bear the guilt? (On the first anniversary of Newtown)

This week’s Torah portion includes Jacob’s blessings—first of his grandsons and then of his sons. Jacob’s blessing of his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe (Joseph’s children) read as we would expect—summoning God’s blessing on these children and their progeny. However, when Jacob blesses his children, the blessings come out as a review and critique of their lives. Our Rabbis tell us that Jacob had intended to foretell for his progeny “the end of days” (Genesis 49:1) but that his prophetic vision was blocked. Instead he takes account of what his children have wrought.

In blessing his second and third born sons, Shimon and Levi, Jacob must come to account with one of the most disturbing events in Genesis—the slaughter of the Shechemites following the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah. In the event, it was Shimon and Levi who orchestrated the well wrought response. They demanded that the Shechemites circumcise themselves on the pretext that then Jacob’s clan would intermarry and trade with them. Once the Schechemites were weakened from the circumcision, the brothers proceeded to slaughter the Shechemite males. (Genesis 34) Jacob in his “blessing” says the following:

Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.

This is the newer Jewish Publication Society Translation. The word which poses a problem is me’chayrotetayhem which is translated here as “tools of lawlessness.” The Old (1917) Jewish Publication Society translation, renders the phrase “Weapons of violence their kinship,” while the King James version has “instruments of cruelty are in their habitations.” This should give one a sense of the difficulty in figuring out what the word me’chayrotetayhem means. Continue reading

Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Black Friday: On truth and justice

Writing about Thanksgiving and Hanukkah as Thanksgiving wanes and Black Friday waxes.

Both Thanksgiving and Hanukkah are holidays that celebrate a mythic narrative. In both cases the myth replaced a much more gruesome reality. Thanksgiving celebrates the Pilgrims surviving the first winter in the New World with the help of the Native Peoples. In celebration people come together to give thanks for the good things in their own lives–family, friendship, plenty. These are good things to celebrate. However, the myth of the Native Americans welcoming the Europeans to this part of the world erases the story of genocide, atrocity, and displacement which was the actual fate of most of the Native Americans. As Malcolm X said in a different context, the Native Peoples did not land on Plymouth Rock, it landed on them. So, while gratitude is an important practice, so is truth and the admission of culpability. Continue reading

Glocks, Glatt Mart, Walmart, and Nonviolence

glocks@walmartThis past Thursday night, in need of Whole Wheat flour and sugar to bake challah, I attempted to use voice commands on my iPhone to find out when the local kosher supermarket closed. I said: “Find Glatt Mart.” Siri (the voice of the iPhone) returned a page labelled “Glocks at Walmart.” (see picture)

What is one to do with this information?

(Glocks, according to Wikipedia, is a series of semi-automatic pistols designed and produced by Glock Ges.m.b.H., located in Deutsch-Wagram, Austria.  By way of a rather brilliant marketing strategy (targeting Police Department with discounts, and then using the “cred” of being used by those Police Departments to move into the civilian market) the Glock has become the most popular American hand gun — for police officers, civilians, and criminals. It is easy to learn how to use and easy to fire. Once the guns age a bit, the Police Departments gets new guns and the used guns go on the largely unregulated second hand market.) Continue reading

Why I Got Arrested

Photograph by Zachary Conron

Photograph by Zachary Conron

This past Thursday night I heard the following story from a man in his mid-twenties who had worked for Walmart in their Duarte, CA store for two years before finding a better paying job elsewhere. While at Walmart he was one of the first members of the workers’ group OUR Walmart. One of the “greeters” at the store, he said, was an elderly woman with bladder control issues. As there were two entrances that needed greeters, one near a bathroom and one not, she had asked several times to be stationed at the entrance closer to the bathroom. The manager consistently refused her request. Eventually she was fired for abandoning her post because she had had to leave to use the bathroom. When she was fired, she broke down and cried because she desperately needed the money.

This story, in short, explains why at the time of the telling I was sitting in a holding cell in Los Angeles’ Metropolitan Detention Center. Fifty four women and men, workers, labor and union activists, and a rabbi (that would be me) were arrested for sitting down in front of the new Walmart store in Chinatown and refusing to move when asked to disperse by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department. We were there to focus attention upon Walmart’s egregious history of paying poverty wages (about 750,000 Walmart workers make less than $25,000 a year), not providing benefits or, alternatively, not giving workers enough hours to qualify for benefits or paying them enough to afford the benefits. On top of all this, and perhaps worse, is Walmart’s mistreatment of its workers as exemplified in the story above. Walmart also has a long history of combatting organizing and retribution firings of workers who protest against the company. Continue reading

“Awaken Sleepers!”: Wal-Mart and Non-Violent Resistance

One of the reasons that we sound the shofar during services on Rosh Hashanah (the income-inequalityJewish New Year) is, to quote the great Jewish jurist and philosopher Maimonides, to announce: “Awaken sleepers from your slumber … search your actions and repent and remember your Maker.” This Thursday hundreds of people will begin a process of trying to waken Wal-Mart from its slumbers—from its denial of the welfare and dignity of the hundreds of thousands of its workers who are paid poverty wages. We will also be trying to awaken the customers who go to Wal-Mart for cheap products, but either don’t know or don’t care that those products come at the expense of the Wal-Mart workers who sometimes cannot afford to buy those very products. Continue reading

Rabbi Rivka the Patriarch

The midrash contextualizes every Torah portion via a device known as an “opening” (petihta).  The opening is a literary-biblical tour de force in which a rabbi cites a verse from a wholly other context and leverages that verse to reveal something insightful and interesting about the Torah portion under discussion. Rabbi Abba bar Kahana opened this past Shabbat’s torah portion (Hayyei Sarah) with the verse “and the sun rises and the sun sets” from Ecclesiastes (1:5). From this the rabbi derives a general principle: God never allows the sun of one tzaddik, one righteous person, to set before making sure that another tzaddik’s sun has risen. The Torah portion of Hayyei Sarah, begins with the death of Sarah. However, at the very end of the previous portion, Rivkah, who was to be the wife of Yitzhak, is born. The rule holds: one righteous person, Sarah, dies; but not until another righteous person, Rivkah takes her place.

 

I would like to embrace this rule: one sun sets, another rises, but suggest that the setting is not Sarah but Avraham. In this case, Rivka is not coming into the world to be the wife of the second patriarch, but, rather to be the second patriarch. Continue reading