The 25th of this month will mark 100 years since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the deadliest workplace fire in New York City’s history, and a tragedy that spurred the formation of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and led to stricter workplace safety laws. Whether one sides with the states of Wisconsin and Ohio or its unions in the current battles there, I think we can all agree that no one wants to go back to the bad old days of sweatshops and locked fire escapes.
The history of Jewish social activism – including involvement in the formation of unions – is public record. Does it have its roots in traditional Judaism?
Whether in Eastern European shtetlach, the Mizrachi Mellah, or anywhere else we’ve called home, every Jewish community has ensured that the needs of all their inhabitants were met. A basic package of social services established and run by an average Jewish kehilah would include a Malbish Arumim society to provide free clothing; free or discount medical care at a “Jewish” hospital; a general Gemilut Chessed Fund for the poor; Maot Chitim Passover food packages; and of course, the ubiquitous “pushke” or charity box. Some cities even boasted groups that organized coupons good for free kosher meat and tickets for free mikveh visits. And this tradition of helping our own continued even in war-torn ghettoes.
Once in America, Jews tended to congregate more by virtue of one’s hometown, than one’s profession, leading to the formation of landsmanschaften -- benevolent societies formed and named for members’ birthplace in Eastern Europe. These groups pooled their resources to provide members with medical benefits, interest-free loans, burial assistance. They also raised money for people from the Old Country who wanted to immigrate to the United States. Yearly benefit functions were popular, with funds that were raised making their way back “home” via hand-delivery by a lucky courier.
Sam Malamud brings dollars to Maciejow
Perhaps it’s not surprising that with such a tradition of helping before being asked, there was a progression to forming unions and agitating for better working conditions. Today, the same proactive care can be seen in food pantries, career services, and free-loan societies. That’s because the tradition of tzedakah has its roots in Jewish Law, and in fact, is the key to the Zohar’s cryptic statement: “One who wants bread should eat it with the blade of a sword.” To be able to throw ourselves into our work, with all of the mind, energy, and heart that it requires, can be a dangerous endeavor – unless we remember our silent partner – G-d. Tzedakah helps us stay focused on the true purpose of our work – that it’s part of our service of G-d. Howso?
The Roman governor, Turnus Rufus, once asked Rabbi Akiva: "If G-d loves the poor, why doesn't He feed them?!" Rabbi Akiva answered: "So that through them, we should be saved from judgment." We think that because there are poor people, G-d commanded us to give. Rabbi Akiva turns that idea on its head. Because we need to learn what it is to be a giving person, G-d created others with a need. Knowing that, the correct attitude to being able to give tzedakah - or any kindness to another -- is humble gratitude. (Take that, Ayn Rand!)
So, while I can’t tell you what Torah says about the labor-union movement, its stance on tzedakah is crystal clear.