By Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
It is easy, in our politically polarizing times, to look at every moral issue through a partisan lens.
But we need not look further than Parshat Ki Teitzei to see that defending the rights of workers is a biblical mandate. We learn of a worker’s right to eat from their employers’ fields (Deuteronomy 23: 25-26); of a worker’s right to be free from oppression (Deuteronomy 24:14); and of a worker’s right to be paid on time (Deuteronomy 24:15, also taught earlier in Leviticus 19:13). This, of course, not only applies to how businesses treat workers, but also to how families treat domestic workers.
This week’s portion is particularly clear on delayed payment, insisting that workers be paid the same day, before the sun goes down, “for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it” (Deuteronomy 24:15). The medieval sage Nachmanides, known as the Ramban, explains, “For if you do not pay him immediately when he leaves work, he will starve and die that night.”
The rabbis explained that workers’ rights issues may not seem like they are life and death, but should be treated as though they are: “All who withhold an employee’s wages, it is as if he has taken his life from him” (Baba Metzia 112A). It is precisely because of the creation narrative that we learn every human being was created equally in the image of God; we know that we are responsible for them.
Rabbeinu Yonah (13th century Spain) explains how high the burden is if one chooses to take on an employee: “Be careful not to afflict any living creature, whether animal or bird, and all the more so, one should not afflict a person who is created in the image of the Divine. If you want to hire laborers and you find that they are poor, they should be [regarded as] poor members of your household, and do not degrade them, for you were commanded to have a respectful manner with them and to pay their wages” (Sefer HaYirah).
If we choose to become an employer, then we must take responsibility to ensure our workers do not live in poverty.
Have you ever stopped to ask the woman washing dishes on Shabbat in your neighbor’s home what she’s being paid, or the gentleman mowing your friend’s lawn about his vacation, or the nanny raising the children down the block whether she had time to sit down for lunch today? If you did, you may have discovered an unpleasant situation of inadequate pay, few or no breaks, no paid sick or vacation days and perhaps even bullying or verbal abuse.
But how can it be? Your neighbors — their employers — seem so nice, and their domestic workers always seem to be smiling and content.
In her 2004 article in The Atlantic, “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement,” Caitlin Flanagan poignantly explained the dynamic between a mother and a nanny: “Standing bravely in the crossfire are nannies, who tend to be the first choice of professional-class mothers who work … and the guilty luxury of a good number of at-home mothers. And, as many of us have learned, the mother-nanny relationship has the potential for being the most morally, legally and emotionally charged one that a middle-class woman will ever have.”
Domestic workers include housekeepers, nannies, care providers for the elderly and others who are hired to maintain their employers’ homes and family needs. The nature of the job and the market stands in the way of organizing. For too long, these workers have gone without the basic legal rights afforded those in other industries by the Wagner Act of 1935, such as decent wages, a safe and healthy workplace, and workers’ compensation. Since this unique work is done in backyards and kitchens, out of the public eye, those who carry it out remain among the most isolated and vulnerable workforce in our society, and they must be protected from abuse and mistreatment.
How can we give the keys to our homes — and entrust the welfare of our aging parents and young children — to our domestic workers, and yet not respect them enough to secure their basic rights and dignity? Our homes serve as a pillar of our Jewish lives. They are what we welcome guests into for festive meals and hold witness to our holy conduct with children and loved ones. Herein lies a tremendous opportunity to engage in one of the defining problems of our time.
The Jewish community can help turn the tide and become public exemplars as just employers in the workplace and in the home. Our obligation to fiscally and emotionally sustain the individuals we hire to help run our households extends beyond law and into the realm of moral imperative. Learning to honor human dignity must start in each of our homes. There needs to be Jewish community-wide meetings discussing the work standards we must all commit to for the employees in our homes that aren’t secured.
The late British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote in his Haggadah, “Collective freedom — a society that honors the equal dignity of all — depends on constant vigilance … if we forget where we came from, the battles our ancestors fought and the long journey they had to take, then in the end we lose it (freedom) again.”
The minimum wage, in its current state, is a collective violation of the biblical prohibition of “oshek” (worker oppression), as workers remain poor while they work to their full capacity (Leviticus 19:15). The previous verse tells us that we must not be enablers of social wrongs (“lifnei iver”) linking the two responsibilities of fair wages and Jewish activism. Now is the time for a collective Jewish intervention to ensure that those who work can live.
This year, let us use our loving embrace of our tradition and narrative as a springboard into the issues of domestic workers’ rights. Let us welcome freedom into our homes by looking domestic workers in the eyes and expressing our gratitude. Let us exemplify the proper treatment of domestic workers for our children. Consider acting on the courage to see the reality of most domestic workers’ situations. Consider using the ability to see the possibility for change for the poorest right here in our homes. And let us collectively enact a vision that moves the reality of domestic workers to the possibility of better treatment.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is president and dean of the Valley Beit Midrash and the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek.