Posted by Robin Podolsky
A couple of weeks ago, we read in Parashat Kidoshim (Shmot 19:19) that we are forbidden to wear “shatnetz.” Our rabbis take this to be what is referred to in Devarim 22:11, fabric that combines wool and linen.
At first glance, this prohibition appears to be entirely a hok, a commandment which is not meant to make rational sense but simply is an opportunity to enact our relationship with God, a way to bring mindfulness to the simple act of dressing ourselves. But it’s significant that we find the first mention of this prohibition in the Holiness Code, that section in Shmot where we are told to leave the corners of our fields untouched so that people on hard times can harvest them to eat; where we are told to treat workers justly and where we are forbidden to stand idly while a neighbor bleeds. Many commentators, including Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook believe that this commandment also has the character of a mishpat, a commandment that directly furthers justice. In this case, Rav Kook suggests that the commandment about shatnetz draws our attention to how we relate to animals and the earth.
Looking at it Rav Kook’s way, we can see commonalities between the commandments about kosher clothing and kosher food. In some ways, the laws of dietary kashrut go beyond the rational and simply call for obedience as a way to enact our allegiance to God with every meal we eat. However, kashrut also demands that we do not perpetrate tzaar baalei chayim, cruelty to living creatures.
If we may not procure our food through cruelty to the other animals, then all the more so, we may not feed ourselves through cruel or unjust treatment of people. For this reason, contemporary rabbis have advocated that we increase the strictures of kashrut to account for how workers are treated when food is produced. The Magen Tzedek Commission, which arose from Judaism’s Conservative movement, now grants certification to grocery products based on standards for ethical employment as well as animal welfare; and the Orthodox organization, Uri L’Tzedek grants its Tav HaYosher certification to kosher restaurants which treat their workers fairly.
Perhaps it’s time to apply the same rigor to kosher clothing. Today, people all over the world are observing May Day, a holiday dedicated to the celebration of working people. This May Day is a painful one, as the body count of those lost in the recent building collapse in Bangladesh continues to rise. Hundreds of garment workers, alarmed at cracks which had developed in the building where they worked, where forced back inside by factory thugs and threatened with the loss of their jobs if they did not continue to produce. The building, owned by one of the more powerful landlords in the country, did indeed collapse, and the death toll has now passed 400.
Bangladesh is a major international center for garment production. Many clothing manufacturers and retailers in the United States do business there. The parallels between the situation of Bangladeshi workers and that of our Jewish ancestors who worked in the garment trade here in the US are striking. In the first part of the 20th Century, conditions for immigrant garment workers in East Coast tenements included starvation wages and grossly unsafe conditions. The infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911, in which over 146 Jewish and Italian-American workers were killed and hundreds more injured, was paralleled by 2010 by two hideous factory fires in Bangladesh. Like the Triangle Shirtwaist workers, the Bangladeshi workers were locked into upstairs factories with no adequate fire protection or means of escape. Hundred were killed or maimed.
Our ancestors did not stand for being treated unjustly. Even before the Triangle fire, they organized the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Through strikes and with the support of Jewish community leaders—some of whom were much better off than the workers and still felt compelled by Jewish values to fight for fairness in the workplace—the union won acknowledgment of their right to bargain collectively, and they were instrumental in the passage of workplace safety laws.
Our ancestors celebrated May Day by marching for their own rights. We can observe it by renewing our commitment to holiness, to the principle that, from the food we eat to the clothes we wear, we stay in a good relationship with our fellow human beings along with our Creator. Perhaps it’s time for heksher tzedek on clothes.
But we don’t have to confine ourselves to individual action. The Institute for Global Labour and Human rights reminds us that our country does pass laws regulating imported goods when it comes to copyright infringements and that Congress, spurred to action by reports of garments made from dog and cat fur making their way into the US passed the Dog and Cat Protection Act of 2000. Just as we support actions against tzar baalei chayim, so too we can work for the passage of the Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act introduced to Congress in 2007.
After the Triangle fire, Rabbi Steven S. Wise said, “The lesson of the hour is that while property is good, life is better, that while possessions are valuable, life is priceless. The meaning of the hour is that the life of the lowliest worker in the nation is sacred and inviolable, and, if that sacred human right be violated, we shall stand adjudged and condemned before the tribunal of God and of history.”
5.1.13 at 9:07 pm | Of clothing, holiness and Bangladesh.
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5.1.13 at 9:07 pm | Of clothing, holiness and Bangladesh. (11)
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March 31, 2013 | 4:01 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
In this season, when we celebrate freedom and the honor of obligation, let’s remember two rabbis who exemplified those values. The two teachers I have in mind were contemporaries and, for a while, neighbors. Orthodox Rabbi Sabato Morais and Reform Rabbi David Einhorn led congregations in Philadelphia in the years leading up to the USA’s Civil War. At a time when few rabbis dared (or maybe cared) to do it, these tzadikim condemned slavery forthrightly, drawing on Jewish tradition.
Sabato Morais, in his 1864 Thanksgiving sermon to Congregation Mikveh Israel said, “Not the victories of the Union, but those of freedom, my friends, do we celebrate. What is Union with human degradation? Who would again affix his seal to the bond that consigned millions to [that]? Not I, the enfranchised slave of Mitzrayim.
David Einhorn, in a 1861 Passover sermon, later expanded and published as War With Amalek, wrote, ““Is it anything else but a deed of Amalek, rebellion against God, to enslave human beings created in His image, and to degrade them to a state of beasts having no will of their own? Is it anything else but an act of ruthless and wicked violence, to reduce defenseless human beings to a condition of merchandise, and relentlessly to tear them away from the hearts of husbands, wives, parents, and children…?”
These teachers were unified on one of the key moral questions facing spiritual leaders of their time despite their disagreements about many other important things. Morais, a founder of Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), was determined to maintain a halachic standard for American Jews, believing that the principles he expressed in his sermon were indissoluble from the web of study and ritual that binds Jewish communities into a people. Einhorn, a leader in American Reform Judaism advocated a Judaism rooted in prophetic discourse and a rejection of ritual commandments (hukim) in favor of the ethical ones (mishpatim). Yet each man, recalling our central narrative of redemption from slavery, responded to oppression of American slaves with the same moral clarity.
Their fates, for a while, were different, although, at the end, each was honored. It was Morais, the more traditional Jew—and, in his time, a liberal who spoke out, not only for the end of slavery, but also for the importance of women’s education, Native American rights and worker’s rights and who battled prayer in public schools and all attempts to construct the United States as a Christian nation—who kept his congregation. Despite some threats on his life and safety, Morais stayed on his bimah at Mikveh Israel where he had a lifetime contract. Thousands attended his public funeral.
Einhorn had taken up his Philadelphia pulpit at Knesset Israel, because he had, in 1861, been driven from his Baltimore pulpit at Har Sinai for his anti-slavery stance by a mob that threatened to tar and feather him. He eventually left his new congregation to settle in New York, where he led Congregation Adas Jeshurun, which would eventually merge with another synagogue to become Congregation Beth-El. There he retired and, he too, was mourned by his large Jewish community when he died.
Each left a legacy. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a lion of the JTS, was among those rabbis who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Junior and resolutely opposed America’s role in the Vietnam War. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted on the premises of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. More broadly, Orthodox Judaism, with which Morais identified is alive, and continues to sprout vigorous debates and tendencies. Conservative Judaism, for which JTS serves as a seminary, is still a halachic movement, one which sees halachah as a living, evolving tradition; and Reform Judaism continues to regard living Torah as the basis for a Jewish life. While they don’t always land on the same side of every question, each Jewish movement maintains its obligation to respond to the key issues of its day.
The USA has, more or less, caught up to Rabbis Morais and Einhorn on the question of slavery, but we should never forget how much courage it must have taken for them to speak out when they did. How can we emulate their example?
March 7, 2013 | 4:26 am
Posted by Robin Podolsky
So I’ve been quiescent lately, what with school and thesis and flu and an internship at a real live synagogue. The last year of rabbi school is b@t5hit nuts.
But now I can offer a chance to talk in person! (Yeah, I know, be still your heart.)
On this coming Sunday, March 10, at 3pm, three American Jews who have returned from trips to the Ashkenazi Old Country will be sharing our experiences at the Red Lion Tavern at 2366 Glendale Blvd. in Silverlake (why yes, it is a German bar—looks who’s back, taking over your space and drinking your beer!)
As you long-time readers know, last summer I visited Poland and Germany with other seminarians through FASPE, Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics, sponsored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage. (See the archive for some details.) We toured the site of the concentration camps at Auschwitz, including the death camp, Birkenau. We visited the living and growing Jewish community of Krakov. In Germany we studied at the Topography of Terror Museum at the site of the old Gestapo headquarters and at the villa in Wansee where the “Final Solution” was discussed. We also saw the Neu Synagogue, where Regina Jonas, the first Jewish woman to be ordained as a rabbi once served before she was taken to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz where she was murdered. Just as importantly, we read the work of historians, eye witnesses, religious leaders and philosophers; and we talked profoundly, not only about how we had been impacted by what we saw, but also about how lessons from Shoah studies will inform our own work as clergy. I will be sharing some personal writing and also, I hope, having a discussion with you about what we can learn from this history.
My friend, the poet Helena Lipstadt, had the chance to work with other artists in Poland on the restoration of synagogues. Rob Peckerar works with the amazing organization Yiddishkayt to bring Yiddish culture to new generations. They will be telling their stories and sharing pictures as well and they also are looking forward to talking with you.
Please join us if you can. There will be snacks and tea and, of course, good beer.
January 27, 2013 | 10:32 am
Posted by Robin Podolsky
Mishnah Avot 1:11 warns us to “be careful with your words.” Advice, it turns out, that I have not heeded adequately and, therefore, I hurt someone’s feelings carelessly and also demonstrated some sloppy thinking.
Months ago, in a post about the forbidden temptation of the contemplative life, I made a glancing reference to the controversy in Israel over exemptions for Torah scholars from military service. The post wasn’t about that subject; it was about my own struggle with the time/money question. In that context, I made reference to Orthodox yeshiva scholars who are able to devote themselves to Torah without distractions—a situation I regard with more than a little envious yearning.
I recently learned though, that my careless throwaway reference to a complex issue had caused some real pain to a colleague at the school I attend, the Academy for Jewish Religion.
One of the most wonderful things about my school is its diversity with regard to hashkafa. Our faculty represents a great swath of the Jewish spectrum, including people with ties to the Orthodox, Conservative/Masorti, Reform, Reconstructionist and Renewal movements and the tendencies and counter-tendencies within them, and the student body mirrors that multiplicity. There are Hasids and Litvaks, mystics and rationalists, people who are steeped in popular culture and people who avoid it, political leftists, rightists and centrists. Women in sheitels pray with women in tfilin.
Some of my favorite teachers have been Orthodox thinkers and rabbis, not only for the depth and breadth of their Torah learning, but also for the complexity and practical sense of their thinking—and the humor and pleasure with which they infuse their classes. In fact, our Academy recently chose one such teacher, Dr. Tamar Frankiel, our former Provost and faculty member to be our President. Dr. Frankiel is a living example of how Orthodox women are a vital force today’s living Judaism.
I have learned just how broad and diverse the Orthodox world is, and my colleague who rebuked me for the casual reference I made in my post reminded me of how unhelpful it is to use the word as a single descriptive adjective. She reminded me that, even with regard to the question of the yeshiva military exemption, the Orthodox world in Israel contains people associated with a range of positions and choices.
So I apologize for referring casually to “Orthodox men” in the context of a controversial issue without making that complexity clear and in a way that served to reinforce a cliché, not to shed light.
My encounter with my Orthodox colleagues continues to teach me a great deal. We still don’t agree about some key issues (to be discussed in later posts). But I am becoming a better Jew for having known them.
November 9, 2012 | 3:06 pm
Posted by Robin Podolsky
So I’ve been quiet lately, election-obsessed, but still trying to work out that ‘non-partisan’ thing in anticipation of becoming a rabbi. No more need for coyness now. If you’re my FB friend, you know who I supported (and if the rest of you should guess that my candidate’s name rhymes with ‘no drama,’ you would not be mistaken).
To my friends on the Left: no, I did not vote for Guantanamo or wiretapping or excessive compromises with Big Finance. I voted for the coalition that put this president into office and which has gained more space in the national conversation. To my friends on the Right: from where I sit, voting for expanded opportunity is voting for personal responsibility. To my friends worried about Israel: what is it you don’t like, Iron Dome or the sanctions on Iran? (Who cares how he and Bibi feel about each other? They’re grown ass men with jobs to do.)
I agree with what the President said in his acceptance speech: “…this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations, so that the freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights, and among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.” To me that understanding of community which involves responsibilities as well as rights echoes that which our Rabbis bequeathed us.
Also, I agree with those commentators who observe that this election was, in some ways, more historically significant than that in which President Obama won his first term. Four years ago, we elected our country’s first African-American president in the context of an economic catastrophe that came from the rank incompetence of the opposing party. This time, we re-elected that African-American President whose strengths and weaknesses we now know, in the context of an economy that improves very slowly and based on the contrast between his policies and that of the other guy. Obama is no longer a symbol, he’s Number 44. And that means our country has matured and made real progress in treating one of the biggest wounds in our democracy since our founding.
As I’ve told you before, many of the students at AJR, the Academy for Jewish Religion, where I study are old enough to have extensive resumes before ever starting rabbinical school. One of my favorite colleagues is a healthcare professional, a woman who made her own breaks and redefined her job such that she now leads and trains others. We agree about some political and social issues, disagree about others, and our talks zip past slogans to real exchanges of ideas. I learn from and respect this person.
On Election Day, as she sometimes does, my friend came into the library wearing her Republican brooch. She knows that I am decidedly to the left of her on just about every issue. And when we saw each other, without needing to say why, we exchanged a warm supportive hug. How good to know that our Jewish tradition of fervent, sometimes harsh, contention between committed friends can extend to our lives as citizens.
Later, we did talk about how lucky we are, as Jews and as Americans, to live in a country where changes in the government happen at the ballot box. We knew that, when we awoke the next day, no matter which president would run the executive branch; there would be no shooting, no state of emergency. Neither of us was afraid for what might happen to Jews on the next day. There would be no pogroms, no purges. Thank you, ancestors, for coming here! You did good.