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.”