RHR 2008: The Dignity of Work and the Indignity of Slavery
December 09, 2008
Meta-note on photographs: I haven't taken many photos, in part because I'm too busy typing and in part because the only power source I can find for my laptop is at the back of the room. But Rabbi Shai Gluskin has been posted great pictures of some of the folks who've been speaking; find them here in this photo gallery.
Rabbi Gordon Tucker's study session, The Dignity of Work and the Indignity of Slavery, was rooted in article 4 from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. "No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms." He began:
Slavery and servitude, both words are used which suggests they're not the same thing. Servitude can have a positive valance in our tradition. The word ayin/bet/daled can mean both slave and servant, in a negative and a positive sense; it's a common play on words. It's what the whole haggadah is based on: avadim hayyinu, we were a certain kind of eved, but now we are God's avadim which is a status in which human dignity is not destroyed but upheld. Being an eved Adonai is a high title in the Bible! It's interesting to me, how religious notions of service give a different spin to this. But here, slavery and servitude are both absolutely prohibited by article 4. And talking about human forces, that's correct. But I remind you of what Bob Dylan famously said: "You have to serve somebody..."
Our study included several texts from Talmud, midrash, and the haggadah, leading up to one text in particular. "You never known when an offhand phrase is going to strike you with such power that you can't stop thinking about it," he said.
"To understand the dignity of work, you have to understand at least a little bit about the other." If one were in slavery one might fantasize about a life completely free of labor; "but one can also flip over the indignity part and the oppression part of it, and have work be a different kind of experience."
Our first text was from Talmud, Berakhot 8a:
Rabbi Hiyya bar Ami said in the name of Ulla: One who earns by the efforts of his own hands stands even higher than one who is completely God-fearing. For of the God-fearer it is written, "Happy (ashrei) is the one who fears the Lord," and of the one who earns by his own efforts, it is written, "You shall enjoy the fruits of your labors, you shall be happy (ashrekha and you shall prosper." That is, you shall be happy in this world, and you shall propser in the future world. And notice that of the God-fearer it does not say, "you shall propser."
The future world is what we typically associate with being God-fearing, the toiling of your own hands is very this-worldly; but this flips that over in a way that gets the attention. There's a concern here for the dignity of work, and a sense that doing work with one's own hands is valuable.
After spending a moment with a text from Talmud Pesahim 118a (about God telling Adam that the ground will sprout thorns and thistles, etc), we moved to Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Version B, Chapter 21. "Rabbi Eliezer also used to say, Great is work, for just as Israel was commanded with respect to [ceasing work on] Shabbat, so was it commanded with respect to doing work; for it is written: 'Six days shall you work, and on the seventh day shall you cease." We're commanded to work, just as we're commanded to rest. There's a way in which this sanctifies work, as it sanctifies rest.
There are also texts which say "six days, work may be done." (The Hebrew is the same as "shall" be done, but the Masoretic tradition vocalizes it sometimes as "may.") How do you reconcile the fact that sometimes talk of work on the six days is in the passive, and other times it's active? The answer given is that when Israel does God's will, their work gets done by others. It's only if you're not really in line with God's will that you get stuck doing the work itself. (This has problematic implications; think about those in Israel who study fulltime, and let others handle the jobs and the defense and so on because they perceive that they're doing God's will and therefore the work will be done by others.)
"But there's also an entrenched tradition which understands that work, and how work is done, is part of the dignity of being human." And that is in contrast with the dehumanizing aspect of how work is handled in slavery.
We looked them at a quotation from From Bondage to Freedom: Passover Haggadah With Commentary by Rabbi Abraham Twerski. He draws on commentary about what slavery in Egypt was like, not just the lash but also psychological torture. That they would give young people work that would be more suitable for young people, and vice versa. Various perversions of matching people with the wrong kind of work. And, the notion that Egyptians had them building with endless quotas of bricks, in places the Egyptians knew were marshy, so the work of their hands would sink into the swamp so there was nothing to feel proud of having built.
Rabbi Twerski tells the story of a man serving 25 years hard labor, turning a giant wheel in a wall all day. The man imagines what his work might be doing, on the other side of the wall: grinding grain into flour? But when he gets out of prison after 25 years, he runs to see, and it turns out there's nothing on the other side of the wall but another wheel. The man weeps: "the awareness that all his work was of no avail was far worse than the hard labor itself."
Rabbi Tucker talked about questions of work and ownership, and whether Talmudic texts on this subject are meant to apply to all peoples or only to Jews, and about the importance of context in reading texts from earlier periods into our own time.
After spending time with the Torah text about a slave who chooses to remain a slave (and has his ear pierced against the door, because the ear which should have heard God's teachings about not being a servant of anyone but God clearly didn't hear it), and then a pair of texts from The American Anti-Slavery Group (about the existence of slavery in the world today) and Atzum.org / Justice Works (about human trafficking).
Our last text was from Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 5, a tale about creation. "At the beginning of day three, the earth was as flat as a board..." There's a reference at the end of the passage to a fountain that sits over Gehinnom which yields warm water, producing pleasure for human beings. It sounds like a positive thing! But in the Roman baths which were prevalent in those days, the hot baths were usually created not by hot springs but by slaves stoking fires.
The pleasures we enjoy, the text seems to be saying, are built on the backs of laborers who may seem very distant to us. But our pleasure is only possible because of their hell. Whenever we see poverty and degradation, we have to entertain the possibility that that poverty may be a small measure of my comfort, and if that's even possible, then we're responsible in some measure for what goes on.
A side note: we'll be reading some of Rabbi Tucker's work in my Codes class later this fall. Some of you may remember his name from the conversations about GLBT ordination in the Conservative movement a few years back; he authored a teshuvah (responsum) called Halakhic and metahalakhic arguments concerning Judaism and homosexuality, which is really worth reading.
Anyway, it was a treat to learn from him.
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