A Jewish Understanding of Labor, and Labor Day
5780 Shabbat Ki Tavo
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona
We are celebrating Labor Day this weekend, which in many parts of the country means used to mean, before the pandemic, the last hurrah of the summer, barbecues and beach time and a final celebration of the season of relaxation and indolence. For us here in the Sonoran desert Labor Day has more typically been just a brief interruption in a fully busy schedule. We started public school last month, after all, and Religious and Hebrew school are going full bore. Selichot is next Saturday, and Rosh HaShanah is now just two weeks away. Aside from Labor Day sales, there isn’t usually much to recommend this as a relaxing three-day weekend. In fact, in Tucson, Labor Day is more typically like a quick breath before plunging into the deeper end of the swimming pool of hectic fall activity.
But long before this holiday became another American excuse for a three-day weekend, a last flutter of vacation before putting our noses to the post-summer grindstone, Labor Day was a significant statement about the value of a human being’s hard work. When it started, the very concept that labor had value, morally and economically, was controversial—as it remains in some quarters today.
Originally, Labor Day was created in the 1880’s as a way to celebrate and support the workingman and woman, and as an expression of the increasing importance of organized labor as a political force in America. It was a way of saying that labor mattered, that capital wasn’t the only positive value in the economy and society.
Long before that, Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, said of labor, “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”
We Jews have always believed labor has moral quality. One of the great sentences in Pirkei Avot, completed in the year 225, the Ethics of our Ancestors, says “Al shlosha devarim ha’olam omeid: al hatorah, v’al ha’avodah, v’al gemilut chasadim: the world is based on three things: on Torah, on work, and on acts of selfless kindness. Some people take the Hebrew word Avodah, labor, to mean religious service—but it is just as appropriate when applied to more practical and prosaic work, and it is likely that the connection of labor to Divine service is intentional. In other words, honest work is a form of prayer. This exaltation of basic labor as a foundation of society—and a way to serve God—is consistent throughout Jewish tradition.
You might not know that until quite recently being a rabbi wasn’t a paying profession. Most of the great rabbis and scholars in Jewish history had day jobs to make a living, from Rabbi Yosi Hasandlar, a sandle or shoemaker in the days of the Talmud, to Maimonides, a physician in 12th century Spain, to the rabbis of Eastern Europe who made a living in the lumber trade or by working as butchers. For Jews, not only has there never been any shame in hard work, there has even been a kind of exaltation of it.
When I lived in Jerusalem my daily walk to study at Hebrew Union College took me past a small shoemaker’s shop built into a wall in the neighborhood of Rechaviah. We greeted each other daily, and eventually he repaired my Israeli sandles—still the best in the world—several times. Gradually we became friends—he was an 80-year old immigrant to Israel from Eastern Europe, where he had been a schuster, a shoemaker, too. His courtly, Old-World manners and knowledge of Bible and midrash, as well as world literature and classical music, were somehow perfectly consistent with his daily hard work of making leather bend to practical purpose. An educated, sophisticated shoemaker: this is very much the Jewish understanding of the working class. I never met my great-grandfather, Solomon—but in the Old Country he was a shoemaker. I wonder if he was a bit like that courtly old Jewish gentleman in my neighborhood in Jerusalem…
It should come as no surprise, then, that some of the great organizers of labor in history have been Jews, and that a movement based on exalting work, the Labor Zionists, created the State of Israel, and formed much of its early culture. Most of the original members of Aliyah Aleph and Bet, the first major immigrations of Jews coming back to Israel, were idealistically motivated Labor Zionists—what we would think of as socialists. They helped create the essential elements of the modern state of Israel, including the Histadrut, the labor union-based organization that still has enormous influence in Israeli life. Until the 1970’s every Prime Minister of Israel came from the Labor Party, and while its influence in the Knesset has eroded steadily since then—in the last election it won, I believe, two seats—the mythos and culture of Israel are deeply imbued with many elements that exalt labor and work. Most of the early Zionist songs, chestnuts like Zum Gali Gali, include lines like “heChaluts l’ma’an Avodah, Avodah l’ma’an heChaluts”—the pioneer lives for the sake of work, and work is there for the sake of the pioneer.
And of course, that philosophy was the foundation of one of the great old institutions of Israeli life, the Kibbutz, which did more to shape the nature, character, and reputation of Israel than virtually anything else.
Here in America many important names in labor, from Samuel Gompers to Emma Goldman, were Jewish. Samuel Gompers deserves a special comment. He was one of the first great labor organizers in American history, founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor, the AFL part of the AFL-CIO. Gompers said of our holiday this weekend that "Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country. All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man's prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day... is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation."
In other words, labor is truly an international movement, and celebrating labor as a virtue, exalting hard but honest work as the backbone of society, is an extraordinarily good thing.
Sam Gompers created the first major association of workers, and heavily influenced international policy and politics for nearly forty years. But his parents were poor immigrant Jews from Holland, who moved first to England and then to New York.
A personal note on the subject of labor: my own grandparents on my mother’s side, my Zaidie Lou and Bubbie Dora, were members of a group called the Workmen’s Circle—the arbitering, Socialists who didn’t much believe in God but certainly believed in Jewish life and the value of labor and workers. I used to do a Passover Seder for the Arbiterring every year in Los Angeles that somehow managed to make no mention of God, but was otherwise about as traditional as you can imagine—except that in their Haggadah Moses came off as a union organizer, Aaron was the spokesman for an important local and Pharaoh was a wicked, conniving boss.
In today’s American society, and certainly here in Arizona, Labor Day has lost its sense of purpose in American life. However, the understanding of the inherent value of labor has lost even more. For the past forty years the strength of the labor movement has declined, in many cases precipitously. Similarly, protection for workers in our society has diminished as well. The percentage of workers belonging to a union in the United States peaked in 1954—just after the anti-Union Taft-Hartley Act passed—at almost 35% of the working population, while the total number of union members peaked in 1979 at 21 million. Union membership has declined ever since, with private sector union membership beginning a steady process of steeper and steeper erosion that continues today, when just 7% of private sector employees belong to a union. Public sector unions have grown steadily, and public sector jobs have become more attractive as a result. But generally speaking, unions have faded badly.
It is notable that on average, union members make about 25% more money, have better benefits, and have more job security than non-unionized workers.
Compared to other developed countries, the US has been de-unionizing for decades. Today only 11% of workers overall in the U.S. belong to a union, while it’s 19% in Germany, 27% in Canada, and over 50% in Scandinavia, including a high of 70% in Finland. It is not a surprise that, generally speaking, workers do better in all of these countries than they do in America.
On a higher level, our Torah portion of Ki Tavo has a thing or two to say about labor, and hard work, as well. In a beautiful series of blessings, it promises us that if we follow God’s ways, and work hard—if we make even our daily labor into a kind of prayer to God—then we will receive great gifts:
“Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country.
Blessed shall be the issue of your womb, the produce of your soil, and the offspring of your cattle, the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock.
Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.
Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings.”
On this Labor Day weekend Shabbat, may we be reminded of the great value of work, and the foundational quality of labor in creating society, and in serving God. And may our own hard work be dedicated to creating a better society, and a better world, each day.