Labor Rights

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Immigration was a difficult time in my family's history and there wasn't much room for pride. It feels vulnerable to write about the sacrifices one's family has made even during immigration. My grandmother, who was a well-regarded high school teacher in Belarus, found work sewing in a factory. My grandfather, a highly educated man and a mining engineer worked as (though it's tempting to say "became") a hotel janitor. My aunt, a highly trained music teacher, cleaned houses. My father, a computer programmer, worked at house construction sites briefly.

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Why does it seem more "empirically" correct to "give credit to the farmer, the merchant, and the baker"? What is Heschel's answer for why we thank God instead?
How can we become more aware of all the people involved in the creation of our food? If we were more aware of this, how would our choices around food change?

We say 'Blessed be Thou, O Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.' Empirically speaking, would it not be more correct to give credit to the farmer, the merchant and the baker? [Rather] we bless God who makes possible both nature and civilization.

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“Israel has a unique opportunity in that it has a choice between workers from different cultures and workers of a similar culture who need employment close at hand. We need to weigh that choice, its costs, its benefits, and how the benefits can be gained while minimizing the costs. That is part of a considered approach to globalization, an approach that Israel needs to cultivate in many fields, neither rushing headlong and unthinkingly into global homogenization nor isolating ourselves from it. The issue of foreign workers is already upon us.

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It is not necessary that the custom be based on the sages, nor even based on Jews, for even if gentiles established the custom – as, for instance, where they are in the majority in that location – it is still Torah law that the standard should follow the custom, for absent another provision it is as if they conditioned [the contract] on the prevailing custom… therefore it does not matter who it is who has established the custom. [translation by Hekhsher Tzedek "Al Pi Din" by Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner for Heksher Tzedek Commission of RA/USCJ]

א[ין] צ[ורך] שיעשה המנהג ע[ל] פ[י] חכמי התורה וגם אף לא ע[ל] פ[י] יהודים דוקא, דאף שהנהיגו זה הנכרים – כגון שהם רוב תושבי העיר – נמי הוא מדין התורה בסתמא כפי המנהג, דאדעתא דמנהג העיר
נחשב כהתנו בסתמא... ולכן אין חלוק מי הם שהנהיגו

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Q: In 1971, you were the only Orthodox rabbis to declare that non-union lettuce and grapes should be regarded as non-kosher and you urged Jews to boycott them. What is the basis in Judaism for that position?

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The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

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Political or social activism was hardly the hallmark of American Orthodox rabbis in the 1960s. While a number of Conservative and Reform rabbis participated in the civil rights movement or protested U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, their Orthodox counterparts typically regarded such causes as too far removed from Jewish concerns to justify their involvement. Haskel Lookstein, while not personally active in those battles, early on recognized a connection between traditional Jewish concepts and modern social struggles.

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This means, according to the words of our Sages…there in Yevamot [78b-79a], that Saul did not actually kill even a single Gibeonite.

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Globalization, writes Zygmunt Bauman, “divides as much as it unites...What appears as globalization for some means localization for others; signaling a new freedom for some, upon many others it descends as an uninvited and cruel fate” (Bauman 1998: 2). There can be no doubt that some of the economic surplus of the advanced economies of the world should be invested in developing countries to help eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, ensure universal education, combat treatable disease, reduce infant mortality, improve work conditions, and reconstruct failing economies.

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The rabbis are here teaching us a profound lesson. The most demeaning form of oppression of a laborer is to assign to him meaningless work. The most ruthless form of abuse of a laborer is to have him engage in an activity which serves no productive purpose and, therefore, prevents him from having any pride in his achievement. The measure of proper treatment of labor is not simply the physical rigors to which the employee is exposed.

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