The Jewish Obsession With Law

So here’s a copy of the new letter Pico-Robertson’s Modern Orthodox rabbis are sending to local businesses owned by Jews.

Will this high profile campaign do any good or will it only make rabbis feel good for grandstanding on a complex topic?

I want to emphasize one sentence from this new letter: "Peulat Sachir’s ultimate goals are to elevate the level of communal awareness concerning the importance of labor law, and to raise the standards of labor law compliance throughout the Jewish community, focusing initially on the Pico Blvd. strip."

Here’s my view: I’m skeptical that labor laws do much to raise the working conditions of laborers. I do all my work freelance. I do it largely free of laws. I offer to do certain tasks for people for certain amounts of money and then I do the work even when my exmployers call me "cocksucker" and say "I must express my feelings for you in a physical way."

Such comments clearly create a hostile work environment and I do not always welcome them but I don’t go crying about them to rabbis or to lawyers because I’m a manly man and I take care of myself (and those under my pastoral care).

From a capitalist perspective, the number one reason working conditions improve is that employers have to compete for workers and one of the ways of getting and keeping workers is to treat them well in addition to paying them well. If employers mistreat their workers and feel like they can get away with it because the workers have few choices, then that problem is primarily one of lack of demand for workers (not a lack of labor law enforcement).

When you look at the six areas that Peulat Sachir will monitor, these are entirely matters of secular law (yes, I understand that Torah law commands the Jew to obey the law of the land). Sometimes, these secular laws — which are being upheld by this rabbinic ethics program — directly contravene Torah law, such as when they forbid discrimination on the basis of sex. One of the foundations of Judaism is discrimination on the basis of sex. Men must pray separately from women and are accountable to their own unique set of laws.

What about a Jewish day school that doesn’t want to employ a cross-dresser as a teacher? That would violate seem to violate secular law (secular law sometimes makes room for religious institutions to discriminate in ways generally forbidden by secular law). According to my reading of Peulat Sachir’s new letter, the day school couldn’t discriminate against the cross-dresser or the out-homosexual. So what kind of Orthodox parent would like his kids taught by a cross-dressing homo? What Orthodox Jew wants to have his food served by a sodomite in a purple tutu?

It’s not labor laws that make for a worker’s paradise but a free-functioning capitalist economy where laborers are free to make their own deals with employers irrespective of secular laws. If a worker wants to work 20 hours of overtime a week and the only way the restaurant can afford this is if it pays him nothing extra for overtime, then why should the rabbis interfere with the functioning of the free market?

Let’s say an employer tells an employee that the only way he can keep his job is if he has sex with the boss. Why do we need rabbis and lawyers to get involved with this? A worker with dignity will quit and go get another job. I know that one of my bosses is still highly frustrated in this regard because I have both morals and cojones. I refuse his desires which go against the Torah while simultaneously refusing to run to the rabbis with my troubles.

Here’s another excerpt from this new letter: "As you know, Judaism has a rich tradition and volumes of treatises on business ethics, particularly in the area of ethical labor standards and practices. In an effort to raise awareness of this area of Jewish law and ethics, we have recently formed an organization that will offer local establishments the opportunity to promote and publicize their compliance with labor standards and practices. We are calling this organization Peulat Sachir: The Ethical Labor Initiative ."

Judaism does have a rich tradition and volumes of treatises on business ethics but nowhere in this new initiative is there any evidence of this. This program is solely about business owners signing on to follow secular law. That’s it.

So while the rabbis invoke Torah, there’s nothing from Torah in this new initiative beyond the admonition to obey the law of the land.

This new program seems to me like an obeisance to secular laws that interfere with the rights of autonomous adults to make their own deals. I’m really sick of intellectuals who think they know better and that they should have the right to legislate the working arrangements agreed to by mutually consenting adults.

Law, be it religious or secular, is indispensable to the creation of a good society, but as the Ramban noted in the 12th Century, it is possible "to be disgusting with the permission of the Torah." Law is only a means of regulating human behavior, only God and goodness should be the ends. This new program, wrapped in the ribbons of Torah law but consisting solely of obedience to secular law, may or may not improve the lot of the workers. We’ll have to see.

I’ve yet to hear of one employer seeking out this new certification. Instead the rabbis and their friends are going out into the community to recruit.

As Macbeth said:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

From my live cam chat:

palestine4ever:  used to be that you could great a friend and say, "How ya been, you mouth-breathing retard?"
palestine4ever:  that’s just more of the hovel than i intended to see
palestine4ever:  i humored myself that this was just a television show
WELSHDRAGON:  there it is what the f**k is that thing with buttons?
palestine4ever:  and there’d be an imaginary "4th wall" just for the audience and the cameras
Emma:  bamba lam whoa blakcberry bamba lam whoooooa blackberry.
YourMoralLeader:  must yoga/ then torah
palestine4ever:  wow
palestine4ever:  Luke, I feel obligated to point out that you live in southern california
palestine4ever:  but you’re dressed like a janitor
palestine4ever:  You must spend so much time mentally in Israel that you’re starting to look like it

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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