This is an excerpt from Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Social Change
“Marlene Juarez worked as a nanny for a family near Boston, taking care of four children ranging in age from 6 months to 6 years old; she organized play dates, cooked, did laundry and cleaned a large house. Both parents worked full time and in some weeks asked Juarez to work as many as 60 or 70 hours. Juarez had recently emigrated from Honduras, and was afraid to complain. She couldn’t afford to lose her job. But, once, she requested a few hours off to deal with a personal matter — and in response, her employers docked her pay.
‘If you’re reducing my pay when I ask to work less hours,’ she said, ‘shouldn’t you increase my pay when you ask me to work more hours?’
‘They said no,’ Juarez recalled. ‘They said I had no right to overtime.’[i]
This is a fairly common story, with 67 % of domestic workers receiving no extra pay for overtime labor, according to a report by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA). These employees are among the most exploited and invisible in the U.S. workforce. These are the people, mostly women, who take care of elderly parents and young children, clean homes and make it possible for everyone else to go to work each day. They are systematically excluded from protection as one of two groups, farm workers being the other, who were left out of the landmark 1938 Fair Labor and Standards Act which set federal wage and hours guidelines[ii]. According to a study on domestic labor, Home Economics, “Domestic workers’ vulnerability to exploitation and abuse is deeply rooted in historical, social, and economic trends. Domestic work is largely women’s work. It carries the long legacy of the devaluation of women’s labor in the household. Domestic work in the US also carries the legacy of slavery with its divisions of labor along lines of both race and gender. The women who perform domestic work today are, in substantial measure, immigrant workers, many of whom are undocumented, and women of racial and ethnic minorities. These workers enter the labor force bearing multiple disadvantages.”[iii]
Efforts are underway to end this exploitation. Over the past decade seven states including California, New York and Massachusetts passed versions of a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, giving nannies, housecleaners and home care workers the right to a minimum wage, overtime, written contracts, vacation and other benefits long guaranteed to most people in the U.S. workforce. The NDWA serves as a national clearing house and organizer of these efforts. The main motivation for this organizing comes down to dignity. As the NDWA explains on their website, “Domestic workers care for the things we value the most: our families and our homes. They care for our children, provide essential support for seniors and people with disabilities to live with dignity at home, and perform the home care that makes all other work possible. They are skilled and caring professionals, but for many years, they have labored in the shadows, and their work has not been valued. These workers deserve respect, dignity and basic labor protections.”[iv] It is ironic that the workers who care for the people we value most are among the most devalued in our society in terms of wages, protections and status. As mentioned above, the value society assigns to these workers is closely aligned with how our society values women, people of color and immigrants in general. A visceral sense that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and value motivates much social change activism, including these efforts to raise the status of domestic labor. How we assign value is the central feature of Kavod, the trait of honor, dignity and respect.
Kavod is Central to Our Humanity[v]
The word Kavod comes from the Hebrew root Kaf-Vet-Daled (K.V.D.כ.ב.ד.) meaning heavy, weighty or significant. When we give someone Kavod, we are saying, “you are significant and deserving of recognition and good treatment.” If Kavod implies weight or gravitas, the opposite is קל, or light. We disrespect someone by treating them lightly, as if they are not significant. קל is the foundation of the word קללה, curse. It is a curse to treat someone as if they are not significant by not giving them attention, or underpaying or mistreating them. Notice how Marlene Juarez was treated in the example above. Her employers clearly felt they could treat her “lightly,” ignoring her request for overtime pay. As an immigrant woman working in the home, her employers could ignore her significance and take advantage of her vulnerable economic situation. Rav Wolbe explains that everything in this world has value. We express how much we value things by assigning them a monetary value. Human beings are different in that we can’t put a monetary value on a person. We express how significant we think someone is by the Kavod we give them. Kavod, or dignity and respect, is how we express value.
Think of a time you were treated “lightly.” What did it feel like?
When have you been considered “significant?” What let you know that others could see your significance?
When have you treated someone else “lightly?” Why did you do this?
When I deny someone Kavod, or my organization or society creates conditions where people are denied Kavod, I ignore something essential about human beings. One of the first things we learn about human beings in the creation story in Genesis is that we are made “…in the Divine image.”[vi] According to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg being made in the Divine image endows all humans with three essential dignities: All humans are infinitely valuable, equal and unique.[vii] Infinitely valuable means that people have value beyond their usefulness to me or to society. Their value is essential and not instrumental in any way. This is a good thing to remember in capitalist societies that only value people for what they can produce. Equal means that, in an essential way, no one is more or less valuable than anyone else. Unique means that each particular person has something to offer the world that no one else ever did or ever will. As far away as we are from actually treating all people with the dignity they deserve, Genesis sets a goal to which we can aspire. This radical statement about the value of a human is the reason why religious people and organizations, for all their problems and regressive tendencies, are often at the forefront promoting the dignity of the individual against state-sponsored efforts to deny this dignity. Advocacy against the death penalty, liberation theology in Central America and the Polish solidarity movement against the Soviet Union are three clear examples where Christian and Jewish religious groups were, and continue to be, instrumental. There is a deeply humanist impulse in a religious consciousness that understands all people to be created in the Divine image.
Awareness of this reality about human dignity is, according to some, the central principle of Judaism. Close to 2000 years ago the sages Ben Azzai and Rabbi Akiva debated whether humanity created in the Divine image or the golden rule, “love your neighbor as yourself” was more important.[viii] In the same discussion Rabbi Tanchuma points out that the golden rule is vulnerable to how a person feels about him or herself and has been treated in the past. If a person feels mistreated and internalizes that mistreatment he may want to bring others down with him and mistreat them as well. In such a situation remembering that all people are created in the Divine image could encourage respectful treatment of others even when one feels bad about oneself. In this way being created in the Divine image is a more durable and universal principle. In fact, the human being is the closest thing there is in this world to the image of God[ix]. One way to make God’s presence more palpable in this world of hiddenness is to treat other humans with the respect they deserve as infinitely valuable, equal and unique beings. This also means influencing our organizations, companies and societies to end the mistreatment and devaluing of fellow humans created in the Divine image.
Why would people be mistreated if we are all infinitely valuable? The many social theories that deal with this issue come down to one main thing: Dehumanization. Social scientists, anthropologists and now brain scientists teach us that, as social animals, we instinctively notice difference. While our first reaction to noticing difference may be simple interest, in many cases we are taught to see difference as dangerous and threatening. Oppressive regimes have always understood this and manipulated their people to see those who threatened their dominance as “other” or less human in some way. Pharoah of the Exodus story did this as did the Nazis, who perfected the dehumanization of Jews and other “undesirables” like people with disabilities and homosexuals. One way an oppressive regime dehumanizes is by denying certain classes of people the Kavod they deserve as humans. In the case of the Nazis they first denied Jews basic rights as citizens including the right to own businesses, study and work in universities and participate in the public life of the society. On top of this Nazi propaganda portrayed Jews as less than human and animal-like in their mannerisms and customs. In the mind of a generation of Germans, Jews were so “other” and less than completely human that they did not deserve the Kavod, dignity, due to “real humans.” As the Third Reich progressed Jews were denied more and more Kavod to the point that Jewish life itself became so insignificant that the Nazis implemented the mass extermination of Jews because it was more cost-efficient to kill Jews than to keep them alive. In the late 19th century Mussar master Rabbi Simcha Ziesl Seif claimed that a human being cannot live with Kavod, so essential is it to our understanding of ourselves as people. The Nazis understood this and perfected denying whole classes of people dignity. A cursory look at the policies and propaganda used in the African Slave trade and the genocide against the Native peoples of North America, as well as any number of oppressive campaigns reveals the use of similar, and sometimes as extreme methods of dehumanization to both justify and reinforce the denial of Kavod.
Why are people so vulnerable to dehumanizing each other? I think the answer is related to the rabbinic teaching about the weakness of the Golden Rule. We get hurt, disgraced and mistreated in small and large ways throughout our lives. In the first years of a young person’s life, even in the best of circumstances, she often experiences shaming from parents, peers and older children for the smallest of imperfections including not eating certain foods, reading later than other children or not being athletic in the school yard. When this mistreatment is internalized, as Rabbi Tanchuma describes, we become vulnerable to mistreating others. If I am made to feel less than human I become vulnerable to dehumanizing others and treating them with less than full dignity. This dynamic is a universal human experience and is the psychological underpinning of oppression. The solution lies in unlearning the dehumanization of others and our own dehumanization. If societies teach that some are less human than others by denying those groups Kavod, we can unlearn this lie by creating relationships, organizations and societies that treat all people with the profound dignity they deserve as human beings. Such social arrangements contradict the message that difference is a threat and model, in the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “the dignity of difference.”[xi]
The goal of most, if not all, social change efforts is to restore human dignity. A cursory look at the websites of human rights organizations reveals that most name “human dignity” as a key goal. The NDWA claims that it is, “…winning improved working conditions while building a powerful movement rooted in the human rights and dignity of domestic workers, immigrants, women, and their families….”[xii] Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights claims her motivation to be “…improving the conditions people live in.”[xiii] Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, a leader in the prison reform movement, describes his motivation, which we quoted in chapter 4, in terms of revealing the Divine image: “I think there is something mystical about enabling others to begin to see and hear invisible and unheard people. I want to help people look at their neighbor, their domestic worker or even someone who they see as their enemy and be able to see that the Divine image is in this person that they didn’t see before. Opening hearts around that human dignity aspect is essential to my activism….”[xiv] Pope Francis in his Encyclical on the environment and statements about the negative impacts of global capitalism bases his arguments in the imperative of human dignity.[xv] The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, in his early writings from the 1950s, based his arguments for the necessity of a movement for black civil rights on the need for black Americans to regain a sense of inner-dignity lost from years of unequal treatment.[xvi] Indeed, the meta-goal of the massive efforts for social change around the globe is to create conditions in which all people are treated with the dignity they deserve simply for being human.
Choose a person from a racial, ethnic, religious, class, gender or sexual orientation group that is different from you. In what ways do you think about and/or treat this person with anything less than full respect? Why do you think you do this?
How does your company or organization treat people with dignity? How does it not treat people with dignity?
[i] David Bornstein “A Living Wage for Caregivers,” New York Times, July 10, 2015
[ii] The reason for this exclusion was political. “It was a concession to Southern lawmakers. “In the south, the majority of domestic workers and agricultural workers were African-Americans,” said Sheila Bapat, author of “Part of the Family? Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers and the Battle for Domestic Workers’ Rights.” “Many were children of former slaves, some had been slaves themselves, and there was opposition to them receiving the same economic protections as white workers and being seen to be on the same economic footing.” – Ibid.
[iii] “Home Economics” accessed July 15, 2012 http://www.domesticworkers.org/homeeconomics/summary
[iv] “National Domestic Workers Alliance” last updated July 15, 2015 http://www.domesticworkers.org/
[v] R. Wolbe, Aley Shur Volume II, 225-6
[vi] Genesis 1:27
[vii] R. Irving Greenberg and Shalom Freedman, Living in the Image of God (Jason Aronson: Northvale, NJ, 1998)31
[viii] Genesis Rabbah 24
[ix] For more on the Divine Image in humans see Rabbi Nosson Zvi Finkel, The Hidden Light/Ohr Hatzafun
[xi] Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan, The Dignity of Difference, Bloomsbury Academic, 2003
[xii] “National Domestic Workers Alliance” last updated July 15, 2015 http://www.domesticworkers.org/
[xiii] Interview March, 2015
[xiv] Interview May, 2015
[xv] Pope Francis, Laudato Si – Care for our Common Home, Our Sunday Visitor 2015, Section 2
[xvi] King, I Have a Dream, 7