The Triangle Waist Factory fire and the laws of holiness

This week, in Parashah Shmini, we learn the laws of Kashrut.  We often think of Kashrut as a hoq, a mysterious commandment that we follow only because our Torah says that God wants us to.  But Kashrut is also a mishpat, a commandment informed by values and virtues that we can comprehend; in this case, an abhorrence of cruelty. Not only may we not eat, and thereby develop a thirst for, blood; we may not slaughter in a cruel way, because we care about tzar baalei chayim, the suffering of living creatures.

The tradition acknowledges that we need to eat in order to live, but it also governs how we fulfill that need.  There is no aspect of our lives, not even within the ordinary workday world, which is unmarked by our commitment to holiness. That holiness is lived out in the context of our relationships, be it with the rest of creation, with other people and with God.

This means that a kosher butcher runs a business within a regulated marketplace.
The butcher has the right to earn a living—there is nothing wrong with working hard and earning a profit honorably—but there are some corners which may not be cut.

This principle applies to all business dealings.  If we may not be cruel to the other animals, then, all the more so, we may not be cruel to people.

We learn in Brachot 19b and Shabbat 94b that, “Human dignity is very great in that it supersedes even negative commandments (“shalt nots”) from our Torah.”  This is why so much of our Talmud concerns contract law.  A contract, a brit, is an agreement of mutual obligation between human beings, each of whom is a representative of the One in Whose image we are made and is therefore deserving of respect.

This Shabbat will mark the 100th secular anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire.  On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at a garment factory in which the workers, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant women were working on the upper floors, where doors were locked to keep workers inside and union organizers out.  The one fire escape soon collapsed. 146 workers are killed and over 500 are injured by burns, smoke inhalation and injuries suffered after jumping from the building to escape the flames.

This fire followed the historic Uprising of the 20,000 in 1909 in which women garment workerswent on strike for higher wages, safer working conditions and—most critically, the right to collective bargaining, to the establishment of contracts between workers and management guaranteeing mutual rights and obligations.  When the strike ended, most companies, including Triangle, had agreed to some but not to collective bargaining.  Two of the strikers’ demands which had not been met were improved fire escapes and unlocked doors.

After the fire, Rabbi Steven S. Wise said, “The lesson of the hour is that while property is good, life is better, that while possessions are valuable, life is priceless. The meaning of the hour is that the life of the lowliest worker in the nation is sacred and inviolable, and, if that sacred human right be violated, we shall stand adjudged and condemned before the tribunal of God and of history.”

The hopeful news is that from the ashes of the fire rose a stronger union and also the Factory Investigating Commission of New York state which pioneered many labor reforms, including improved fire safety.  But in this current era, those gains are in jeopardy, because all unions, as we have seen in Wisconsin, are under attack, and many garment jobs are outsourced overseas.

Today, the fire still burns.  In 2010 alone, there were two major factory fires in Bangladesh that were eerily reminiscent of the Triangle disaster.  Workers were trapped upstairs in locked rooms without adequate fire protection or escape and, as with Triangle, they died of burns or jumped to their deaths to avoid being burned alive.  These factories supply clothing to H&M, The Gap, JC Penny and other popular retailers.

We as consumers have the power to change things.  After the fires in Bangladesh, the voices raised through the Clean Clothes Campaign pressured retail outlets to agree to police the safety conditions at their contracted factories.

Returning to our parashah, we learn in Leviticus 10:10, “You must distinguish between holy and ordinary, between pure and impure.”  This applies to the clothes we put on our bodies as much as to the food we put inside them. If we are careful of human dignity, we infuse even the most mundane details of daily life with holiness.

Workers at home need the support of ethical consumers as well. Please visit the Progressive Jewish Alliance’s website to download more information about the Triangle fire and to find out what you can do to support today’s garments workers’ fight for human dignity.

We invite you to bring this important story to your synagogue or shabbes table this weekend.