Q. Last week you wrote about the many ethical advantages of worker ownership. What does Jewish tradition tell us about this vehicle?
A. One of the most prominent and consistent themes in Jewish ethics is the importance of freedom and the censure of servitude. This is clear in the narrative of the Torah itself, which is above all the story of the release of the people of Israel from servitude in Egypt. Scores of times the Torah refers to the exodus and makes mention of the fact that God took us out of Egypt and gave us our freedom.
The disapproval of servitude is also evident in the explanations of the commandments. Many commandments are specifically given as a commemoration of the exodus -- so much so that the Sefer Hachinukh, an authoritative Medieval work which includes explanations of the roots of each commandment, devotes a special section elaborating why indeed so many commandments are described as a commemoration of the liberation from Egypt, and why one or a few is not enough. (1)
Finally, the challenge of freedom is evident in the content of the commandments. While the Torah does sanction a limited kind of servitude among Jews, it is severely circumscribed: the Israelite indentured servant is freed after six years of service, at most; if he decides to stay on he has his ear bored as a sign of dishonor; in any case, he is freed in the Jubilee year, when all such slaves are freed and all citizens return to their freehold.
The laws regarding non-Jewish slaves are more lenient, but even these servants are subject to strict ethical principles of humane treatment. (2) Furthermore, the Jews were allowed to own such servants only if they agreed to conversion, which fosters a degree of empathy. (3)
However, the disapproval of slavery is not limited to outright servitude. Hired labor is viewed in Jewish law as a kind of "servitude in miniature". (4) For this reason it is subject to various restrictions to keep it from involving the hateful overbearing authority characteristic of true servitude. One example is that the laborer is always allowed to quit without being subject to sanctions; the reason given in the Talmud is that "The children of Israel are slaves to Me, not slaves to slaves [that is, other human beings]." (5)
The main problem with hired labor is not that the employee is compelled to work; work in itself is honorable. The problem is that one person is master over another. This kind of relationship is not forbidden; normal employment relationships are certainly permitted. Even so, to some degree these relationships run counter to the consciousness that all are equal before our Creator, and as a result they are regulated.
However, when two individuals are in business and work for each other, these restrictions do not apply. Each partner is simultaneously employer and employee, and neither is subordinate to the other. (6) Even though each is formally obligated to the business, the problem of subordination is mitigated.
I think that this teaches us that worker ownership is a partial solution to the problem of workplace inequality. When the employee is also an owner and has a say, even a partial one, in the running of the business, then the boss's superior position is in itself subject to the sufferance of the worker. In the formal chain of command one may be superior, but in the essence of the business there is a measure of equality.
SOURCES: (1) Sefer Hachinukh 16. (2) Maimonides Mishneh Torah Avadim 9:8. (3) Maimonides Mishneh Torah Milah 1:6. (4) Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 227:33. (5) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 10a. (6) Bava Metzia 105a, Sema commentary on Choshen Mishpat 97:58.
The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.