Possible but not permissible
Back to basics series
Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer
While escorting a visiting Talmud scholar around a Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles, the local rabbi noted that his guest suddenly slowed to a snail’s pace, finally suggesting that they cross the street.
The rabbi deduced that these actions were to avoid embarrassing the elderly man shuffling just ahead, by passing him in a rush.
Xavier University Education Prof. Hilda Rothschild never wavered from her weekday morning routine. Standing at the doorway to her lab school classroom, she would greet each preschooler by name and, with a handshake, add a personal comment or two.
Bald from chemotherapy, 8-year old Nathan was bullied by other students. Not wanting others to make fun of Nathan or feel sorry for him, his classmate Aviva cut her waist-length hair for a hairpiece for him until his own hair could grow back.
Each of these vignettes illustrates the Jewish virtue of derech eretz, literally “the way of the land” or more loosely, “the way the world works.” It has the sense of “what people tend to do or what people ought to do.”
Derech eretz is unique among Jewish virtues: while its focus is on how we relate to others and to society, it is not explicitly commanded in the Torah. Jerusalem-based scholar Rabbi Peretz Rodman writes, “Some behavior must be legislated in order for society to function. We need to have tax regulations, traffic rules, bankruptcy laws, and trial procedures. But then there are things that should not need to be the subject of bylaws, statutes, or house rules…”
This is the area of derech eretz.
“It is possible to be disgusting with permission of the Torah,” Nachmanides points out. One can be a glutton who eats only kosher food, a drunkard who drinks only kosher wine, a person who uses vulgar language but never gossips, a donor of only worn-out and broken items to charity.
While not directly prohibited, such behavior is not in keeping with the essence of Torah. In fact, we learn in the Talmud that derech eretz is the path to Torah, and without it there is no Torah. To live a life that is truly distinguished and uplifted, one must go beyond just following the instructions.
Hundreds of references to derech eretz in Talmudic literature highlight six distinct categories of behavior.
Social etiquette. This is the most common understanding of derech eretz. But beyond basic manners, derech eretz is also about returning grocery carts and parking within painted lanes. “Jewish time” is out, prompt R.S.V.P.s are in.
Don’t be angry at mealtimes, eat standing, lick your fingers, or belch in the presence of another. Don’t speak to someone before you have their attention. Don’t indulge in obscene language. Don’t enter another’s home without an invitation.
Ethical interactions. Do unto others: be gentle, patient, respectful, and empathetic. Maintain a pleasant demeanor, even toward phone solicitors. Don’t rush children or the elderly. Don’t cut in line or cut off drivers. Don’t mislead sellers, asking for prices if you don’t intend to buy at their stores. Eliminate phones and iPads at the table and ignore them during conversation. Give others the benefit of the doubt. Acknowledge those who serve or support you — tip hidden servers, such as maids and garbage collectors.
Intimate relations. Relationships don’t convey unlimited license. Be sensitive and responsive to each other without coercion, criticism, punishment, or abuse. Dating requires similar mutual respect. Rejection should be gentle, trying not to wound the other’s confidence or character.
Environmental consciousness. Genesis tasks humans with caring for Eden: “cultivate it and guard it.” Should we do less in the world? Take only pictures, leave only footprints. Plant. Recycle. Use natural resources sparingly. Do not waste unnecessarily.
Earning a living. Rashi explains that honest work and Torah study are complementary tasks: while both are obligatory, neither alone is sufficient. Study informs work ethics, work prevents laziness and dependency. Derech eretz provides some practical details. Work to support yourself and your family financially. Spend only what you can afford. Don’t accustom children to indulgences. Don’t put all your money in one place.
Contributing to society. Like a club or a synagogue, a healthy society depends on its members’ involvement. Derech eretz embodies the idea that it’s not enough to learn and work for oneself or one’s family. Learning and working are part of participating in the larger community, to perpetuate a virtuous and economically stable society. Contribute. Volunteer. Vote. Smile.
The Torah alone cannot guarantee virtuous societies or honorable individuals. Without derech eretz — the spiritual generosity and common decency that defines the mensch (humane person) — it is possible to be religious but disgusting. In the Jewish view, it’s possible, but ultimately not permissible.
Literature to share
The Queen Who Saved Her People by Tilda Balsley. True to the biblical story, this clever rhyming retelling of the Purim story for elementary ages is delightful for children and adults alike. Color-coded dialogue corresponds to each of the characters. It begs for beginning readers to join the storytelling, parents to read in different voices, and everyone to put on a readers theatre Purim shpiel.
Values and Ethics through a Jewish Lens: Talking Points for Family Discussion by Fred and Joyce Claar. If you’re interested in a one-stop shop for exploring Jewish values and ethics, this slim volume is for you. Each of its 150-plus single-page discussion guides focuses on a single theme. Indexing according to the Jewish calendar (weekly Torah portions and holidays) and by themes (such as anger, courage, problem-solving) makes it easy to use. With content that is appropriate for all ages and myriad settings, this resource is highly recommended for parents, formal and informal educators, and community leaders alike.