A heritage of civility

Our Dual Heritage Series

Jewish Family Education with Candace R. Kwiatek

The Dayton Jewish Observer

Whatever happened to fair dealing?
And pure ethics
And nice manners?
Why is it everyone now is a pain in the ass?
Whatever happened to class?
— Chicago, the musical

When I was growing up, please and thank you were commonplace, along with other rules of civility.

Don’t be crude, rude, or profane. Watch your temper. Mind your manners. Speak politely and thoughtfully. Don’t rush to judgment. Show respect. Care for others’ property at least as well as your own. Dress appropriately for the occasion. Pick up after yourself. Be kind. Wear a pleasant face. Don’t make the private public.

Such behavior was expected because it demonstrated respect for people and society.

Today, the media is filled with salacious gossip, intimate personal details, and crudity. Modes of dress range from pajamas in university classes to picnic attire at formal weddings.

Name-calling and humiliation have been elevated from the playground to the political arena. Speech has become careless, tactless, and frequently profane. Smartphone conversations invade airplanes, restaurants, and checkout counters.

People flash “the finger” while driving and accost political opponents in restaurants, on streets, and at their homes.

According to findings of the annual Civility in America poll, 93 percent of Americans view the disintegration of civility — described by UPenn’s president Judith Rodin as a “nuclear explosion of incivility,” — as a problem.

Today’s concerns about civility echo those of Chicago’s early 20th century Jazz Age and of earlier eras as well. Puritan John Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony, guided by his impassioned shipboard sermon on civil behavior, became the “epitome of a tight-knit society that made civility a precondition to daily survival,” notes historian David Abshire, although it often fell short of the ideal.

During the pre-Revolutionary era, “…colonists were meeting in taverns and trying to hash out how they thought their ‘civil society’…should work,” writes historian Vaughn Scribner, “but were growing increasingly dismayed at how it actually did work.”

According to social historian John Kasson, new notions of gentility became the civilizing agents of the growing American middle class and immigrant populations over the next centuries, notwithstanding some glaring failures: Jim Crow laws, sports riots, campus shout-downs.

A prominent voice on contemporary cultural issues, John Garvey concludes, “The history of civility in (America) is best described as one of hills and valleys across the decades, rather than one of sharp decline in our own generation.”

I’m not sure I agree. While the expectation of civility has been a constant, it seems we’re continually lowering its bar.

What does the Bible have to say? Of course there are laws of civil behavior: returning a lost object, helping an enemy lift a fallen animal, putting fences around dangerous places.

“Some behavior must be legislated in order for society to function,” writes Rabbi Peretz Rodman, but civilized behavior shouldn’t always need laws.

Eliezer and Rebekah at the Well by Gustave Dore

No laws instruct Abraham to greet the three strangers approaching his tent, or remind Rebekah to water the camels of Abraham’s servant, or tell the jailed Joseph to respond kindly to the butler and baker.

No laws guide Pharaoh’s daughter to rescue the endangered baby Moses or push Jethro to offer Moses caring leadership advice.

In each story, only human decency prompts the interaction.

In the Talmud, civility, or derech eretz, is simply “the way of the land,” as in good manners, greeting others before they greet us, and inviting elders to dine first.

Other examples include “speaking calmly and gently to people, eating sitting down like a human being… dressing in clothes that are clean and presentable…and generally behaving like a mensch,” writes Rabbi Julian Sinclair.

Both Bible and Talmud suggest derech eretz is elemental to the human condition and precedes the influence of Torah in forming human personality.

Rabbi Eliyahu Safran offers the additional perspective that, without human decency, without menschlichkeit, even the best technical performance of the mitzvot (commandments) falls flat.

Therefore Jewish tradition teaches, “Derech eretz comes before Torah.”

Talmudic debates among the sages illustrate civility in action. For starters, Rabbi Amy Katz points out conversations “only with like-minded people… never (challenge us) to reexamine our ideas.”

During debates, the sages would listen respectfully, then “state the positions of their opponents before their own, and they would do so fairly,” notes the Accidental Talmudist, Salvador Litvak.

Whenever a scholar reported an unacceptable opinion, he wasn’t silenced or asked to retract it, nor was he personally rejected or regarded as arrogant.

Furthermore, both majority and minority opinions were recorded. A Talmudic story in which a heavenly voice declares that both Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai reflect God’s will establishes the principle that different opinions can be equally valid. “(This) became the foundation upon which Jews hold themselves responsible for respectful dialogue and debate,” writes Rabbi Laura Winer.

“We have to acknowledge the sincerity of each other’s opinions, the intelligence by which each comes to those opinions,…(and) the humanity of those with whom we engage in dialogue (even though) we may not agree.”

The most well-known Talmudic illustration of derech eretz is the tale of a young man who wants to learn the Torah on one foot. The sage Hillel thoughtfully responds, “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” This is derech eretz — civility — at its essence. Perhaps we’re due for a civility reboot.


Literature to share

Artisans of Israel: Transcending Tradition by Lynn Holstein. This hefty coffee table book showcases the unique works and diverse backgrounds of 40 Israeli artists and craftspersons using materials and techniques in new and unexpected ways. Embroidered ceramics by Bedouin Zenab Garbia. World-renowned luxury watches by Itay Noy. Silver filigree jewelry and ritual items by Yemenite immigrant Ben Zion David. Nature-inspired wood inlay by arabesque artist Muhamed Said Kalash. Portraits and photos of the lives and designs of these artisans draw the reader immediately into the text, which uses stories to explore modern Israel’s history and themes of migration, identity, empowerment, and spirituality. Not just for art lovers, this volume is beautiful and engaging.

On One Foot by Linda Glaser. This picture book is a delightful retelling of the Talmudic story about a young man who wants to learn the Torah while standing on one foot. Glaser explains Rabbi Hillel’s wisdom, “Do not do unto others…,” through a cleverly expanded storyline and whimsical mixed media images. A delightful story all around.

To read the complete December 2019 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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