Derekh Eretz Series part 1 | part 2 | part 3
This post was inspired by this Myrtle Rising post on the Pele Yoetz (she has more about him there, as well.). I commented there, in part: "The first thing I would tell people now is that in doing teshuvah, one must acquire a good heart, if s/he doesn't already have one, *before* acquiring religion (not implying that religion should not be sought at all, just get the heart in the right place first.). Derekh Eretz kadma laTorah...*
Her reply prompted this post and the next one (or 2...).
|A Wikipedia editor found this on King David Street... "proper behavior precedes the Torah"|
Everything in this post includes me, and my gentle readers should also take this message to heart during these difficult times that we live in. Some of it may seem obvious; but today, nothing is obvious. Gray areas abound when it comes to what is termed acceptable. Many already say that black has become the new white, and vice versa. This post should not be taken as the last word on the topic, as much as I would like it to be; consult your Local Orthodox Rabbi for details and sources.
In Israel, we're praying for the society around us — that it should become, and then remain, good for our people to dwell together (based on Tehillim 133:1). That's one main reason why we all need to be decent people, and we need everyone else around us to also be decent.
While I was writing this post, I found a Torah-observant blog that takes decency as its primary mission.
My friend Daisy of Israel Truth Times recently posted a video by R' Gutman Locks, in which the Rav said to the pastor, in essence: Who should you greet, the Prince or his father the King? Of course, the King! It's only derekh eretz...common courtesy or common decency. (It includes more than that, but I don't want to make the article even longer than it already is.)
My dear colleague Devash of Tomer Devorah has been seeking ways to protest the invasion of toevah promoters in the Holy Land so that we may not be at fault for standing by, as people did at the Sin of the Golden Calf.
And Neshama of Going Home...to Yerushalayim reblogged concerning a slap to the face of a little Jewish boy already traumatized by the sniping murder of his big sister. More on that, next post.
So, of late I have been seeing the primary issue of derekh eretz in all these places...and more! I hope I can do some justice to this topic, particularly during these last 9 days leading up to the (delayed, thank G-d) Tisha b'Av fast.
If you think about it, everything that is considered gracious, courteous and considerate — and downright correct — comes from this principle. Giving credit where credit is due, being grateful for everything you're given, taking opportunities to give, not taking credit for someone else's work, not accusing people falsely, and so on. For Jews, even all the commandments we are given are haShem's gift to us, to enable us to complete our mission while here in this world — ultimately uniting the physical and spiritual worlds. All this depends on common courtesy and decency; it (the Hebrew term derekh eretz דרך ארץ in all its meanings, implications and consequences) is the very foundation of all that is good in our world and in all creation.
Who is obligated and appropriate applications
Who is obligated in derekh eretz? Boiling down the sources, at the risk of oversimplification: Essentially, everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, from children of the age of understanding until extreme old age, when any number of diseases and disabilities can occur to prevent its expression. This includes the vast majority of human beings, regardless of age according to maturity level; gender-identification and actual gender; family status; financial status; health status, including many disabilities; and intelligence, both intellectual and emotional.
This is also why children are under their parents' constant supervision until they are able to internalize and reliably produce appropriate behavior — usually before attending school or being allowed to socialize outside their parents' presence; and even then, "the village," including school, serves as an extension of the parents (hence the Latin expression in loco parentis).
Regarding animals and animal rights: Because they are not capable of it on their own, they don't have any obligation to concepts like courtesy and decency, which is why domesticated animals are under human supervision, care and, yes, ownership; and why people are often held legally responsible for their animals' aggression against others outside their home (a guard dog's aggression against a home invader, such as a burglar, is an appropriate use of this behavior, enabled by the animal's instinct.).
It is also derived that even the poorest of the poor are obligated to charity. So, others who may lack in other areas are also obligated to contribute the necessary ingredients for a successful society.
A Word on Exemptions
In fact, any condition which prevents the expression of common courtesy and decency can exempt one from it at any time. Usually, these limitations also prevent people from fully participating in life, making them virtually harmless (but not always...people who are mentally ill and always looking for something to throw around and break in their anger, for example, are in need of external controls. People in this unenviable position must cry out strongly to haShem and dig deep for resources to make the effort to marshal their own self-control, to whatever extent they can, to relieve their personal hell-on-earth. I am not saying this is easy, or making light of it.).
In short: Derekh Eretz is primarily meant to produce good hearts and the resulting peace in order to hold together human society, according to G-d's will. In order for our lives on earth to continue, and to prevent the Creator from destroying His creation and starting all over, we need to bring it back to the forefront of personal and collective behavior. It is the first step to teshuvah, even before taking on religion and observing the commandments; and it underlies every single commandment in the Torah!
At its best, it also protects against chaos and evil. If we don't go by objective standards and norms, such as those of the Torah, we have to give a lot of thought to what kinds of people and behavior should be given the open door of courtesy and acceptance, and which, not. (This seems to be beyond most people because we are decent and kind, and therefore give a lot of leeway to people and practices that end up harming society, not to mention our own families. We are easily convinced, and even coerced, early on to believe that certain forbidden practices should become normative that had previously been hidden (one of the signs I saw when looking for pictures was: "A shred of decency for marriage equality"), and we will see the results over time as these ideas take root and mature; and, we have seen some of these results already. We need to ask ourselves whether we're going in the right direction by encouraging these trends, or by standing by and watching them take effect.
End of Introduction
A word to the LGBTQ+ crowd: You are also obligated to common decency, as above. Parading your cultural and moral norms in places where they are NOT normal at all, and in fact considered the opposite (Yerushalayim being the epitome of such a place, but there are many others as well) is outright aggression, not to mention a violation of common courtesy to a place and people you are visiting. To paraphrase an old saying: When in Yerushalayim, do as normative Yerushalmis do. Do not come here and flaunt in front of us.
Similarly to the feminists, the BDS-ers, the NGOs that are paid with foreign money to keep Israel's hands tied behind her back, and the political-correctness police, whether in Israel or from outside. What business is it of yours to hold Israel's feet to the fire for self-defense and land use issues that would be no problem for people anywhere else? Standards are either standards for everyone, or they are not standards at all (law and custom being expressions of standard, if you will).
If decency means that you respect other people's cultures, laws and history, Jewish and Israeli culture, law and history must also be respected, or it means nothing to anyone and certainly doesn't help nations to be our friend, as many claim in order to give us bad advice.
I hope these words will strengthen the rabbis who are the spiritual mainstay of our people here. I read an excellent suggestion, that they should call their talmidim to the entrances to the city in time to prevent these parades from taking place; but, I don't remember where. It might have been a comment. This is just one of many things that would help reverse this downward trend; the right people must be involved and leadership must be taken.
Here's a personal illustration on the place of derekh eretz: I once took a college acting course, decades ago. I don't remember the name of the book, but I remember one thing from it that applies to this topic. When studying a script, before memorizing the part, the actor is advised to look at the relationships between his/her character and the rest of the characters s/he interacts with, and ask at each scene: Where is the love?
Applied to our topic: Every time Jews study Torah, Talmud and their associated texts and documentation, we must ask at each juncture: Where is the derekh eretz, the common decency, the common courtesy?
It's all hidden in the text and between the lines, like mortar between the bricks of a magnificent building, holding it together.
Which brings me to the question of how to deal with people who expect proper behavior and respect for themselves and their actions without regard for the impact these may have on the world, but refuse to expend effort in kind to specific individuals or groups of people, or who seek to provoke such people. That very difficult topic is next. I cannot promise to solve it all, but we need to give it our best shot.
*Common decency and courtesy, or proper, appropriate behavior, came before Torah: from Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 9:3.