Derech Eretz for Our Time

T’isha B’Av is an anniversary of such overwhelming suffering that we require weeks of preparation. On this one day in the Jewish calendar we remember the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, the end of Bar Kochba’s revolt, the beginning of the First Crusade, in which 10,000 Jews were killed, the expulsion of Jews from England, France and Spain all happened on this day, World War I began, Himmler received approval for the “final Solution’ in 1941 and in 1994 the AMIA bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.

Every year we gather to study, mourn, read the Book of Lamentations and fast. But the Sages do not want to us to consider historical explanations, but rather to look at our own behavior, most significantly Sinat Chinam, ‘baseless hatred’ among the Israelites and Jews of those times. There are many rabbinic illustrations of this behavior that permit comparisons with our time.

I suggest that we spend time considering what the rabbis would have wanted as the positive behavior that could have been the community’s source of salvation, Derech Eretz, usually translated as civility and civic virtue. The value of this small idiom is so great that Rabbi Yishma’el, son of Rabbi Nachmani, said, “Derech Eretz preceded the Torah by twenty-six generations, as it is written: ‘To guard the way to the Tree of Life’ (Genesis 3;24) – ‘the way’ refers to derech eretz, followed by ‘the Tree of Life’, which is the Torah.” (Vayikra Raba 9;3)

Derech Eretz – the way of the world – was a necessary platform and foundation for the giving of the Torah. The unique teaching of the Midrash is that Derech Eretz and Torah are essentially connected and part of the same value system. This is the teaching of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, for whom Derech eretz includes dealing in a respectful and decent manner with fellow human beings, with appropriate etiquette, ethics and manners, living a healthy natural family life in order to perpetuate the human species and our families, ever-mindful of the impact of our actions on the environment around us, earning an honest living thereby proactively contributing to both our wellbeing and to the society at large.
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Indeed, Rav Eliyahu Dessler suggests that the obligation to act with respect toward another person derives from that other’s very humanity: The root of this obligation lies in our obligation toward a human being by virtue of his being a human being. This is the fundamental ethical imperative of Emmanuel Levinas, for whom just seeing the face of another is enough to command us to engage.

Imagine the rabbinic struggle with the human failures for which both Temples were destroyed. The sages found the strongest repudiation of Derech Eretz in sinat chinam, from civility to baseless hatred. I urge us now to add and strengthen Derech Eeretz, in our personal and communal lives.

Edward Shils, scholar who taught at the University of Chicago, wrote The Virtue of Civility. He was a political philosopher and social thinker whose insights into human behavior continue to offer us significant lessons. He unknowingly applies the rabbinic idiom, Derech Eretz, to 20th century political philosophy:

o Civility is therefore a concern to reconcile—not abolish—divergent interests.

o No individual can live without a measure of collective self-consciousness. No society could exist without it.

o Civility rests, at bottom on the collective self-consciousness of civil society.

o Civility is the conduct of a person whose individual self-consciousness had been partly suspended by his collective self-consciousness.

o Civil politics are based on civility of the man who shares responsibly in his own self-government.

o Civil politics depend on an acceptance of the limitations of human powers.

Shils describes basic human ethical engagement as an individual engaged with their community, civility requires a conscious balance between the individual and society. This TOO is how we would teach the value of Derech Eretz over Sinhat Chinam, a baseless hatred in which only the individual not the community matters.

Unfortunately for all of us at this time, both the Rabbinic Sages and Edward Shils’ insights describe communities and political realities that are not our reality. There is global division, distrust even as we all struggle with both the COVID-19 pandemic and a very serious economic crisis. After months of being in quarantine, we now must worry that when we are outside, we will not encounter another person without a mask! The science of public health is obvious even if political leaders fail to mandate or even model the necessity of wearing masks. It truly is a case of Derech Eretz, common and necessary CIVILITY, we all share the burden and responsibility of the whole community’s health.

Maybe our times require a new understanding of Sinat Chinam, hatred through denial! That those who deny the science, who deny the communal necessity of shared public health, these are the same people whose behavior provoked the Sages to teach that it was Sinat Chinam that destroyed the Holy Temple. We must respond to their denial of reality, their hatred of the communal responsibilities required during this pandemic.

We are also living at a time when our civil governments are being challenged over their failure to protect the those in our midst who are vulnerable to racism, sexual harassment, the poor and those with special needs. There have been protests all over the world challenging these policies of indifference, acts of Sinat Chiman, hatred fueled by apathy and denying the most basic human rights of all humans.

When there is baseless hatred of the weakest, hatred permitted behind the shields of populism or gender or simply the cruelty of power. But is Derech Eretz, civility, going to be our solution? Shaul Magid, noted Jewish thinker explains that at times like now, we are required to challenge those who hate through denial and apathy, who are behaving with an unacceptable INCIVILITY.

Magid reminds us that the Sages modeled vigorous opposition in their ‘arguments for the sake of heaven’, and that it is exactly at times like ours when our willingness to be uncivil, is to refuse to allow those in power to silence anyone with their demands to be civil! In the face of the hatred we face today, Shaul Magid challenges us all: “I would advocate a robust adversarial response to this moment that may not always be civil. The trick is to occupy the space between an ‘argument for the sake of heaven’ and ‘baseless hatred’. Civility can be used as a manipulative tool of the powerful. Let us not succumb to its promise of neutrality. Our present moment is too fragile for that.”

We must now prepare ourselves to respond to the Sinhat Chinam of our time, hatred that is baseless because it feeds on indifference, silence and fear. We cannot depend upon the Derech Eretz that preceded the Torah by 26 generations. Rather, today we must respond with the risks of INCIVILITY, anchored in the prophetic courage of Moshe, Miriam, Amos, and Jeremiah. If we truly want Derech Eretz, civility to overcome Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred, then we cannot be neutral. Tish b’Av is a day of mourning for a past we cannot even imagine, so let us pledge to each other, that our future will be Shared and founded on a Civility to strengthens our community!

About the Author
Joseph has linked his congregational rabbinate and academic careers with interfaith relations, contemporary philosophy, and serving Jews who are sometimes ignored. He is retired in Rio de Janeiro where he teaches, writes and volunteers his rabbinic time in communities without rabbis. He has written "What Am I Missing? Questions About Being Human"
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