Proper behavior precedes the Torah (In Hebrew דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה) is a Jewish saying based on a passage from the Chazal found in the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 9:3).
One of the important interpretations of which is that before one can learn and put into practice the mitzvot (G-d’s instructions to us) of the Torah, he or she must pave the path with Proper Behavior (in Hebrew Derech Eretz)
The text in Leviticus Rabbah (known in Hebrew as Vayikra Rabbah) comes to show that in human history, proper behavior preceded the Torah, as written:
For twenty-six generations, Derech Eretz (appropriate behavior) preceded the Torah.
The Torah was not given during the earliest years of humanity because it was first necessary to have proper preparation in terms of values. This leads to the conclusion that advances in Torah knowledge must never weaken natural morality.
In this view, the Torah was given with a background of the moral development that preceded it, with the goal of lifting mankind up to a higher moral level. It comes to say, in a way, that a lack to reach the level for which the Torah is aiming is not a moral lack –all the nations of the world are required to be ethical, even though they are not required according to Jewish tradition to observe the mitzvot.
In Pirkei Avot (3:17) the sages declared, “If there is no Derech Eretz there is no Torah, and if there is no Torah there is no Derech Eretz.” That is, proper moral behavior must precede the Torah, but after the Torah has been revealed based on the prior existence of proper behavior, a new and higher-level moral code is derived from the Torah.
Some explain that the Torah itself does not immediately present all of the mitzvot and their details, since the Book of Bereshit deals almost exclusively with the ethical behavior of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov without explicitly mentioning mitzvot. This may teach us that proper character traits, especially those related to relationships between people, takes precedence over the religious mandates of the Torah.
Another interpretation is that the Torah devotes its entire first book to stories of the forefathers and foremothers, to be used as models for decent behavior, and after having absorbed those, one is ready to go on to the laws and precepts of Jewish life.
The lives of the forefathers and foremothers are the examples after which people must pattern their lives in order to become suitable vessels for receiving and internalizing the Torah, meaning decent behavior, good personality traits, and suchlike.
The Torah was not given to the nation of Israel in order to be a substitute for human morality.
Human morality should exist within a person of Israel just as it can be found in the heart of each and every person, and the unique spiritual level of the Torah lies on top of this
.A person with weak moral strength who encounters the commands of the Torah is liable to reach a status of even greater moral depravity, because within every command he will search for the permitted ways to fulfill his own lowly aspirations (and the powerful emotions of holiness will provide an even stronger “motivation” for his actions).
For example, if a person does not have a natural understanding of the moral depravity involved in spreading slander about another person and all of his social interactions will be based merely on the limits of halacha, he will be able to spend all of his days spreading slander in permitted ways – without any feeling of how his soul is harmed by his own actions.
This is what the Rambam ruled: “Torah should only be taught to a student who is decent in his actions or to a simple person. But if a person is on an evil path he must be returned to a proper path and tested. Only afterwards should he be brought into the House of Study and taught.” (Laws of Torah Study, 4,1).
The Torah did not require a person to observe the commandments for the first thirteen years of his life in order to allow him to first build up his moral character. intended to lead directly to moral and ethical behavior?
There is a religious temptation to decide that by observing the commandments a person fulfills his moral obligations.
This is very dangerous because it might cause a religious person to ignore some of the most basic factors of his personality. Rabeinu Saadia Gaon (one of the “geniuses” of Babylonia, the head of the yeshiva of Sura, 882-942) writes in his book “Faith and Knowledge” (Chapter 3, 8) that a man once said to him: If a prophet would command us to do something that contradicts the intellect or ethics we would be required to listen to him, since the moment that G-d gave a command, the act became true and moral.
Rabeinu Saadia disagreed, and he claimed that a man who commanded others to perform acts that are illogical could never be considered a prophet, and therefore we would not listen to what he said. The man replied that truth and morality are established only according to the commands of G-d and that no human being can interfere, and he concluded that we would be required to listen to the prophet. Rabeinu Saadia wrote that at that moment he stopped talking to this man.
There are periods of time when those who observe the Torah might be lacking in specific traits of proper behavior, such as love for fellow men or the desire to mend society. This leads to moral criticism of the people, and this can quickly be transformed into criticism of the Torah itself.
The truth is that the word of G-d will never be revealed to mankind without a prior moral introduction, because an immoral person is neither worthy of nor ready for the holy words. It is therefore wrong to view the word of G-d that comes through revelation as “true morality” and to ignore everything else on which it depends.
In view of the above, the Torah was given with a background of the moral development that preceded it, with the goal of lifting mankind up to a higher moral level. The Torah is the word of G-d, who turns toward mankind, and mankind must listen to this word after having perfected Derech Eretz – proper behavior – which lifts man up towards G-d. A lack to reach the level for which the Torah is aiming is not a moral lack – the nations of the world are required to be ethical, even though they are not required according to Jewish tradition to observe the mitzvot.