"Truths our Fathers Told Us" Thursdays – Derekh Eretz

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Today we begin yet another tradition on the Interfaithfullness blog, Truths our Father’s Told Us Thursdays. Too many of us have been taught or assume that the rabbinical establishment and Jewish tradition has little of value to teach us about our service to God in Yeshua’s name. Well, I am here to say, “Think again.”  Our Thursday blogs will be designed to heighten your awareness of and appreciation of what the Jewish world has to teach us. Come consider some Truths Our Fathers Told Us.

Some years ago I had a chance conversation with a sophisticated and successful Christian man, a rightly respected senior citizen.  He was well-off, urbane, and had been interested in the Jewish people for many years. During our conversation. I mentioned that I felt that Jewish ethics is superior to Christian ethics. I went on to explain that every culture has its strong points and its weak points, but that when it comes to interpersonal ethics, I believe the Jewish tradition is the finest there is.

It was as if I had hit him with a 2 x 4. From his reaction, it became suddenly clear to me that this nice, sophisticated and successful executive had never imagined that Jewish religious culture could be better than Christian religious culture in any manner whatsoever. Although he would have denied vigorously that he was expressing a supersessionist reaction, still, he was.  For many people, the unspoken assumption is that Christianity is Judaism come of age. To which I respond, “Not so fast, please.”

There is very much indeed that Christians and Messianic Jews stand to learn from Judaism and Jewish religious culture. For today, our discussion revolves around the Jewish ethical category, “derekh eretz,” which one might term, “common decency,” even though it is not so common. Kevin Pauley reminds us that “derekh eretz literally means ‘the way of the land’ but it implies good conduct or what is considered to be normal, polite behavior within a social setting. In its broadest sense, it means to demonstrate love and honor to our fellow human beings and, in so doing, fulfilling the will of God.” [1]

Pirkei Avot, a brief ethical treatise from the Mishna says it this way: “He who is pleasant to mankind is pleasant in the eyes of God.”

Unknown-2Derekh eretz is what we should expect of ourselves in all arenas of our lives. A talmudic statement, represented in an illustration in this posting, tells us that derekh wretz preceded the giving of the Torah. In other words, we should not have needed the gift of Torah to know that there is a proper way to treat others. That is derekh eretz. In The Jewish Moral Virtues (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999), Eugene Borowitz and Frances Weinman discuss derekh eretz. I have taken nine pointers from that chapter and mingled some comments of my own, while adding a tenth pointer to encourage us all to consider if derekh eretz is something deserving closer attention. See if there is anything here that might interest you.

  • Derech eretz means respecting the social conventions of the community.

The Apostle Paul operated by this rule as well.  A number of his rulings clearly had in mind not disturbing the prevailing social order.  The Talmud says , “This the general rule: a man should not act differently from the practice of his fellow. . . . A man should not deviate from the custom of his companions or from society.”

Norwegian Bible Scholar Risto Santala commented on how Swedish Rabbinical scholar Gottleib Klein viewed Paul’s relationship to derekh eretz categories:

In Palestine in Jesus’ time there were extensive so-called “derekh eretz” instructions or, better still, “derekh kol ha-aretz” instructions, that is, “concerning the whole land.” This “doctrine of the way”, referred to in many New Testament passages, defined the basic instructions of moral conduct. . . .

One midrash says that the “derekh eretz” instructions existed twenty-six generations before Moses. The rabbis emphasized that these precepts, which were accepted early on, gave people the right direction in life. According to scholars, “a modest mind and a humble heart are greater values than all the sacrifices prescribed by the Torah.” Man’s moral qualities maintain this world. The rabbis say that there are “eight things that bring judgment to the world: infringing justice, idolatry, fornication, murder, blasphemy, godless talk, pride and slander.” By contrast, there are “four things that keep the world together: righteousness, justice, truth and peace.” Klein repeats in different ways his basic thesis that “only he who practices love, justice and righteousness knows God and only a moral man can be religious.” The Apostle Paul received, in Klein’s estimation, the main emphases of his missionary work from the Jewish “derekh eretz” doctrines. This is also indicated by Paul’s words: “The whole Law is fulfilled in one commandment: love your neighbour as yourself.” And “he who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the Law”(Gal. 5:14 and Rom. 13:8). [See http://www.ristosantala.com/rsla/Paul/paul11.html].

  • Conduct yourself even better in public than at home.

This is an adaptation of the principle from our childhood that we were expected to be on our best behavior when in public.  It is intrinsic to derekh eretz literature, to what is viewed to be common decency.

  • Always dress appropriately.

This is not simply a matter of putting your best foot forward, or looking sharp: it is also out of regard for others, the core of derech eretz.

  • Don’t be boorish in speaking and eating.

Boorish speech goes beyond coarse speech. It embraces any form of rude speech, such as dominating the discussion or interrupting others.  Derech eretz is a kind of godly decorum.

  • Don’t behave in an elitist and classist manner. This certainly includes not behaving in a sexist manner.

Who can deny how impressive it is when a great person deals with people of lesser power with consideration and kindness? In a recent discussion with a friend who knew the Lubavitcher Rebbe personally, she remarked how he made every individual he met feel important, giving them his full attention when they had brief interviews with him. One always went away from an encounter with him ennobled in one’s sense of self. He manifested derekh eretz in his capacity to treat all people with this kind of courtesy.  And who can deny that people who abuse their “underlings” are inexcusable boors? And who can deny that men who treat women with respect stand out as people of character? All of this is derekh eretz.

  • “At its best, derech eretz serves as an inner disposition that infuses every ordinary human activity with a touch of transcendence” [63].

We must always walk in the awareness that we are made in the image of God, that we live our lives in His presence, and that we were created for moral greatness.  “O Lord, the soul that you created in me is pure. You created it, you formed it, you breathed it into me.”  Therefore, we ought not to live in an ungodly manner.  In addition, every person we meet is a bearer of the Divine Image, however defaced.  Elie Wiesel marveled at how the Crusaders could kill people in the name of God He commented, “Imagine! Killing the image of God in the Name of God!”  This sensibility is at the heart of Jewish ethics.

  • “Judaism knows that animals are included in the sacred realm, and we must live with them in Jewish piety. But people are different. . . because we are the only animals who know we are animals and still have the power to rise above our animality.   This is what makes human bestiality so different from that of a marauding tiger.  We don’t have to act that way.  We could do the good” [63-64].

This too is at the core of Jewish ethical sensibility—the conviction that we have both the responsibility and the ability to choose the right.  This is a by product of our having been fashioned in the image of God. And people who hold themselves accountable to live up to His image, will treat others as God does: with attentiveness and sensitivity. With derekh eretz.  By the way, this is one of the root distinctions between Jewish piety and Christian piety as commonly understood: that man is able and therefore responsible to choose the good, even though it is often a battle to do so.

  • “The rabbis even encourage us to help those who wished to do us harm: ‘After disarming your enemy, and he comes hungry and thirsty, . . . . give him food and drink” [64]. Of course this teaching is also that of Yeshua and of the Emissaries:  See the Sermon on the Mount and Romans 12 for example.

Notice also the characteristic reality-based nature of these ethics: it is only after we have disarmed our enemy that we give him food and drink!

  • “Derech eretz is the virtue of letting that understanding of our specialness refine our routine interactions.  It is the quiet accompaniment to the respectful way we conduct ourselves with family and strangers alike.  It is the hint of God’s image in us that makes us, creatures of dust and ashes, a little lower than the angels” [64].

I would add that this the fact that ethical living is undergirded by our awareness of how considerate God is with humankind, and by the recognition that the person who stands before us, even the smelly and deranged pan-handler, even a radical Muslim terrorist bent on killing as many infidels as he can, bears the image of the Holy One. Therefore, it behooves us to treat them with a certain awe, even if it an awe over how far this person has fallen from his/her created glory.

  • Derekh eretz is sacrificial, laying aside its own rights for the sake of the well-being of others. The Apostle Paul speaks in these terms when he says, for example in Romans 14:     Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. . . . It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.

This emphasis that Paul recognized is explored widely in Jewish sources, and there is so much more that can be said. But let’s just say this. The need to be careful about our derekh eretz is one of the truths our fathers told us.

Perhaps we should listen better.


[1] http://www.pastorpauley.com/sermons2/TheNeedforGoodManners.pdf

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