What’s Torah without Derech Eretz?

יָפֶה תַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה עִם דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ

The study of Torah is [more] beautiful together with courtesy [treating others well].

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 2:2

I believe that living meaningfully means, among other things, engaging in relationships. This is something that every human has the capacity for, though each of us engages differently and we all derive meaning in unique ways. Every human society has norms for right behavior in relationships, and has mechanisms for enforcing those norms and consequences for infractions.

Sometimes, inherent inequality or power differentials in relationships create situations in which relationships become unhealthy or unsafe. It is not uncommon for men to seek this kind of power over one another or over women, as, from an evolutionary perspective, it can lead to increased reproductive opportunities. I’m not saying that’s OK…but I am saying that there may be some portion of this particular problem with biological roots.

So how do egalitarian, moral societies deal with this tendency? In a thousand different ways, each of which is finely tuned to work for that group, in that time, ecosystem, and social structure. One of the wonderful things about Judaism is that it has created both a foundational structure as well as mechanisms for adapting that structure to new situations and norms. Different streams within Judaism adapt at different paces, but all of them look to the Torah as the source of divine wisdom.

When we study Torah, we often engage in it with our heads, and indeed the Rabbinic version of Judaism that we are familiar with today is one of intellectual arguments that rival any legal tradition in existence. At its best, however, Judaism teaches us that engaging with our hands and hearts is the ultimate goal — relationships are not built on intellect, but on feelings and actions as well. That is what the quote above reminds me. Torah study for its own sake is lacking the critical ingredient that makes it truly worthwhile in the first place. It is meant to guide us towards right actions with other people and toward a society based in ethics that provide health and safety for the weakest and most vulnerable, not just for those who seek power over others.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,