Can Derech Eretz Precede Torah?

Response Article To "The Charedi Aliyah Opportunity"

A comparative analysis between Israeli and American Charedi society indicates a prominent difference in Derech Eretz. But while many wish to simply inject Derech Eretz into Israel, the reason underlying the disparity relates to a fundamentally different state of mind. We need to think twice before importing American Derech Eretz to Israel.

Elul 5781, August 2021

In my youth, I studied at Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. The yeshiva, which attracted thousands of students from far and wide, from Israel and abroad, was unofficially divided into two sections: the main study hall, predominantly for students from abroad, and, separately, a yeshiva for Israelis. Naturally, members of these almost distinct institutions did not meet up on a daily basis, but on Shabbos, all students staying in the yeshiva would gather around long tables at the same dining room for joint meals.

On one such occasion, I noted an interesting difference between the Israeli table and that of the chutznikim. The allocation of the food at the tables was such that the kitchen worker would cross the aisle between the long tables with a trolley upon which were placed trays of food, placing several trays at the head of each table as he went. At the Israeli tables, the person nearest the aisle would lift one of the trays, take portions for himself and for his friends, and then pass down additional trays to the students further away. At the chutznik tables, by contrast, the student in question would first pass down the additional trays and only then would take portions for himself and for his friends.

The difference between Israelis and chutznikim in matters of food allocation is not directly related to matters of ideology and mindset vis-a-vis engagement in worldly life, as Rabbi Pfeffer mapped out in his article. Rather, they are simply due to different applications of what we know as Derech Eretz

The difference between Israelis and chutznikim in matters of food allocation is not directly related to matters of ideology and mindset vis-a-vis engagement in worldly life, as Rabbi Pfeffer mapped out in his article. Rather, they are simply due to different applications of what we know as Derech Eretz. Chutznikim are educated to uphold the ideal of Derech Eretz, and Israelis, to put it mildly, somewhat less. One of the most common complaints of my non-Israeli friends in yeshiva related to the Israeli custom of shoving each other around. “Why is everybody pushing,” they would ask as they entered the nearby Shtibel for Shacharis or waited in line at the pizza store. Israeli Charedi, they concluded, do not have Derech Eretz.

The disparity between Israelis and Chutznikim in matters of Derech Eretz is an unfortunate reality that I wish to discuss in this article, asking the question: Can and should we in Israel learn from the Derech Eretz of our Chutznik parallels? Before doing so, however, I wish to add an important qualification.

 

Family and the Private Space

In Western society, and in particular American culture, the private space is hallowed. Israeli familiarity, by which a person will often call his friend by the congenial “brother” (ahi), stands in stark contrast to the social intuitions of the American social fabric. While Chutznik society thus emphasizes the distance inherent to “proper conduct”—standing politely in line, respecting the other’s private space, refraining from questions about salaries and voting preference—Israeli society, certainly in its Charedi variant, reflects a certain familial brotherhood in which partitions between members are softer and less rigid. As with all families, there is also a struggle for the distribution of scarce resources. When the family is large and overcrowded, some (the weaker) will lose out, but since it’s a family others (the stronger) will probably look out for them.

When guests are invited, intra-family competition and its attendant emotional outbursts are hidden away, but with them comes the depth of family relations, which is also concealed from others. Only after the guests are gone does the dynamic return to its close and spirited nature, reflecting the full scope of family connections that transcend the polite mannerisms of the public space

The results are not always visually pleasing. The race to grab available resources, the fight for available space, and the occasional result of the weak being pushed aside are family phenomena that we usually prefer to keep away from the public eye. When guests are invited, intra-family competition and its attendant emotional outbursts are hidden away, but with them comes the depth of family relations, which is also concealed from others. Only after the guests are gone does the dynamic return to its close and spirited nature, reflecting the full scope of family connections that transcend the polite mannerisms of the public space. The spontaneity of family brotherhood cannot go hand in hand with the polite order of public etiquette.

Formality breeds distance, pleasantness that is both necessary and artificial, while closeness is reserved for the informal that escapes the rules of the public square. Here we are able to shed our uniform and behave with each other with the intimacy of our true selves. This does not belittle, of course, the importance of the superficial order that reigns supreme on the street, at the workplace, and in other public settings. It is essential for our everyday function, yet it needs to be complemented by familial and friendly settings that allow us to experience true and deep human connections.

Returning to the anecdote mentioned at the outset (food distribution at Mir Yeshiva), there is certainly something pleasant and convenient about being on the Chutznik table, but is this what I really want? Is this friendship or formality, and does the familial closeness of the Israeli table, a framework in which I am free to be myself, perhaps compensate for the downsides?

I am reminded of another anecdote that occurred to me just last week. Upon alighting a bus travelling from Jerusalem to Beit Shemesh, I noticed several women alighting the bus behind me, clearly not members of a Charedi community. The bus, which passes through several Charedi areas in Beit Shemesh, was almost full, and the only vacant seat I found was next to a Chassidic individual, who had cluttered the vacant seat with personal artefacts: his hat, a bag, and a couple of books. The person in question noticed the ladies behind me, and said loudly—ostensibly, to me—that this bus is the 418 and not the 419, meaning that it reaches Charedi destinations alone; the non-Charedi women might be on the wrong bus. “Considerate,” I thought to myself—he felt uneasy to address the women themselves but ensured they got the message by directing it (loudly) to me.

As I stood looking for a seat, the same person beckoned and asked if I wanted to sit. I answered that I did, but rather than simply clearing the seat, he picked up his hat and offered it without even looking at me. As I stood there, confused, he pointed up at the racks above his head. “Not so considerate,” I reflected—he simply gave me his hat, as though I would know what to do with it, and then, without speaking or apologizing, pointed at the rack where I was to place his hat. But after sitting down—he kindly gathered the rest of his stuff onto his lap—I reconsidered. To an “outsider,” the man’s behaviour was uncouth and impolite. But the truth is that he simply spoke his own language, replete with its own social codes. He wasn’t being impolite, per se; he was just being himself.

The man on the bus […] was good-intentioned, but his actions were crass and unrefined, to the degree that they could cause discomfort for anybody unfamiliar with his insider codes. It is clear to me that he was a good-hearted person, but Derech Eretz, as commonly understood, was beyond his horizons

After this long qualification, allow me to return to a more critical tone: familial warmth is good and fine, but nobody wants to be shoved around in a line. The Derech Eretz under discussion is not only a matter of respecting the other’s personal space but also of simple consideration for the common good. The man on the bus, for instance, was good-intentioned, but his actions were crass and unrefined, to the degree that they could cause discomfort for anybody unfamiliar with his insider codes. It is clear to me that he was a good-hearted person, but Derech Eretz, as commonly understood, was outside his horizons.

 

What is “Normal”? 

What is the underlying cause of the Derech Eretz discrepancy between Israelis and Chutznikim? One possible explanation is the relative affluence of American society versus the relative poverty of Israel generally, and Charedi Israeli specifically. Chutznikim are used to a situation in which there is enough for everyone, without a need to grab the first portion that comes your way or push somebody aside to reach the object of desire. A person can allow himself to be generous, patient and tolerant in an environment of plenty, in which others also behave similarly. You can smile at fellow drivers even when their presence on the street holds you up.

By speaking about “normality” Chutznikim refer to a balanced approach to worldly life, as though to say: “Living in this world is something normal.” This can include a positive approach to sport, polite behaviour, deference to “common sense,” a respectful approach to the opposite sex, and a generally positive and considerate attitude toward everything related to our everyday lives

However, I believe this explanation to be insufficient. As Rabbi Pfeffer mentioned in his article, one of the basic properties of Charedi society outside of Israel is a connection to the earthly reality of the world (“worldliness,” as he terms it), respect for areas of life strictly outside the Beis Midrash and appreciation of a good and dignified life. For want of a better expression, I will employ the word that Chutznikim themselves enjoy using: “normality.” By speaking about “normality” (or saying that Israelis are “crazy”) Chutznikim refer to a balanced approach to worldly life, as though to say: “Living in this world is something normal.” This can include a positive approach to sport, polite behaviour, deference to “common sense,” a respectful approach to the opposite sex, and a generally positive and considerate attitude toward everything related to our everyday lives. In a nutshell: Derech Eretz. Chutznikim have a deeper respect for Derech Eretz, and this respect is expressed not only in the orderly distribution of food in Yeshiva but even in the attitude toward life’s basic ways and needs.

But this same “normalcy” comes with a price tag that renders it “abnormal” to Israelis. In Israeli Charedi society, it is absolutely “normal” to live one’s entire life immersed in Torah study, without even once turning to reflect on the question “what will I do when I’m big?”. In this version of Charedi life, it is normal to raise a family of eight children with a single salary of a woman working a low-level job and a Kollel stipend that can barely purchase a week’s groceries. This Israeli “normality” breeds a certain state of mind. Among other things, some of its positive outcomes are a deep connection to the Torah and to spiritual life, which often surpasses that of Chutznikim. In Israeli Charedi society, a fourteen-year-old boy is a greater lamdan (knows how to navigate the intricacies of Talmudic study), more knowledgable, and better equipped to learn for long periods of time than his American counterpart.

For the Chutznik “normality” is Derech Eretz, while for Israel “normality” is separation from Derech Eretz and an intense clinging to Torah.

 

Which Comes First: Torah or Derech Eretz?

Notwithstanding the initial gap, most Yeshiva graduates know that after a few years, Chutznikim are able to catch up and even surpass the Torah level of their Israeli counterparts. Moreover, my very informal comparative research while studying at Mir Yeshiva indicates that if Israeli twenty-four-year-olds are often weary and jaded of their Yeshiva experience, Chutznikim often remain vibrant and energetic—a vibrancy extending even into the Kollel years. Why is this so? Why are Chutznikim better equipped to retain their motivation and zeal, while for Israelis this is often not the case?

I believe this difference draws from the fact that Torah life—a life of immersion in Torah and pursuits of the spirit—are “abnormal” among Chutznikim; they have to choose Torah study, and are not simply born into it. For them, life outside of the Beis Midrash is “normal” while living within it is anything but, raising its stature to an elevated and exalted way of life rather than a simple default. A person who chooses the Torah lifestyle is considered outstanding, a separate category that deserves appreciation and admiration. It is no wonder that among Chutznikim there is often greater respect for rabbis and Torah scholars, which is sometimes hard to find here in Israel.

Derech Eretz is the default, the basic, normal life, while Torah is a great addition, a choice that elevated life beyond its everyday normality. The fact that Derech Eretz precedes Torah does not make it more important, but only more basic. On the contrary, the normality of Derech Eretz turns the Torah into something exceptional and extraordinary

This point can be summed up by the Talmudic expression “Derech Eretz precedes Torah”—it precedes Torah, but it is not more important than Torah. Derech Eretz is the default, the basic, normal life, while Torah is a great addition, a choice that elevated life beyond its everyday normality. The fact that Derech Eretz precedes Torah does not make it more important, but only more basic. On the contrary, the normality of Derech Eretz turns the Torah into something exceptional and extraordinary. For Israelis, by contrast, the Torah precedes Derech Eretz, pushing it well outsides the horizons of everyday life.

 

Can We Import from Chutz La’Aretz?

The analysis above brings me to the main point of Rabbi Pfeffer’s article. Rabbi Pfeffer raises two basic questions: Can we import the Charedi model prevalent outside of Israel, and should we try to do so? Concerning the second question, perhaps the foregoing analysis indicates a positive answer. Chazal teach that we need to precede Derech Eretz to Torah, and the disparity between Israeli Charedi society and its Chutznik counterpart explains why. Preceding Torah to Derech Eretz runs the risk of losing not only Derech Eretz but even the Torah itself: “All Torah that is not combined with melacha (work) is ultimately nullified and causes sinfulness.” But the main question is not whether this is desirable, but whether or not it is possible. Here, I think, the answer is far from simple.

Rather than precede Torah with Derech Eretz, this superficial emulation replaces Torah with Derech Eretz. The choice to be “abnormal” (in Israeli terms) gives Derech Eretz the extraordinary status that rightfully belongs to Torah, while Torah becomes the humdrum occupation that everybody does.

It might be possible to imitate the superficial features of Charedi society outside of Israel. These entail learning a respectable trade, studying and respecting “the ways of the world,” raising the standards of living, and so on. Doing so, however, is likely to fail, and we need look no further than many Charedim who choose to leave the study hall for a life of Derech Eretz. Unfortunately, their embrace of the Chutz La’aretz model might succeed in raising standards of living, but it often fails in maintaining a high level of engagement with Torah and the respect for Torah and for Torah scholars. Both, I am sad to say, are often severely compromised. Rather than precede Torah with Derech Eretz, this superficial emulation replaces Torah with Derech Eretz. The choice to be “abnormal” (in Israeli terms) gives Derech Eretz the extraordinary status that rightfully belongs to Torah, while Torah becomes the humdrum occupation that everybody does.

The alternative option is to import the value system and educational model that equates between Derech Eretz and normality. This, of course, is far from simple, and requires an educational shift that begins in first grade, and even earlier. Here, of course, we are exposed to the types of concerns that Rabbi Pfeffer raised, which are related to the difference between Israeli and American normality.

In the American case, to be an Orthodox Jew is already being abnormal. Normality in Galus is to be non-Jewish, to be a Goy, and just being an observant Jew is a departure from the norm. Of course, the Orthodox Jew has no expectations that his surroundings will be more “Jewish.” The environment is “normal” and Goyish, while he is exceptional and “abnormal.” For Israel, things are vastly different. The Charedi Jew has demands and expectations vis-a-vis his environment. He does not accept secular life as “normal,” and his own way of life is legitimate only because of its “normality.” Being a Charedi Jew in Israel requires one to claim the mantle of normality. If our own existence is identified as abnormal, we implicitly validate Jewish secular life—something we cannot do.

The Charedi Jew has demands and expectations vis-a-vis his environment. He does not accept secular life as “normal,” and his own way of life is legitimate only because of its “normality.” Being a Charedi Jew in Israel requires one to claim the mantle of normality

The Chutznik community can bring much blessing to Israel. On this, I agree with Rabbi Pfeffer. But, by contrast with the thrust of his article, I do not believe it can solve our problems by cultivating a healthy alternative to Israeli Charedi life, one that precedes Torah with Derech Eretz. Moreover, if they wish to raise their children in the Torah tradition they know from their own backgrounds, I believe that Chutznikim have no option but to adopt the Israeli Charedi model as their own. This is not due to their weakness, or because they will be inevitably drawn to the majority culture of Israeli society, but rather because they, too, cannot accept secular Jewish life as “normal.” Educating our children to reject secular Jewish life requires us to reject the Chutznik model.

This might not be a very optimistic conclusion, but I believe it is the right one. If we wish to strengthen and improve our ways with Israeli Charedi society, we need to search for other avenues. Though we have much to learn from then—”who is the wise, he who learns from each person”—the solution to our challenges will not come by means of import, but by means of organic development at home.

4 thoughts on “Can Derech Eretz Precede Torah?

  • Regarding derech eretz the major difference between charedi society in Israel and that overseas is the same as the difference between a gazlan and a ganav. Israeli chareidim are shameless and up front in their brazen lack of derech eretz because here they have the critical mass and know that coalition convenience will spare them from any repercussions. American, British, Belgian, Australian charedim have greater fear of the goyim and hence do their shtick under cover of night. I believe the Torah prefers the gazlan.

  • explaining why is interesting, perhaps even accurate, but hardly excuses or God forbid justifies a lack of derech eretz. Hopefully, without the protection of Haredi politicians, this may change, ever so slightly. Sadly, I doubt it.

  • All goyim and Jews – except Israeli chareidim – are 1) taught derech eretz is an intrinsic value in and of itself, and 2) society continuously reinforces this from kindergarten to 120.
    I fear that these two components need to be in place for a society to raise children with derech eretz. I suggest figuring out how to do that instead of trying to justify what is obviously missing.

  • Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch was the prominent example of Torah IM Derech Eretz, neither one preceding the other.
    It is a proven way of true Torah life, combining a profession infused with Torah standards together with serious Torah studies after work-hours. Note the many sifrei halachot pertaining to work situations.

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