The absence of derech eretz

The absence of derech eretz

On Friday of last week, Gideon Levy, a columnist and member of the editorial board of the generally left-leaning Ha’aretz newspaper here in Israel, was verbally and physically attacked while walking in the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv with Catrin, his companion.

According to the piece he wrote about the event in the paper, someone came up behind both of them as they were walking, threatened to beat them up, called him a “leftist,” an “Israel hater,” and an “Arab lover.” Then he spat in both Gideon’s and Catrin’s faces.

According to Levy, the attacker was from the religious community and spoke Hebrew with a decidedly Anglo accent.

Now I am no big fan of Gideon Levy. Although he writes exceptionally well, his political views and mine clearly are not in sync. Nevertheless, there was certainly no excuse for someone, regardless of how much he disagrees with what Levy writes, to attack him and spit in his face.

But why should we be surprised?

Two weeks ago, at the monthly women’s prayer service at the Kotel, the western wall of the Temple, members of the Orthodox community who are against the legally sanctioned presence of the Women of the Wall, as they call themselves, chose not only to hurl obscene epithets at women who only wanted to pray in the manner that suited them and the courts found acceptable, but also threw feces-laden diapers and other obnoxious items at them as well.

And last Monday morning, Peggy Cidor, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, woke up to a knock on her door. It was the local police, asking her to look at the insulting, derogatory, and life-threatening graffiti that had been spray painted on the walls of the hallway leading to her apartment. Why? Simply because she is a supporter of Women of the Wall.

Yet in spite of these types of attacks, and I have only named a few, the religious leadership here remains silent. Peggy Cidor writes that she did get a letter of sincere concern from the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch, but most of the letter was devoted to criticism of the Women of the Wall and their assumed disregard for the holiness of the place.

The saddest part of all of this for me, as a traditionally observant Jew, is the realization that the concept of derech eretz too often is observed in the breach by the religious community, especially when it comes to other Jews who disagree with them.

While the literal meaning of the term derech eretz is “the way of the land,” most people understand it as Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch defined it in 1851, when he extended the concept to mean the need to maintain the social order. It does no good, in my opinion, for someone to make a point of rising when a revered sage enters the room if the next day he chooses to spit in the face of someone with whom he disagrees.

Rabbi Hirsch understood this when he said, “Judaism is not a mere adjunct to life: it comprises all of life. To be a Jew is not a mere part, it is the sum total of our task in life. To be a Jew in the synagogue and the kitchen, in the field and the warehouse, in the office and the pulpit … with the needle and the graving-tool, with the pen and the chisel – that is what it means to be a Jew.”

It is a lesson many of my more observant brethren should learn and practice in order to fulfill the good Lord’s expectation of us to be, first and foremost, righteous human beings.