Monday, May 19, 2014

Torah Im Derech Eretz.


Torah Im Derech Eretz is a common Jewish Weltanschauung that was initiated, or rather coined, by Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch. Rav Hirsch is quite transparent about the way he intended to bring this philosophy to realization, although since the commencement of this idea there has been controversy and even confusion regarding his objectives.
In my humble opinion, the reason for misperception is because some of the authors who deciphered his writings never bothered to delve into Rav Hirsch’s original works. Instead they based their views on the interpretations of previous writers, often with their own agendas, supporting their theses with opinions and liberal personal views of Rav Hirsch himself.
Nevertheless, it is obvious in his writings that Rav Hirsch wanted Jewish children to learn subjects that were not commonly incorporated into the Eastern European Jewish curriculum.
Some of these subjects were supposed to be helpful in achieving a higher degree of education necessary in professional life. But in the schools that were established by him, this erudition was not limited only to math, biology or other sciences known and practiced by many members of Chazal throughout history. In Frankfurt’s Yeshiva they also learn about Goethe, Schiller and perhaps even Heine. Rav Hirsch believed that an awareness of the secular culture of the surrounding nations should be acquired, for it could be beneficial to the lives and futures of his students. He was not the first of the Rabbonim in Jewish history to take this trajectory, and also not the last.
I will not attempt to untangle an issue which the greatest of Jewish authorities wrangled with over the course of two thousand years. I-H, in one of my future posts I will take a stand on the topic of what certainly should not be incorporated under the Torah Im Derech Eretz clause, but what some people who claim they are adhering to this ideology – TIDE - include in it nonetheless.
My humble view of this matter is situated perhaps somewhere between Rav Hirsch’s and that of his Eastern European opponents of that time… although I have to admit I am probably closer to Rav Hirsch's purview. I believe that at least on some level, Yidden may glean a bit of knowledge from the general culture.
What I would like to talk about today is something which I would call practical Torah Im Derech Eretz.
The basis for this expression is the Mishna from Pirkei Avos in which Rabbi Gamaliel ben Yehuda HaNassi says that learning of Torah and Derech Eretz are beautiful together, and they protect a person from sin. If someone decides to learn only Torah, without the accompanying Derech Eretz, he will end in consequence as a sinner. Derech Eretz is understood and translated there as learning a professional occupation or earning a livelihood; but also as acting with polite, respectful, thoughtful, decent and civilized behavior.
In my travels around the various Jewish communities of the United States, almost everywhere I am asked the same question at our very first encounter: "Are you collecting?"
The first time I heard this question, I completely misunderstood the nature of it. I answered in all innocence, "Yes, I collect minerals, stones, fossils…"
Since then I have learned the true meaning of that query, and I understand what these Jews to know - but since I consider it an inappropriate question for anyone to ask, I still give them the same response with regard to my geological hobby.
The question really translates to: "Are you a beggar?"
There is a prevailing assumption among my Jewish brothers who live in far-flung communities in the outer reaches of the U.S. They automatically associate someone who is dressed like me, with black jacket, untrimmed beard and long payos (sidelocks), with an unlearned, underachieving person who was unfortunate to be born into a Charedi family. They instinctively jump to the conclusion that I was unable to learn a profession in my Charedi elementary school and yeshiva. And as a consequence of this lack of education, I, and all those who look like me, are incapable of working to support our families.
However crazy it sounds, the above notion and the described situation are not a result of my Charedi complexes. In fact, I do not have such inferiority neuroses for the simple reason that I was not born Charedi, or even Jewish! This has simply been my experience and an observation of my encounters with fellow Orthodox - but not Charedi - coreligionists.
As do most misjudgments, this one comes from a lack of awareness and a lot of misinformation. Many of those people meet Charedim only when, indeed, some of them come to collect funds, be it for various institutions in the Holy Land, or for themselves. Those Charedi individuals, however, do not and can not represent their communities in their entirety. It is ridiculous to think that all Charedim are cut from the same cloth and it creates an incredibly unjust presumption.
One trip to Brooklyn, Monsey or Kiryas Yoel would put this preconception to immediate rest.
There are Hasidic Jews who are car mechanics, construction workers, electricians, plumbers, bus drivers etc. There are Charedi real estate developers, business moguls and Wall Street tycoons; industrialists, doctors, lawyers and hi-tech professionals. But successful businesses run by Charedim are largely unseen in the places where Charedi presence is nonexistent.  Finding a bearded guy with long payos to come fix your car or service your refrigerator in Ogalala, Nebraska is a bit of a stretch. The very idea that Charedim actually do these things is almost unthinkable to some of our brothers in remote communities. But that’s daily life here on the northeastern coast.
For many years I worked in the building industry. There wasn't a single field of work, from architects to carpenters to plumbers, that didn't include Hasidic Jews in their ranks. Charedim do learn, and constantly improve their professional knowledge. I traveled to various Building Industry shows in the US, and always there were tens of Hasidim from every possible neighborhood trying to learn new technologies and make connections with suppliers and manufacturers.
There are different types of Jewish communities. Some of them are exclusively involved in Torah learning, to the exclusion of all else. They are to be respected for their focus on spirituality and for the strengthening of Klal Yisroel's sanctity. On the other side of the spectrum, there are others who keep their religion on the periphery of their lives.
My claim is that within the entire gamut of Jewish communities, Torah Im Derech Eretz is definitely realized. Maybe some communities don't meet the postulates of Rav Hirsh, but most certainly come close to the ideal of the Mishna Avos.

I will i-H continue to write about the topic of TIDE in further essays.

Matys Weiser

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