Torah and Derech Eretz

Rabbi Elazar the son of Azaria would say: If there is no Torah, there is no social decorum; if there is no social decorum there is no Torah. If there is no wisdom, there is no fear of Hashem; if there is no fear of Hashem, there is no wisdom. If there is no applied knowledge, there is no analytical knowledge; if there is no analytical knowledge, there is no applied knowledge. If there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour. Avos: 3, 17

He would also say: One whose wisdom is greater than his deeds, to what may he be compared? To a tree with many branches and few roots; a storm will come and it will be uprooted and fall on its face. As is stated, "He shall be as a lone tree in a wasteland, and shall not see when good comes; he shall dwell parched in the desert, a salt land, uninhabited" (Jeremiah 17:6). But one whose deeds are greater than his wisdom, to what is he compared? To a tree with many roots and few branches, all the storms in the world cannot make it budge. As is stated: "He shall be as a tree planted upon water, who spreads his roots by the river; who fears not when comes heat, whose leaf is ever lush; who worries not in a year of drought, and ceases not to yield fruit" (ibid. v. 8).

This mishna conveys various ideas, albeit with a common theme. One of these ideas is in all likelihood the most oft quoted part of this mishna:" If there is no Torah there is no social decorum; if there is no social decorum there is no Torah". Usually this is explained to mean that if one doesn't study and adhere to the Torah one cannot exhibit proper social etiquette, and if one doesn't behave ethically one cannot be a bona fide ben Torah. This interpretation is that of Rabeinu Yona and, since it is widely accepted as pshat in the mishna, we will focus on it.

The mishna tells us that if one doesn't "have" Torah then one cannot "have" derech eretz and vice versa. What is it about these two ethos that make them mutually dependent? Why can one not have one of them without the other?

Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher of the end of the nineteenth century, had a tremendous influence on the development of Nazi doctrine. One of his main themes is that of the killing of religion and belief in a god. He talks about western Man having killed religion and belief in god. While he makes it quite clear that he is proud of such an "achievement", he stresses the tremendous social problem that this poses. Without belief in a god and religion (he is specifically dealing with Christianity) there is no longer an accepted moral code. Nietzsche says that it is therefore incumbent upon society to recreate some sort of code of ethics. The Nazis viewed their doctrine of ridding society of what they viewed as "lesser" human beings as being a social duty. They claimed that this would create a civilized society.

Rav Soloveitchik explains that without the Torah code of law incorporating laws whose rationale is not self-evident (chukim), one could rationalize away any and all other elements of human decency ["without chok (ritual commandment), every social and moral law can be rationalized away, leaving the world a sophisticated jungle of instincts and impulses", as cited in Rabbi David Shapiro’sמאפילה לאור גדול ]. In other words, the Torah as a supreme system of dicta of conduct cannot be something that is left solely to human interpretations. If the Torah was left open to such interpretations one could then warp etiquette, zapping it from anything truly ethical.

Nietzsche pointed out that without religion one must find an alternative moral code. Where Nietzsche fell short was in not understanding that Man cannot, on his own accord, create such a code of ethics. Nazi Germany would take the western world's (non-Jewish) symbol of religion (the very religion that Nietzsche declared dead) and warp it into a swastika.

The mishna does not end with this one axiom but goes on to express similar proverbial ideas. It is clear from the mishna that there is some sort of pattern throughout this collection of aphorisms. If we follow through the sequence of axioms till the end we see that Reb Elazar ben Azarya stresses that it is more important do virtuous acts than to acquire wisdom. Rabbi Elazar seems to be saying that it is Man's ethical actions, and not so much so the knowledge of ethics, that cause him to become a morally strong human being.

The point of all of Reb Elazar's ideas forming one theme represents the fact that the Torah is a seamless work that encompasses all virtue in a perfect sequence. We have a Torah to guide us through our every action. Torah is the ultimate moral guide. It is not something that requires debate. If one studies Torah as an intellectual exercise one is in effect reducing it to a science. Science is subject to change based on substantiation of new ideas and refutations to old ones. Torah is not. Recognizing Torah as the perfect moral guide means first practicing the Torah and only then attempting to comprehend its meaning and rationale.

It is now obvious that without Torah one cannot be truly virtuous. Any alternative system of social ethics is subject to the manipulations of Man. Man's inclinations will lead him to contrive and redesign his moral code to fit his agendas. Without Torah there is no derech eretz. Likewise it is obvious that without being virtuous Torah study just isn't Torah. Torah is not a science or erudition of some sort of theoretical subject matter. Torah is an approach to life. It is thus that Torah and derech eretz go hand in hand.

Reb Elazar ben Azarya is stressing the imperativeness of derech eretz, but only when it is hermetically bound to Torah.