Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for September 15th, 2009|Daily archive page

Joe Wilson the New Abbie Hoffman, Irony and the Enigmas of Derech Eretz

In Uncategorized on September 15, 2009 at 9:02 am

In the Ordeal of Civility, John Murray Cuddihy’s book on the reasons for the Jewish disproportionate intellectual impact on the twentieth century, he recalls the antics of Abbie Hoffman in Judge Julius Hoffman’s court. Abbie was repeatedly held in contempt for calling the judge “Julie”. Cuddihy noted that to be held in contempt was to be held in contempt of the civility of the court. He wryly pointed out that the Judge was a yekke, a German Jew, while Abbie came from the ostjuden, the prost (vulgar, common) Galician Jews, and that was the subtext of their conflict.

Now, the hippies of congress are the southern republicans, challenging the legitimacy of these hallowed halls by disruptive uncivil behavior that makes light of protocol and house rules. The yekkes are the democrats who decry the feisty ridicule of their President and their party. It is a bit ironic, isn’t it? Look who is challenging the foundations of this country now? Except the issue is not the war in Vietnam, but…health care, and guns.
There is no simple term for civility in the Talmud, although the one often used is Derech Eretz which literally means “The Way of the Land”. In its earliest usage the phrase meant an occupation. “The study of Torah goes well with Derech Eretz, (an occupation)” In other contexts, it is broadened to include ways to behave while one is out in the world. When God visits Abraham after his circumcision, the Torah is letting us know that visiting the sick is a nice thing to do.
Civility is not mandated, but suggested by God’s example. The Midrash Tanchuma notices that the daily Succot sacrifices decrease in number, unlike the daily Passover sacrifices that stay the same throughout the seven day festival. The Midrash explains: Ths teaches derech eretz. It’s like when you have a guest, the first day you feed him chicken, the next day fish, the next day vegetables until finally, you feed him beans.
In other words, the Torah is giving a tip on how to gently unload a freeloading guest, letting him know that he has overstayed his welcome. Derech Eretz does literally mean, “the way of the land”, the way one gets along in the world. One is required to work, to get along with others, and to either understand or provide social cues. Civility is not singled out because it is intertwined with the whole business of living. All of these components are equal partners in how to get along in a balanced way.
Derech Eretz means how your time should be occupied when engaged in society. The uncivil upset the tenuous rules, the code that allows us to not only get along, but to go along. They challenge these restrictions and upset our foundations because they hold them in contempt. They either wish to make the land go a new way, or they simply love the attention they get from being naughty. Those impervious to Derech Eretz are always upsetting to those who are happy with the status quo.
Abbie Hoffman wouldn’t have been entirely displeased with the redneck Woodstock in Washington last weekend. Sometimes this is really a whacky place!