Rabbi Avi Weinstein

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!
  1. Would you include Rep. Wilson's recent outburst as an example of what you're describing? In this particular case, I think there is certainly a subtext of cultural conflict but I would characterize it more as enraged southern aristocrat reacting to the perceived "uppity nigger". More like "Johnny rebel" than hippie rebel See http://wonkroom.thinkprogress.org/2009/09/10/joe-wilson-nativism/. for context…

  2. All you say is true, but the common denominator is the disenfranchised feeling of being on the outside–either because there is a war that I find immoral, or because I have a President who does not have what I consider American values.

  3. My question is: what would these protests look like if these same policies were coming from the “Biden” administration? I suspect that they would be full of rowdiness and subversive street theater but not with this level of bitter vitriol. This additional nastiness I think is due to bigotry and relentless exploitation of this tendency by cynical political operatives who seek power by whatever means neccessary. The net result is that sincere and reasonable ideological misgivings are exploited and serve as a pretext for venting deep-seated irrational hatreds and fears rather than forwarding any particular group’s policy interests.

    If Abbie Hoffman was a shil for the soviets — or maybe even ITT — I think your equation of him and Joe Wilson makes sense. The Cato institute is one thing, the KuKlux clan another.

    • We forget that draft offices were bombed. The Weather Underground, The Black Panters killed policeman. These were the fringes of the fun loving yippies. It wasn’t all guerilla theater, there was revolution in the air and some of it was violent.

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