The Way of the World

By Ofir Haivry

On the natural morality that undergirds Jewish thought.

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I. They Say: There Is a Land
At the heart of Jewish thought lies a surprising claim, of signal importance: “The ‘way of the world’ (derech eretz) preceded the Tora.”1 This is to say that before the giving of the Tora, and independent of it, there existed a code of worthy behavior, a set of moral criteria innate to human beings.
To grasp the significance of this claim, one must first understand that in an earlier time, many generations ago, the seemingly simple phrase derech eretz conveyed a meaning both rich and complex. Derech signifies way, path, road, journey, means, manner; eretz means ground, earth, country, state, land—and specifically the land of Israel. The “way of the world” embraced all of these layers of meaning simultaneously. Today, however, this phrase in common Hebrew parlance has come to mean nothing more than appropriate speech, dress and demeanor, conduct that is considerate of others—in short, basic etiquette. In other words, the modern-day use of this term is only the faint echo of a great melody that once accompanied all our acts; it represents but a small, withered remnant of a broad Jewish intellectual tradition dating back thousands of years.
Rediscovering the original meaning of the “way of the world” is more than a philosophical challenge; it is a profound need of Israeli society and Jewish culture everywhere. Such a worldview is crucial to preserving and strengthening the rules, traditions and values that form the common denominator holding a society together. Restoring the Jewish nation’s common denominator requires delving into this idea’s philosophical roots—the ancient Israelite view of man’s essential nature and his place in the world—and reviewing how this concept has evolved. Only by uncovering the roots of this worldview will it be possible to generate renewed, sturdy and sustained growth of those fundamental values which, according to the Israelite tradition, are common to all humanity and form the conservative heritage of the Jewish people.
First, we must clarify the starting point for this ancient worldview, by grounding it in those great principles that “preceded the Tora.” As the poet Saul Tchernichovsky put it, we must ask: “Where is that land?”2

 Ofir Haivry is Editor-in-Chief of Azure.

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