Dr. Rela Mintz Geffen is a Professor Emerita of Sociology and the Past President of Baltimore Hebrew University. She can be reached at Rela1@aol.com.
My son Ami, now himself a father, was a very active and social child. From quite an early age, and certainly by the time he was in elementary school at Solomon Schecter Day School in Philadelphia I would caution him about certain behaviors with the rabbinic maxim “derekh eretz kadma l’torah.” Literally derekh eretz means the way of the land but the rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud used the phrase is several ways. For example, in Pirkei Avot 2:2 (the Ethics of the Fathers), Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Judah the Prince said: it is good to study Torah alongside a gainful occupation (Yafeh Talmud Torah im derekh eretz). The most common meaning of derekh eretz is deference, civility or respect - treating each human being as a “thou” rather than an “it” as posited by Martin Buber. In Jewish folklore it is always stressed that children should treat their parents with derekh eretz. Think Rodney Dangerfield saying “ I don’t get no derekh eretz” and you’ll have a nuanced feel for the meaning of the term.
Derekh eretz kadma l’torah is quite a radical statement - good character or treating human beings with respect takes precedence (kadma) over Torah.Even with all of the repetition, I was never sure if the words sunk in to my son’s consciousness.
Then, a few years ago, Ami invited me to a special Shabbat dinner where several of the teen leaders of the USY group he supervised were to be honored. As I walked down a hallway of the shul searching for the right room I heard Ami’s voice raised in an admonishing tone. As I got closer I could hear him saying: “Remember, derekh eretz kadma l’torah.” What an “aha” moment - I learned never to underestimate the power of parents or the pertinence of rabbinic maxims.