Jewish Perspective is a way of looking at the world through the eyes of the Torah, the Jewish code and guide for living life in this world. Although the Torah is timeless and its laws relevant in every age, the way we apply it into our lives changes as humanity moves through time. In the modern era we must ensure that Jewish teachings and values continue to be seen as relevant to all Jews, and also to all of humankind.
More than a religion, the Torah is a blueprint for what the world should be like. Every person and nation has a part to play in the Torah’s message for mankind, but Am Yisrael have the leading role, tasked with specific Mitzvot aimed at bringing God into the world and creating unity, harmony and peace under His Kingship. Sometimes we forget this bigger picture and that every aspect of Judaism is part of this grand plan – and that’s why we need perspective. Hopefully by viewing Judaism in this context, it will be easier to understand the Torah’s teachings and ultimately, to fulfil one's own personal potential in this world, as well as the potential of Am Yisrael as a whole.
The three stages follow a pattern and actualising them in order is crucial to understanding the structure of Jewish Perspective.
1. Derech Eretz
Derech Eretz literally means ‘the way of the world’, and is a phrase often used in Jewish thought to represent man’s relationship with his fellow. For a person to have Derech Eretz, one needs to be respectful, humble and ‘a mensch’. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 9:3) says that Derech Eretz preceded the Torah by twenty-six generations, meaning that although the laws and statutes of Judaism were given at Mount Sinai, there were still good and moral people beforehand who exemplified the right way to live in the world.
The simple message from this Midrash is that Derech Eretz is a prerequisite for anyone wishing to study the Torah. Before one approaches learning about Jewish law, one must possess basic levels of human decency and respect. This is not to say that the Torah has nothing to say about the moral values of Derech Eretz – on the contrary, there is an entire category of Mitzvot which are ‘Bein Adam l’Chaveiro’ (between man and his friend), which must be scrupulously followed just like the laws of Shabbat or Tefilla. Rather, before one delves into learning the many obligations and customs in Torah, it is necessary to be an upright and moral person.
Ramban (1194-1270), in his commentary on the Mitzvah of ‘Kedoshim Tihyu’, You shall be holy, in the Book of Vayikra (19:1), speaks of a person being a ‘disgusting person with the permission of the Torah’. This is where a person finds ways of technically keeping the laws however in this pursuit tramples on good and moral practice. Although the person might seem to have the permission of the Torah for his actions, in reality he does much damage to himself and those around him who may get the wrong impression about what the Torah is.
Therefore Stage 1 in our quest is that of Derech Eretz, and focuses on our relationships with other human beings. It is necessary not just for Jews, but for all of humanity, who are commanded to build a moral society, based on the values of justice, respect for all and belief in God.
Only once Stage 1 has been achieved is it possible to reach Stage 2, which involves the fulfilment of Mitzvot Bein Adam L’Makom (between man and God), such as believing in God, keeping Shabbat or praying daily. The Jewish religion is meant to take place in the context of families, communities and a nation. In order to fully observe the Torah and develop a deep and lasting connection with God, which is the ultimate purpose of studying Torah and performing Mitzvot, a person must have an in-built respect and love for their fellow, such as that learnt in Stage 1.
If someone skips Stage 1 in their quest to keep the Mitzvot Bein Adam L’Makom, they will end up disregarding the feelings of others, which is not just wrong to the onlooker but also to God. This is clear not just from the aforementioned Ramban but also from any serious study of stories in the Torah or laws from the Talmud, such as the need to consider factors like personal embarrassment, unnecessary exertions and respect for parents in matters of halacha.
It is also problematic if someone decides that Stage 1 is enough in order to ‘be a good person’ but does not fill the need to continue to Stage 2 and keep more technical aspects of Jewish law. Whereas credit is given for actions done towards others, this person is missing out on a large proportion of what it means to be Jewish. The source from which we learn the need for mutual respect and lovingkindness is the same source from which we learn to blow the Shofar and eat Kosher food. The lack of Stage 2 is even more apparent when someone attempts to move directly from Stage 1 to Stage 3, since although anyone can have a positive impact on the world, it will be impossible to fulfil all of one’s Jewish potential without internalising the need for Stage 2.
Mitzvot have a huge impact on the world, even though it is not always obvious to the untrained eye. They are the ways given to us by God to make the world a more spiritual place and to enable His morality and wisdom to be manifest in the world. On a national level, Am Yisrael are supposed to lead the world in kindness between all humanity and belief in one God. This can only be achieved if every Jew realises the innate necessity to do what is required of them with regard to Mitzvot and if Am Yisrael comes together in its ultimate home, Israel, to build a model nation which encompasses these values. Once the Jewish nation is proudly adhering to God's will, they will lead the world to the ultimate level of Stage 3.
The Torah is the ultimate manifesto for making the world a better place, as it comprises the full wisdom of He who created the world. If both Stages 1 and 2 are met on individual, communal and national levels, Stage 3 can therefore be reached on a global level.
Stage 3 involves the realisation of the prophets’ calls for a just and moral world with the role of the Jewish people understood and appreciated by all, ending all forms of hatred and persecution. In essence, this is the Jewish teaching of Mashiach, which will usher in a new era for the entire world following a universal recognition of God, an idea which voiced in the Aleinu prayer said at the end of every service.
Completing Stage 3 is not something that an individual can do on his own. It is possible to make a difference in the world, but only through the unity of Am Yisrael can the above ideas be realised. This is what we strive for, and by understanding Judaism in perspective, we can achieve these great aims.
The Constant Thread: Talmud Torah
In order to actualise these three stages in our lives, it is necessary to keep the Mitzvot Bein Adam L’chaveiro and develop a genuine love of one’s fellow Jew, keep the Mitzvot Bein Adam L’makom and develop a love and fear of God through discipline and spirituality and be part of a society which accomplishes the ultimate goals we strive for. However there is seemingly no place here for the Mitzvah of Talmud Torah, save for it being part of Stage 2.
In reality, the Mitzvah of Talmud Torah is the thread which runs through all three stages. Talmud Torah, the commitment to learn and delve into the written and oral laws and commentaries as well as thinking of new ideas and applications of the Torah, is something that must be practised constantly. Through Talmud Torah, we learn the right way to act in Stage 1, the parameters and guidelines of laws in Stage 2 and the global aspirations to which we aspire and God has foretold in Stage 3.
Talmud Torah is the constant drive to learn God’s ways and imitate Him. The fundamental Jewish belief is that God is and defines good and wants us to strive to be like Him by improving our character traits and aspiring to what He wants to aspire to. The study of Torah, God’s blueprint for the world, allows us to obtain hidden and revealed secrets about how God created and maintains the world, now and in the future – giving us a truly Jewish Perspective.