Torah im Derech Eretz

From Academic Kids


Torah im Derech Eretz (Hebrew תורה עם דרך ארץ - Torah with "the way of the land") is a philosophy of Orthodox Judaism put forward by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), which formalises a relationship between traditionally observant Judaism and the modern world. The resultant mode of Orthodox Judaism has been referred to as Neo-Orthodoxy.


Derech Eretz: The way of the land

The phrase Torah im Derech Eretz is first found in the Mishna in Tractate Avoth (2:2): "Beautiful is the study of Torah with derech eretz, as involvement with both makes one forget sin". The term derech eretz, literally the way of the land, is inherently ambiguous – it has a wide range of meanings in Rabbinic literature, referring to earning a livelihood, to behaving appropriately, among others.

Earning a livelihood

In the context of this Mishnaic statement above, the meaning of Derech Eretz is clearly "earning a livelihood" (Maimonides, Commentary on the Mishna). Note that "earning a livelihood" - with the requisite training - is discussed in various tractates in the Talmud (see Berachot 35b) as well as in the halakhic literature (e.g. Mishnah Torah, Deot Ch.5, Talmud Torah Ch.3). In general, Rabbinic opinion sees a requirement for earning a livelihood, but in such a fashion that one may also study, and live, Torah.

Knowledge of the natural world

Maharal, Judah Loew (1525 - 1609), points out that Derech Eretz is not limited to "earning a living"; rather the concept encompasses hanhaga tiv`it, "operating in the natural world". Here, Maharal comments on a later Mishna, Avoth 3:20 (see Derech Chaim ad loc), which discusses the interdependence of "Torah and flour (kemakh)" as well as the interdependence of "Torah and Derech Eretz". Kemakh, flour, clearly refers to monetary livelihood (with Torah referring to spiritual livelihood) - thus Derech Eretz must refer to more than just "earning a livelihood" and includes the knowledge and skills that facilitate success in the world of Nature.

The view of Samson Raphael Hirsch

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch articulated Torah im Derech Eretz as a philosophy of Orthodox Judaism in the modern world in c. 1840. Here, Hirsch developed the concept of derech eretz to embrace Western culture - with the qualification that there be no compromise on strict adherence to Jewish law. In Hirsch's view, derech eretz refers not only to livelihood, but also to the social order, with the associated mores and considerations of courtesy and propriety, as well as to general education. The philosophy is discussed below.

Torah im Derech Eretz

As seen, Hirsch was not unique in extending Derech Eretz to include broad knowledge of the secular world, rather, his role was to formalise a philosophy of Derech Eretz which incorporated a practical response to modernity. (Torah im Derech Eretz was, in fact, the motto of the school Hirsch founded in Emden, Germany - and the phrase became synonymous with Hirsch.)


To Hirsch, the fulfillment of Torah requires worldly involvement, Derech Eretz. He seeks to demonstrate in all his writings that the combination of Torah and Derech Eretz is not only possible but necessary if Judaism is to come to grips with the challenge of modern life.

"Judaism is not a mere adjunct to life: it comprises all of life. To be a Jew is not a mere part, it is the sum total of our task in life. To be a Jew in the synagogue and the kitchen, in the field and the warehouse, in the office and the pulpit …with the needle and the graving-tool, with the pen and the chisel - that is what it means to be a Jew."

Secular culture and education

In Hirsch’s view, Judaism must "include the conscientious promotion of education and culture". Hirsch speaks of the Israel-Mensch ("Israel-man"), the "enlightened religious personality" as an ideal: that is the Jew who is proudly Jewish, a believer in the eternal values of the Torah and at the same time, a cultured "man" of the modern world. “The more, indeed, Judaism comprises the whole of man and extends its declared mission to the salvation of the whole of mankind, the less it is possible to confine its outlook to the synagogue. [Thus] the more the Jew is a Jew, the more universalist will be his views and aspirations [and] the less aloof will he be from … art or science, culture or education… [and] the more joyfully will he applaud whenever he sees truth and justice and peace and the ennoblement of man.”

Jewish Law

Importantly, Hirsch was very clear that Derech Eretz in no sense allows for halakhic compromise. In his view, Judaism is "an untouchable sanctuary which must not be subjected to human judgment nor subordinated to human considerations" and "progress is valid only to the extent that it does not interfere with religion". He states that "the Jew will not want to accomplish anything that he cannot accomplish as a Jew. Any step which takes him away from Judaism is not for him a step forward, is not progress. He exercises this self-control without a pang, for he does not wish to accomplish his own will on earth but labours in the service of God." In The Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel Hirsch remarked that it would have been better for the Jews not to have been emancipated if the price they had to pay was assimilation. (See also, reforms within Jewish practice in Modern Orthodoxy.)


The philosophy of Torah im Derech Eretz can be interpreted broadly and narrowly. This distinction arises particularly in light of Hirsch’s insistence as to faithfulness to Jewish law and tradition. Under the "narrow interpretation", exposure to gentile philosophy, music, art, literature or ethics must be functional. Under the "broad interpretation", this exposure is permissible, and even productive, for its own sake.

Thus as regards involvement in the secular world, the “narrow interpretation” essentially limits Derech Eretz to a gainful occupation; permissible knowledge would be limited to functional and occupation related knowledge - and (possibly) secular knowledge which enables one to better interpret and understand the Torah. The "broad interpretation” includes the general acquisition of secular culture.

Hirsch himself appears to have embraced the "broad interpretation", albeit with the qualifications above: he praised Friedrich Schiller at the dais of school meetings, and on a regular basis quotes secular scientists in his Torah commentary. On the other hand, he cautioned as to the danger of scientific knowledge leading one away from God; further, his schools, unlike others in Germany at the time, taught modern (business) languages as opposed to classical languages.

Neo-Orthodoxy: The "Breuer" Communities

In 1851 Hirsch became the rabbi in Frankfurt am Main. This community soon became the model for “modern communities” strict in adherence to Orthodox practices, hence the term neo-Orthodoxy. Solomon Breur, Hirsch’s son-in-law succeeded him on his death in 1888, who was in turn succeeded by his son, Rabbi Joseph Breuer. Following Kristallnacht Breuer and his family immigrated to Antwerp, and then to New York. Here, Breuer started a congregation with the numerous German refugees in Washington Heights, which closely followed the customs and mores of the Frankfurt community. The congregation, Khal Adath Yeshurun, is colloquially called "Breuer's". Rabbi Shimon Schwab, became second Rabbi of the "Breuer" community. Solomon Breuer, Joseph Breuer and Shimon Schwab are often regarded as Hirsch's intellectual heirs.

The Breur community has cautiously applied Torah im Derech Eretz to American life - Schwab warned of the dangers of contemporary moral attitudes in secular culture and literature, and emphasized that followers of Neo Orthodoxy therefore require a strong basis of faith and knowledge, and must exercise caution in engagements with the secular world. Scwhab also emphasized that Torah can never be regarded as parallel with the secular. "Torah study is the highest duty of the Jew", and "even to suggest that anything can be parallel to Torah is a blasphemy of the highest order; Torah is above all, and everything else in life must be conducted in accordance with the Written and Oral Torah." Still, entry into commerce or the professions is seen as a full component of Torah life, to be facilitated by an appropriate secular education (with the caveat that campus life is "incontestably immoral"). "Carrying on one's professional life in consonance with the halakha is in itself a practice of Torah." One must "establish the Torah's primacy over the modes of business and professional life so that his behavior transforms even that 'mundane' portion of his life into a sanctification."

The community is positioned ideologically outside of both Modern Orthodoxy and Haredi Judaism ("Ultra-Orthodoxy"). As regards Haredi Judaism, Schwab acknowledged that although Neo Orthodoxy is not the path favoured by the majority of today's Roshei Yeshiva, the "Torah Only" and Torah Im Derech Eretz camps can exist side-by-side. "As long as one is prompted solely by Yiras Shamayim ("fear of Heaven") and a search for truth, each individual has a choice as to which school he should follow." The community has a limited involvement with the Agudath Yisrael of America.

The movement is somewhat distant from Modern Orthodoxy. Schwab regards Modern Orthodoxy as having misinterpreted his grandfather's ideas: firstly as regards standards of halakha and secondly as regards the relative emphasis of Torah versus secular; see discussion under Torah Umadda. Further, Breuer, influenced by Hirsch's philosophy on Austritt (secession), "could not countenance recognition of a non-believing body as a legitimate representative of the Jewish people”. For this reason, he was "unalterably opposed to the Mizrachi movement, which remained affiliated with the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency".

Contemporary influence

Torah im Derech Eretz remains influential in Orthodox Judaism. Although usually associated with Modern Orthodox Judaism, the philosophy is also important in Haredi communities.

Modern Orthodoxy

Modern Orthodoxy derives much inspiration from Torah im Derech Eretz, particularly as regards ideals on the synthesis of Judaism and general culture. Organizations on the left of Modern Orthodoxy have embraced the "broad interpretation", although critics claim that their relatively "relaxed stance" in halakha in fact positions them outside the realm of Torah im Derech Eretz.

The "broad interpretation" is, in fact, largely complementary with Torah Umadda - "Torah and (secular) knowledge" - a philosophy of Modern Orthodoxy, closely associated with Yeshiva University. The philosophies are distinct in terms of emphasis - Torah Umadda aims at "synthesizing" Torah learning and secular knowledge, and thus "the study of worldly wisdom is not a concession to economic necessity, it is de jure not de facto." This mode of Modern Orthodoxy has come to be known as "Centrist" Orthodoxy.


As above, the "Breur" community continues to closely apply the philosophy. However, since World War II, the community appears to have moved away from the "broad definition". Rabbi Breuer saw the risk of misinterpretation of his grandfather's ideas - he repeatedly stated that compromising on Jewishness and halakha was at variance with Torah im Derech Eretz. Further, Neo-Orthodoxy differs from the approaches above in its understanding of the relationship between Torah and secular: thus, Isaac Breuer, Hirsch's grandson, avers that "Rabbi Hirsch's fight was not for balance and not for reconcilement, nor for synthesis and certainly not for parallel power, but for domination - for the true and absolute domination of the divine precept over the new tendencies"; see further discussion in the article on Hirsch.

Haredi Judaism / Ultra-Orthodoxy

Today, the Haredi "Yeshiva" communities adhere to the "narrow interpretation" as an educational philosophy. Torah im Derech Eretz is "the basic idea that shapes the curriculum of the Bais Yaakov school system today". In fact, "in her Seminary in Cracow, Sarah Schenirer taught Rav Hirsch's writings in German. The teachers spoke German and the Polish students learned German." Today, similar principles guide the curricula at Boys' High Schools.

Other Haredi communities, the "Torah only" school, are further distant from Torah im Derech Eretz. Since World War II there has been an ideological tendency, in that camp, to devote all intellectual capabilities to Torah study only - in schools, yeshivot and kollels. Thus, the optimum course to be adopted in all cases is to devote oneself to full-time Torah learning for as long as possible; "to go out into the world is a course to be adopted only when there is no other alternative". Here, the Hirschian model is seen as horaat sha'ah, a "time specific teaching" intended to apply to the special circumstances of Western Europe in the 1800s.



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