דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה
I was driving home with my daughter today and we were talking about school and bullying. Bullying - it's a word we hear so much these days that it's almost lost its impact. The full flavor of death by a thousand cuts. Having your nose rubbed in your real or imagined inadequacies every day. Being singled out, or included just to be removed from the group while others stand by, or worse, laugh along.
And what we were talking about was specifically what it means when bullying happens in a religious school. When bullying has a religious nature to it. When a kid who is widely acknowledged to have beautiful מידות, to be a good student, caring friend, and all-around solid human being is reduced to tears and fits of rage for having a different hairstyle. For watching TV. For eating OU-D.
When a child comes home from school and you say "How was your day?" And they look at you with tears behind their eyes and say "I don't want to talk about it." And you don't know what to say, and you ask "Can you tell me about any of it?" "I don't want to talk about it." "Can you tell me something that stood out as really good or really bad about your day?" And they curl up in a ball on the couch, and repeat "I don't want to talk about it." And a part of you as a parent is dying because you keep sending your kid into this battleground to give them a Jewish education and it is literally destroying their sense of self.
And so today in the car we were talking, and I had just had enough. Bullying in any circumstance is antithetical to education. Bullying in a religious school devalues everything the school is supposed to embody and teach. Bullying an equally religious kid over a חומרה or a lifestyle choice over who watches TV and who doesn't is a perversion of religion - not that it would be okay to bully a kid over observance in any circumstance. הלכה doesn't uphold חלב ישראל or watching TV as the essence of who we are. Instead, we have הלכות about humiliating people being akin to murder. And we have חכמים like Rabbi Akiva who tells us that ואהבת לרעך כמוך IS תורה, and the rest is commentary. We have Ben Azzai who tells us that the principle that HaShem made us in His likeness is even greater than v'Ahavta. We have Rav Hama who tells us that אחרי ה' אלוקיכם תלכו commands us to follow HaShem's attributes, to actuate חסד, kindness, and mercy in the world.
In these schools where these kids sit and learn they see signs that proclaim דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה. As a kid, I questioned what exactly this meant. Why does דרך ארץ, literally the path of the earth, mean good behavior? What does it mean to be קדמה לתורה? And in the car with my daughter, it all clicked. דרך ארץ is the way of the land, the country, the culture, the communal. It's קדמה לתורה for two reasons. First, you can't begin to appreciate the תורה and what God is commanding us to do without proper respect for His creations, recognition of human dignity in all. Second, and to me the crucial part, HaShem doesn't want us to be coming close to Him while bringing pain in the world. What does it mean to keep שבת while teasing another kid who rides a bike while fully keeping שבת? What does it mean to keep kosher while vilifying other kids who fully keep kosher but don't follow all of your חומרות? If you aren't doing the דרך ארץ, you can't do תורה, because your שבת and כשרות are meaningless without treating other people well.
Bullying can't co-exist with Jewish values. A school that would allow systemic bullying isn't one that can be teaching יהדות.