My connection to Torah im Derech Eretz began long before I knew to give the philosophy a name, and has remained a central part of my outlook. As a child raised in a family that deeply connected to its Central and Western European origins, I grew up with a strong sense of tradition, manners, etiquette, and decorum. My parents, who believe very much that the task of a parent is to cultivate their children, both taught me the stories of the Patriarchs, Moshe Rabbeinu, and the wanderings of the Children of Israel in the desert alongside a strong focus on secular education--including music, art, architecture, and other aspects of high culture. Each summer, my parents would take vacations that exposed me to the diversity of the American landscape, all the while applying what I saw to what I would learn in both secular and religious instruction. For my parents, these topics connected seamlessly. What was the God of Jacob, if not also the God of mathematics and biology? Where were the wonders of the God who led the Jews out of Egypt, if not also found in the depths of the Grand Canyon and the heights of the Rocky Mountains? My parents were careful to show me that for a true connection to the Divine, one needed to find that connection in the fullness of the world that the Divine created and continues to create, not just in the limited sphere of that which is conventionally thought of as "religious". Indeed, it is when venturing beyond the "religious" spheres where God has the most potential to become real, and one has the most amazing opportunities to fulfill the mandate of being a "light unto the nations".
In my mid-teens, when I became more drawn to the Chareidi community, the more expansive understanding of the interplay between Torah and the ways of the world remained solidified for me. Perhaps too naive, I presumed that the communities toward which I was gravitating would, at least theoretically, share my own outlook. When confronted with conflicting ideas or opinions that opposed secular studies and approaching secular culture, I had my own ways of explaining it to myself. Those opposing the connection of Torah and external culture were, to me, extremists who simply could not represent the true Chareidi standpoint. However, after more than a decade of living within the Chareidi community, attending Chareidi "Torah only" yeshivos, and marrying someone raised within the community, I have come to see the reality of the disconnect between myself and the broader Chareidi community.
Coming to the realization that I was not a "Torah only" type of person led me to reexamine my own conception of Judaism. This reexamination eventually led me to seriously study the works and lives of those who lived with a strong Torah im Derech Eretz philosophy, even before it was conceptualized as such by Rav Hirsch, zt"l, including Rav Jakob Ettlinger, Chacham Isaak Bernays, the Maharatz Chajes. Each seemed to be able to remain fully faithful to the Torah while personally greatly appreciating the wisdom and truth lying beyond conventional religious sources. For all of their awareness of the outside world, those great men also remained quite attached to traditional Jewish culture.
This realization not only gave me a sense of relief in my long-held perspectives on Judaism and the world, but also provided me with a set of role models. This discovery also led me to a study into the origins of my own family and the culture out of which their philosophies grew and were then passed on to me. All of this led to a complete refreshment of my own connection to Judaism and Torah observance.
The longer I have viewed my adoptive community from the perspective of Torah im Derech Eretz, the more I have found the warnings of Rav Hirsch and Rav Dr. Breuer regarding the need to move into modernity to be true. Over the years, I have seen countless people who have had true crises of faith, many abandoning Torah observance altogether, after having been raised disconnected from the realities of the outside world and then suddenly happening upon it later in life. Many seem to enter into a revolt after having been educated in a system that considers secular studies to be "sheker" and the science of Chazal to be Divine scientific truths (an idea against which Rav Hirsch writes strongly in several places).
For me, this highlights the relevance of Rav Hirsch's work in our own time. As in 19th century Germany, the freedom given to Jews in today's world requires each and every one of us to gird ourselves with a perspective that firmly plants our minds and hearts in the primacy of Torah, while understanding that the broader creation contains relevance, truth, and importance, and beckons our involvement in a Divine task that moves beyond the traditional confines of the frum world; not only intellectually, but through the basic level of civic participation as well.
As a young father, I find my personal dedication to the path of Torah im Derech Eretz to be incredibly important for the proper education of my children. As such, I work hard to conceptualize Torah im Derech Eretz in the context of today's world, as well as the differences between Torah im Derech Eretz and Torah u'Madda. The issues of the modern era are a struggle, and require constant vigilance and nuance in approaching the broader world. However, kernels of truth and wisdom remain to be found from among the non-Jewish society. Regardless of the pervasiveness of low culture and the crass elements found in some of the more popular strains of modernity, there remains an entire globe that speaks of the glory of God, if we can only pay attention correctly. It is a struggle, but represents a true and meaningful avodah for the modern Torah im Derech Eretz practitioner.
As for the difference between Torah im Derech Eretz and Torah u'Madda, my understanding grows out of the words of Rav Hirsch's grandson Rabbi Isaac Breuer, that Torah im Derech Eretz does not propose a synthesis, but a "true and absolute domination of the Divine precept over new tendencies." According to the Torah u'Madda philosophy, the practitioner is meant to achieve an internal synthesis between modern academics, culture, and Judaism. In my experience, those engaged in Torah u'Madda are perfectly fine with internalizing non-Jewish culture over Jewish culture, with the wholesale adoption of humanism for its own sake, capitalism or socialism for their own, or any other idea, without needing to understand the viewpoint of the Torah and Jewish thought. In other words, there are two realms, one religious and one academic/intellectual/cultural. For me, there is only one realm, and that is Torah. However, it happens to be that some truth and wisdom, of Divine origin to be sure, has been developed by non-frum sources. It is my job, using Torah as the sole guide, to parse through that wisdom, including a nuanced appreciation and admiration of the Divine human ability to conceptualize, create, or find the wisdom and beauty in the non-frum world. The same is true with culture, understanding that I have a duty to represent Judaism within the context of modern society and so therefore must know how to conduct myself appropriately within the standards of modern society.
The fullness of Torah im Derech Eretz, as well as the process a Torah im Derech Eretz person is meant to undergo when approaching the outside world, is, for me, found in Rav Hirsch's comments on Pirkei Avos, perek 3, mishna 9. It isn't that admiring nature is a misdeed. The misdeed is found in thinking that admiring nature is something disconnected from Torah study. A Jew must understand that all of academia and nature, as well as the work of man's hand, must be used to help us have a greater appreciation of God's creation. When we begin to think of secular studies, art, and culture as separate realms disconnected from Torah, and essentially means and ends within themselves, we are making a mistake that could lead to assimilation.