Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s ‘Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Genesis‘ co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and Yeshiva University Press; Edited by Stuart W. Halpern
Hypocrisy is rightly a despised trait, and the word “hypocrite” a harsh and contemptuous epithet reserved for vile people. It is all the more unfortunate, therefore, that the popular condemnation of insincerity is not always matched by a correspondingly universal abstention from this vice in the affairs of man in society. Every day many thousands of letters are written in which the writers employ varied devices ranging from subtle deviousness to outright deceit, and compound their crime by signing the letters, “I am, sincerely yours….”
What is a hypocrite? According to the dictionary definition it is one who pretends to be something other than what he really is (usually one who pretends to be better than he really is) or to feel what he does not really feel. Hypocrisy is feigning, acting a part, pretending. Perhaps a better word is the Hebrew tzeviut – literally: coloring, dyeing. Hypocrisy, then, is giving an impression which does not correspond with the facts. It is the incommensurateness of the inner fact and the outer appearance.
Our prophets stormed against hypocrisy. Our rabbis thundered against it. The Talmud quotes King Yannai advising his wife, Queen Salome, “Do not be afraid either of the Pharisees or of those who are not Pharisees; fear only those hypocrites who act like Pharisees, who behave like Zimri (an ignoble person), and who expect to be rewarded like Pinchas (the saintly priest of Israel)” (Sota 22b).
In that case, we are presented with a problem by the sidra. We read, in very few lines, that Reuben sinned with Bilha, the concubine of his father Jacob. If the Bible said so, it is the truth. Yet the Talmud (Megilla 25b) advises us that the story of Reuben should be read but not translated. It was once the custom that the Torah would be read as we read it, and then one person would be assigned to translate it publicly into Aramaic, the vernacular at that time. However, an exception was made of this story of Reuben, and when one rabbi insisted that it be read in the Hebrew but left untranslated, he was congratulated by his colleagues. But is this not insincere, even hypocritical? Is not the suppression of the truth hypocrisy, and is not every instance of hypocrisy deplorable?
The answer is no, it is not hypocrisy or insincerity, although it suppresses the broadcast of a true event. And, if one should insist that this is hypocrisy, then with full respect to all our honorable prejudices, certain forms of such insincerity are not malicious but wholesome and healthy. Not in all ways must one’s appearances be thoroughly equivalent and correspond to his inner thoughts. To speak a conscious untruth aiming at personal gain or creating a favorable image and false impression is a foul act. But to refrain from telling all I know and consider to be true, either because I am unsure how that truth will be interpreted, or out of respect for the sensitivity and feelings of others – that is an act of civility, not insincerity.
Thus, in the affair of Reuben there were many mitigating factors, and varying interpretations are possible, as indeed many of them appear in the Talmud. A direct translation into the vernacular is, therefore, misleading and the cause of much misunderstanding. Furthermore, it is bad enough that the Torah preserves a sacred record of Reuben’s misdeed, and there is no need to add salt to the wounds of a cherished forebear even if he is no longer in the world of the living.
It is a sin to lie; it is no mitzva to tell all I know, even if it is the truth. There is a law in the Shulchan Arukh that if a man has, heaven forbid, lost a close relative for whom he must mourn, but he is unaware of his loss, then one ought not to apprise him of it within thirty days of the death, for then he would be obligated to observe all of the shiva. One may not give a false answer upon interrogation, but one ought not to volunteer this kind of information, and if he does he is considered a kesil, a fool. A fool, indeed! Hypocrisy is not avoided and insincerity not served by mindless chattering and compulsive loquaciousness!
Too much cruelty has been practiced under the guise of honesty, too much frightful foolishness excused as frankness, too many assaults on the feelings of others carried out under the pretense of sincerity. Is it hypocrisy for a teacher to refrain from telling a slow student that he is unintelligent? Is it commendable sincerity to tell every homely person, “You are plain-looking and unattractive”? No, it is not. In fact, Hillel taught that one must even tell an unattractive bride that she is beautiful and charming!
The truth should be spoken, not blurted out. If you hear a performer or entertainer or artist, and have adverse criticism – even if it is constructive – then Jewish ethics and derekh eretz advise you: wait for a propitious time before offering your comments, do not offend the innermost feelings of another human being. If you apprehend a friend in embarrassing circumstances, performing an evil deed, it is a mitzvah to reproach him. You are not free to withhold your comment. But the rebuke must be administered gently, considerately, delicately. The Torah commands us, “You shall reproach your friend” (Leviticus 19:17). And the rabbis add, “Even a hundred times” (Bava Metzia 31a). On this, one of the great lights of the Musar movement commented: this means that the single rebuke must be broken into a hundred pieces and offered in tiny doses, lest the person you seek to correct should become the victim of painful insult.
Furthermore, there is a decent, beneficial, and honorable kind of hypocrisy which is not insincere, and without which society might well collapse. There are certain conventional fictions that are apparently untrue, but that suggest a kind of truth far beyond the reach of normal comprehension. Jewish law, for instance, aims at producing perfect individuals and a holy society, yet it knows full well, as King Solomon taught, that no person in the world is perfectly righteous and blameless.
Halakha grants each person a chezkat kashrut, a presumption of innocence and virtue; yet it knows full well that, as the Bible teaches, “Man’s innate disposition is toward evil” (Genesis 8:21). Is this hypocrisy? If it is, then we should all be in favor of hypocrisy! For without it, all law and religion must progressively be reduced and diminished to the lowest level of common practice. This spells the death of all ideals. A child who errs and stumbles, yet who is trusted by a parent and feels that the parent’s opinion of him is higher than his poor reality, is inspired by this discrepancy to fulfill the higher image. Likewise the Jew and his halakha: he is imperfect and faulted, yet because he is granted the chezkat kashrut and told that he incorporates the image of God, and is expected to live up to it, he will strive to do just that, lest he suffer inner embarrassment and shame.
This week the Supreme Court has been deliberating on the problems of censorship and pornography. This brings to mind a fascinating article by George P. Elliot I read in a national magazine, in which a principle similar to the one we have been discussing was put forth. The author believes that the law should banish pornography, but not enforce this regulation. He asks: is it not, however, hypocrisy to outlaw pornography if we know well that it will be sold surreptitiously? He answers: “The law should rest content with a decent hypocrisy,’’ and ban obscene literature in the marketplace even if it knows that it will be sold under the counter, where the law will not and cannot bother with it. Law is the way that society approves and disapproves of certain acts. “A certain amount of official hypocrisy is one of the operative principles of a good society.” Unenforced laws express society’s goals, ideals, and visions. Law is meant not only to punish, but also to educate to higher standards. “Civilization behaves as though men are decent in full knowledge that they are not.”
Judaism cannot take exception to this doctrine. When, at the beginning of the Emancipation, non-Orthodox Jews did adopt an opposite point of view, they began to prune the laws and cut down the halakha to fit current, prevalent practice. As a result, they discovered – as we well know in our days – that when you do this Judaism begins to crumble and Jews begin to vanish. If Jewish laws are abandoned because they are not universally observed, Judaism becomes nothing but a sanctimonious self-approval for spiritual failures, a vacuous “hekhsher” for not-so-kosher Jews.
That is why we ought not to be impressed or depressed at the cries of hypocrisy often hurled at Orthodox synagogues that disapprove of travel on the Sabbath, though many of its members violate that standard. We rightly insist upon full and meticulous observance of kashrut, though some members in the privacy of their homes or when away from home do not live up to this ideal. If a standard is set, the congregation must live under the impression that the ideal is a reality; and all who fail to conform must suffer the pangs of guilt. If that is a fiction, it is a splendid and sublime fiction, on the way to becoming a luminous truth.
We live in an alma diperuda, an imperfect and fragmented world. For truth to be triumphant, it must proceed cautiously. We must give no quarter to falsehood, but we must remember that truth must often disguise itself in a thousand different garments – until that blessed day, the “day of the Lord,” when man and society will be redeemed; when truth will be revealed courageously and fully; when this world will become transformed into an olam ha’emet, a world of truth; when God’s unity will be expressed in living the whole truth and nothing but the truth; and when men will confront their own selves in truth, and be truly devoted to each other, so that each man will be able to address his brother and say, in full and genuine honesty, “I am, sincerely, yours!”
*For the full text of this sermon, see Rabbi Norman Lamm’s ‘Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Genesis‘