I am very sensitive for various reasons to religious hypocrisy.
Though I am no longer a Christian, I grew up as one and remember hearing a sermon or lecture about how the sin of hypocrisy is not just about claiming to be of a particular faith and then not following “the rules”. It’s much worse – if someone turns away from G’d because of someone’s hypocrisy, the hypocrite takes on the ultimate destination of the seeker.
If a Jew demands “righteousness” of other Jews and voices condemnation of other Jews for not being perfect Jews and then goes around committing the same sins, how is that seen in Judaism? How is it handled?
While we did abbreviate your letter for practical reasons, your aversion to religious hypocrisy came across loud and clear. Yet, we think that hypocrisy might be one of those words that means different things to different people.
You speak of a Jew—though you could be speaking of someone of any religion—who condemns others for not being perfect and then commits the same sins. There is a world of difference between imperfection, inconsistency and hypocrisy.
There is no such thing as a “perfect Jew,” or a perfect human being. God is perfect; people are not. That doesn’t mean that nobody should preach or teach in any area in which they themselves are imperfect.
Let’s take a practical example. God frowns on using language for falsehood or as a means to oppress or ridicule other people. We should all be striving to speak only in ways that build society, not tear it down. We should use words that heal, not harm. However, very, very few of us will ever achieve close to perfection in that area. Whether we respond with angry frustration to an incompetent clerk, whether we casually and unnecessarily gossip about a neighbor or whether we answer a child’s fifth interruption with harshness, our lives are full of opportunity to use our gift of speech positively. We try, we fail and we try again.
Someone who teaches a class about careful speech and then has an episode where he himself fails, is not being a hypocrite. He’s being humanly inconsistent. Hypocrisy would demand that as he gives the speech he acts as if this is a challenge he has already mastered while, in reality, he never intends his words to relate to himself. Another example of hypocrisy would be if perhaps he is speaking for some ignoble ulterior motive such as aggrandizing himself, not because he believes what he says.
In fact, the word hypocrite derives from the Greek for ‘play-acting.’ An example of this was Stalin who was known to greet subordinates with warmth and words of friendship immediately before cold-bloodedly dispatching them to their deaths. That was hypocritical.
We agree that it is painful to see religious hypocrisy. When someone stirs us with his teaching and then we see that he never meant what he said, it harms our relationship with God and with faith. However, that is very different from hearing someone aim high, present an ideal and then, very humanly, miss reaching the ideal. So, if we heard someone speak eloquently about compassion for children hurt in an earthquake and then behind the scenes say something like, “The world would be better off if fewer of those kids survived, but nothing makes people reach into their pockets more than a description of a suffering child,” that is hypocrisy.
However, that is very different from hearing someone aim high, present an ideal and then, very humanly, miss reaching the ideal himself. For instance, someone who encourages contributions for those same children and then doesn’t reach deep into his own pocket may be failing a spiritual test, but he isn’t necessarily a hypocrite. Maybe he isn’t the best spokesman for that issue, but he may truly be emotionally moved, just not able to be as unselfish as he would hope to be.
In ancient Jewish wisdom a phrase of great praise is “Tocho K’varo,” which translates as his inside is like his outside. It would be wonderful if the face and words we present to the world that reflect the best picture of ourselves, reached deep inside us and reflected who we truly were. But that is a height for which we aim, not one we demand that we always meet. The path to that goal is to present our most positive side to the world. It isn’t helpful for us to say, “Well, I know I have a lazy impulse. Sometimes, I just roll over in the morning instead of jumping up and starting my day. I don’t want to present a false picture so when I have to get up for an early meeting, I will dress in a slovenly fashion so no one thinks that a put-together person early in the morning is the real me.”
This is a long answer to your question, Laura, but we think that true hypocrites aren’t that common. Some of us are very willing to recognize and forgive our own human failings while holding our spouses, children, neighbors and friends to an impossible standard. Once we allow them to be human as well, we find that we can look up to and learn much from imperfect people. With that caveat, we agree with you that true hypocrites rank very low in God’s ranking.
The highly imperfect,
Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin