I can’t stand religious hypocrites!

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?

Laura M.

Dear Laura,

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

18 thoughts on “I can’t stand religious hypocrites!”

  1. Rabbi Lapin and Susan: thank you for posting & addressing this issue. It’s been one of those things my father and I have not always seen eye-to-eye on in our conversations over the last 18 years it’s come up quite frequently for my part from my own painful experiences of being let down and dismissed in/by/from the Body of Christ at the local level when in what became an abusive marriage with a husband who was also hiding a deep addiction to online pornography, while I was also coping with my infant son’s significant medical issues necessitating a long list of doctors at the children’s hospital an hour away. The Body of Christ wasn’t there for me, they outright failed me, and it hurt. I was told to be grateful my ex was out of my life, by the time I faced the truth of what needed to be done. Most Christians, in my experiences, displayed being not merely imperfect –they were & are in fact hypocrites. It’s easy for me to have faith in and believe in God –deeply so; however, I have little to no faith or belief in His people even years later when my son is on the verge of graduation -something I wasn’t certain he would actually be able to do until a few years ago. Even those who lay claim to believing in living as imperfect souls serving a perfect God, most of such do not even realize they have no real clue about what that claim really means, it’s little more than a slogan and platitude, and I have no patience for either of those on this end of my journeys through domestic violence, healing from it and coping with raising a child with special/behavioral needs on my own with little to no outside help as a single parent as well as raising my daughter. I realize you may well disagree with what I’ve shared, and I hold no ill-will towards anyone who does. I did, however, feel it necessary to share my experiences in this issue that have me where I am in how I think/believe about it.

    1. Diana, “coincidentally” I saw your comment (which I think may have gotten misplaced for a bit) just after we started chatting with a stranger who shared his disappointment in his own religious community. You sound like a strong woman who did an amazing job with your son and I’m sorry that the faith community failed you. Demanding more of ourselves as individuals and as a community is an ever-going challenge.

  2. Is there a time when you can share your frustrations with your spouse or close friend about people (co-workers, children, fellow congregates, etc)? Is “venting” to another ever heathy? Or do we just not show enough grace/mercy/love to other people?

    My wife and I are both parents of two children, elementary teachers and we are very involved with our church and arranging activities. Like you said, the enticement to destroy with our words is always available.

    1. Ooh, what a good question, Scott. And it needs much more than a comment-length answer. Please submit it as an Ask the Rabbi question.

  3. I seem to be consistently inconsistent. On the other hand I’ve heard it said ” when you point you finger at someone else, there will be three fingers pointing back at you”.


  4. We were discussing an upcoming trial when a coworker suddenly asked me what was the difference between JUSTICE & MERCY. The only thing I could think of for an answer was Justice is what I want for You, Mercy is what I want for Me. Am I human or hypocrite?


    1. How about a third alternative, Brian. You are someone who is able to recognize when you are being inconsistent.

      1. I was surprised to receive this response, like I stated before I never posted this question. Nor would I criticize a Jew, for I am imperfect. I pray the Lord bless the Jews.
        I don’t know who posted this question, but please disregard any further questions in my name. I apologize to everyone for this post and pray for whoever did post it in my name.

        1. Laura, we apologize for printing something in your name that wasn’t from you. I can’t imagine how or why someone would use your name. We found the question interesting and I think a lot of other people did as well. Is it possible it is from someone with the same first name and last initial as you?

  5. Sometimes people are seeking ‘rules’ so that they do not err themselves. Some seek ‘rules’ to hold others accountable, to the point of allowing themselves to be dismissive of others. However some people are looking for anchors in their lives, and that seems to be what Laura is doing.

    If you were/are under poor teaching you will eventually find that out, one way or another. For Laura that also seems to be the case, as it is with many, many of us. Myself included.

    Clean the inside of the cup first, that the outside may also be clean.

    Thank you, as always, for your insight and your beautifully reasoned response.

    Best regards,


  6. “. . . we think that true hypocrites aren’t that common.”

    I like to think you are right, in general. However, I have the distinct impression that they are pretty thick on the ground in Washington, D.C.

    1. We’re not going to argue with you, Mark. As Lord Acton said, power corrupts. One of the ways it does that is by chiseling away at one’s principles so you still speak about them but don’t believe they apply to you.

  7. Grace for me…judgement for everyone else is the way I like to phrase it. Wonderful insights as always. Someday I will be nice and forgiving to everyone, that will be after I stop driving I’m sure.

    1. We have more faith in you, Louis. We can all become nicer – one challenge at a time – it’s not an all or nothing deal.

  8. As always simple, yet extremely clear and eloquent.
    My late ballet teacher used to say: “do as I say – not as I do”.. when she was injured and couldn’t show us the correct movement. And that’s the difference that you pointed out so precisely – we are not perfect, but that doesn’t make us hypocrites, just human…
    It is so important to understand the difference in the time like now, when big words and labels are thrown at us, and it is so easy to get lost…
    Thank you, dear Rabbi Lapin, for your teachings!

    1. What a nice twist on the “do as I say, not as I do,” phrase. Sometimes, that is what you have to say.

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