Monday, September 10, 2007

Hypocrisy in Religion

I have often wondered about my religious observance. I commit various sins, and I often wonder whether it is hypocritical to follow other mitzvot if I am not fulfilling the first or more basic mitzvot. This comes to mind most strongly when we are near Rosh Hashana, at which point I think about all the lies, as it were, that I am going to tell in shul. On Rosh Hashana I read a prepared text with a list of sins for which I am ostensibly sorry. But suppose I am not sorry for these sins, that indeed I feel no guilt? What then? Is it better to be honest and not to mention the sins at all? Is it better to say them anyway and act the hypocrite?

For example, if one does not make birchat haTorah, for whatever reason, should they still learn if they have the opportunity? Or would that be hypocritical? And in religion specifically, does hypocrisy matter?

I have thought it over for a long time, because I do not like the idea of being a hypocrite. I have come to the conclusion that hypocrisy does not matter in religion, and that each day must be treated as a new day. Therefore, though it may seem hypocritical that I daven on one day, for instance, and not the other, it doesn't matter, because each day is a new day to be taken on its own terms. If I have not fulfilled one mitzvah, even knowingly and deliberately, that doesn't negate the value of fulfilling another one. This is purely a philosophical point of view, of course; halakhically things probably have little to no value if the first precept is not fulfilled.

I don't think religion would work if we had to be consistent or honest all the time. I wouldn't keep anything if that were the case, because each day I would be so hard on myself for the things I couldn't or wouldn't keep and then I would start wondering, what is the point? If I don't do something as basic as daven in the morning, who am I kidding if I do a different mitzvah, mitzvah x? That's how I would think, at least. So I have to view everything as separate and not affecting each other and I have to think it's okay to be hypocritical when it comes to religion, not to daven but nevertheless to learn, or to make a blessing over a food but not to say al hamichya, for instance.

I think that's the only one religion can really function. Do you see an alternative? Obviously the ideal is for everyone to keep everything, but otherwise what seems to be hypocritical must be tolerated. So instead of making fun of the woman who covers her legs but gossips openly, or who wears a shaitel but puts on makeup on Shabbat, we should treat them all equally and kindly, because aren't I the same? And isn't that how I would like to be treated? How would I like someone else to make fun of my hypocrisies?

Since I'm the person who would have once been completely dismissive of people whose priorities, to me, seemed out of whack, this is a bit of a revelation for me. Somehow I never had the compassion to see- or the desire to look- and realize that I suffer from the same flaw, only perhaps I am less obvious in the stockings-gossiping correlation. I still do think that some things are more important than others, for example someone who keeps all the laws but who engages in a societal ill, for example, a murderer, doesn't necessarily deserve one's sympathy. One can make this argument for anyone who engages in some kind of meditated crime, including white-collar crimes like not paying one's taxes, which would be a form of stealing. But leaving such crimes aside, there are many of us who can't do everything, and so it doesn't pay for me to look down on anyone, since they could look down on me, too, for the exact same thing. If that makes any sense.

I guess I think that we are all hypocrites, in some sense, unless you happen to be very good, in which case I truly admire you and would probably like to learn from you. It's just that when it comes to religion, hypocrisy isn't a bad thing but a way that demonstrates that you are still growing. "Hypocrisy" is probably the wrong word; it's such a value-laden term, but I can't find the word that means what I am trying to say. I want to say that we're not perfect and shouldn't expect one another to be perfect and that despite seeming dishonest, if one admits for this premise, our seeming hypocrisy is actually honesty. This is assuming one is really trying to do the right thing, of course, and I think that most of us are.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

"As for you, son of man, your people who talk together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, say to one another, each to his brother, "Come, and hear what the word is that comes forth from the Lord." And they come to you as people come, and they sit before you as my people, and they hear what you say but they will not do it; for with their lips they show much love, but their heart is set on their gain."


20. Judaism and Christianity. Ezekiel 33.30-31

Daniel said...

This is an interesting post for me. I don't like to call myself a ba'al teshuva for several reasons, of which the relevant points here are that I was not brought up totally unobservant, and that there are still many mitzvot I still need to keep; true, many otherwise ostensibly frum people need to improve in these or similar areas too ("there is no wholly righteous person on Earth who does good and does not sin"), but that is not the point. However, if I had always taken the attitude of "it's hypocritical to do X before Y" (and believe me, people who felt threatened by my growth, one way or another, made that argument to me), then I would never have improved at all.

For example, I was brought up not eating 100% kosher food. Not outright treif like pork, but things like vegetarian cheese instead of kosher cheese. When I started saying brachot before and after food, I used to feel bad about saying a bracha over treif food. However, I knew that if I went down that path, I would stop making any spiritual growth at all. It happened I was in a situation where I could not keep 100% kosher, so this was the best I could do. When I was able to change, I did. Now I'm in the situation where I can keep kosher and make brachot, which is obviously the best outcome, but I don't think I would have got here without the ability to make such compromises - and to keep making them, as I try to grow in other areas.

In fact, I think 'compromise' is a better word here than 'hypocrisy'. When I saw this post was called "Hypocrisy in Religion", I started thinking of the likes of Voltaire, Diderot or Dawkins criticising religion for preaching love and practicing hatred. I think I would be hypocritical if I went around judging other people, telling them how to live, or even just being self-righteous, given that I am myself an imperfect individual with a long road still to travel. I certainly do not think I am hypocritical for concentrating on trying to change just a few areas of my life at a time.

There really is a great danger in trying to turn one's life upside down. I am always very suspicious of sudden converts (literal or metaphorical) to any cause, doubly so when that cause requires huge changes to their lifestyles. Trying to change everything at once is like the first day of academic year. Everyone says, “This year is not going to be like all the other years. This year is going to be different! This year, I will be organized, I will get up early, I will be punctual, I will be neat, I will balance work and play properly!” It works for a few days, maybe a week; a fortnight at most. Then the old habits take over. Oh, it doesn't necessarily happen because of lack of willpower. Something happens to disrupt the new schedule, an unpredictable outside event, but because everything is new and finely balanced, it all collapses at once. You fall a bit behind schedule, and in trying to catch up, you are late for something else. So you don’t tidy up properly, and before you know it, you’re even further behind because you’ve spent too much time searching through a chaotic pile of papers for something that wasn’t even in there. By this stage, you are so upset about your failure, that you give up and go out for the evening, even though you know you’ve got a huge pile of work you should be doing which you don’t start until gone midnight, so of course you oversleep the next day, and before you know it, it’s just like last year, and the year before, and the year before. The way to succeed is to concentrate on just one thing at a time, make sure it has become second nature to you before doing anything else, so if that doesn’t work, at least it won’t wipe out the progress you have already made.

Everything I’ve heard about teshuva and character improvement, whether from rabbis, psychologists, counsellors or anyone else makes me think that these ‘compromises’ are absolutely the correct way to grow, both halakhicly and practically. Slow but steady progress is much better than leaps which will almost always quickly result in tiring and stagnation or even decline. Once you stop, you get discouraged, lose momentum and it is hard to start again; doubly so if you go backwards.

On Rosh Hashana I read a prepared text with a list of sins for which I am ostensibly sorry. But suppose I am not sorry for these sins, that indeed I feel no guilt? What then? Is it better to be honest and not to mention the sins at all? Is it better to say them anyway and act the hypocrite?

I have thought the same thing. I was able to overcome it partly by preparing a list of things I do feel guilty about and want to change (keeping the list until the time comes to draw up the next year’s list is also a useful way of monitoring my growth). But I still say the prepared text (which in any case is largely about general categories of sins and so is complementary to my narrower personal list). The reason is that although I may not feel guilty about sin X now, reading it out makes me think about it and why it is wrong. I don’t believe that either Hashem has given us halakhot for no reason, nor do I believe the rabbis interpreted them carelessly or puritanically. If they think something is wrong, there is a good reason for them to think so. So I begin to think about why this might be wrong, and why I don’t think feel guilty, and what I should be doing.

I once heard a rabbi compare the process of teshuva to the famous Twelve Step programme for conquering addiction, which parallels it in many ways. An important feature in both is admitting there is a problem. The first step in the programme is “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol [this is the Alcoholics Anonymous version] — that our lives had become unmanageable.” This parallels the viddui on Yom Kippur: we say we have a problem that we need to change. It is one thing just to think it, but by saying it aloud, even in a whisper no one else can hear, it becomes more real. You have finally admitted it. Only now you can begin to think about exactly what is wrong with your life and how to change it; it isn’t until step four in the Twelve Step programme that you start to assess exactly what is wrong with your behaviour as a result of substance abuse, how that affects those around you and so on.

For example, if one does not make birchat haTorah, for whatever reason, should they still learn if they have the opportunity? Or would that be hypocritical? And in religion specifically, does hypocrisy matter?

Birchat haTorah is interesting, as unlike other brachot (except birchat hamazon), many (most?) authorities see it as from the Torah, not rabbinic. Since I’ve been depressed, I do not have the energy to daven the whole of shacharit (even when my messed-up sleep lets me get up in time), and I skip birchat hashachar, but I always say birchat haTorah when I get up, regardless of how depressed I’m feeling. Actually, that’s a really good example, because sometimes I’ve thought “maybe I should say prayer X” as well, and I’ve held back, because I know if I try to do too much, I won’t do anything. Now, it’s true I’m ill and perhaps not a good example in that regard, but I think the general principle holds.

That said, my instinct would be that such a person should still learn, if only because without learning there can be no growth whatsoever.

halakhically things probably have little to no value if the first precept is not fulfilled.

I wouldn’t say that at all. I think it is very rare for one mitzvah to be directly dependent on another. Unless by “first precept” you mean something absolutely fundamental, although I can’t think what, unless you’re secretly an idol worshiper. :-)

I still do think that some things are more important than others, for example someone who keeps all the laws but who engages in a societal ill, for example, a murderer, doesn't necessarily deserve one's sympathy.

I think there is a halakhic justification here. As far as I know, I was right to say brachot over treif food, but it is wrong to say a bracha over something stolen.

Although I presume that by “all the laws” you mean the laws bein adam laMakom; a murderer is clearly breaking ‘lo tirtzach’!

Anonymous said...

Excuse my presumptious-ness, but I think your argument is based on a falacious assumption.

The unspoken assumption in your argument is that your "sins" are Who You Are; hence doing good is duplicitious.

However, if you believe that you have a soul, and that your soul is the "Real" you, (and that the sins do not define who you are--but are, instead, a reliquishment to the powers of the Y"H), then your argument fails. You are good, AND THE SINS AND EVIL ARE HYPOCRITICAL.

Hope that makes sense (and, um, coherent :) )...

KV"T!

Dov

David said...

Just a note: we don't mention sins on Rosh ha-Shannah. We save that for selihot.

Gavi said...

To be "perfect" in religious observance is imposibble (as Daniel qutes Koheles 7:70), but all we must do is try our best, honestly, every day.

Anonymous said...

"For example, if one does not make birchat haTorah, for whatever reason, should they still learn if they have the opportunity? Or would that be hypocritical?"

If one jaywalks, but observes stop signs, is he a hypocrite?

Scraps said...

I think you are confusing consistency and hypocrisy. Yes, there is value to consistency. However, there is also value to each individual act. I do not think that because you didn't daven today does not mean you should not learn, or that you should not daven or learn or both tomorrow. It doesn't make you a hypocrite to daven today and not tomorrow, or to learn but not to daven, but it does make you inconsistent. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't do whatever mitzvot you can when you are inclined, but it would be worthwhile to attempt to sometimes do them even when you're not inclined, because hopefully the inclication will follow the act ("mitoch shelo lishma, bah lishma"). Obviously, it is not my place to tell you what you should or shouldn't be doing, that's just my $.02 and you can take it for what it's worth.

Anonymous said...

In halacha, there is a great distinction b/t someone who commits one (or any number) of sins b/c of human frailty versus someone who sins out of rebelliosness to Hashem. As a rule, I'd guess most people err with the former, not the latter.

SJ said...

Wow, Chana. I have been thinking about this exact same thing a lot lately. It used to be that I didn't understand this religious "hypocrisy" at all, because to me, if you believed in the system, you had to do everything in your power to keep all its rules. Not to say that I was perfect, but I really tried to be, at least in keeping basic halacha. But lately certain things have made me think, and I've come to the same realization that you have: for each person there are things that are hard to do, and some that seem impossible. We all have our flaws and failings. But that should not and must not be used as an excuse to let go of everything; though we fall in some areas, we must get up and keep going and do the things we can. As long as we keep moving forward, somehow, we will get there eventually.

Anonymous said...

If you don't manage to always be respectful and nice to your mother, is it hypocritical to sometimes be nice to her?

Izgad said...

How far are you willing to take your tolerance for people with skewered priorities in religion? The Gemara in Yoma has a story in which one of the kohenim gets stabbed with a knife in the Temple. While his body is still withering on the ground someone pulls the knife out so that it would not become tamai. The idea being that they were more concerned with impurity in the Temple then with people getting murdered in the Temple.