October 24, 2002
In Praise of Hypocrisy
Parshat Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24)
"Why do you Jews cheat so much?"
The nun sitting next to a colleague of mine on a plane had first asked him whether she could pose a question about his Jewishness. He was more than agreeable, but expected to be queried about some point of Jewish custom or thought. He had not expected the accusation, nor did he accept the premise that thievery flourished in the Jewish community in greater proportion than in the population at large. Moreover, the unmistakable hostility in her voice left no room to suppose that her question was born of naïve misinformation.
My friend answered with a story. A simple Jew in the old country made his living as a messenger, transporting letters and sometimes goods between towns. He once traveled with a consignment entrusted to him by a dealer in precious stones. As luck would have it, he was accosted on the road by a revolver-brandishing brigand who demanded that he empty his pockets. Expecting only some loose change, the thief was delirious with joy when he discovered the gems in his heist.
"Say, would you mind doing a favor for me?" the Jew asked. "When I return to my client, he will suspect that I fabricated the robbery and stole the gems myself. I have no signs of a struggle to show otherwise. Would you be so kind as to shoot a hole through my jacket?"
The thief, celebrating his good luck, saw no reason not to comply and put a bullet through the Jew's clothes.
"That's good," the Jew said, "but not convincing enough. Would you perhaps put another through my sleeve here and here?"
This continued until the thief had put all six bullets into the Jew's clothing. The Jew then pounced on the thief, beat him to a pulp and calmly retrieved the gems.
Looking up at the Jew walking off, the thief could only spit back his displeasure, "Filthy, conniving Jew!"
My friend continued, "For hundreds of years, you stole and plundered what meager resources we could cobble together. Cunning and deceit became tools for survival. For this, you call us cheats! Thank God, we now live in a society where we are protected by law, like all other citizens. The vast majority of us are law-abiding, beyond the norms of the rest of society. For a small minority, though, habits of hundreds of years sometimes take a while to change."
A bit of disingenuousness is not always a terrible thing. A bit more of it might have saved the city of Sodom.
According to tradition, it was law -- not behavior -- that made Sodom so thoroughly irredeemable. The rabbis saw Sodom very differently from the view popularized by Christian commentary and Cecil B. DeMille. To the rabbis, sodomy meant preventing people from performing acts of lovingkindness to others. Sodom's residents were selfish, but they didn't just stop being kind to others -- they elevated selfishness to the standard of law. Not want-ing to be bothered by panhandlers, they criminalized the act of giving to strangers. They conceived of the world's first gated community: wanting their privacy (and always in the mood for fun), they legislated that any guest who stayed past sundown was fair game to the depredations of the rabble.
The angels who were sent to warn Lot to flee the soon-to-be-destroyed Sodom found him "sitting at the gate." Local courts used to set up shop at the city's entrance, so we are not surprised that a midrash tells us that Lot had been appointed a judge over them "that very day."
Rav Itzeleh Volozhin, a 19th century Torah sage, explains that timing was everything. Thoroughly evil societies can still be livable if decent folks can sidestep evil laws -- and can be sneaky in applying it. Typically, the venal instincts of others leave the door open for the good individual to remain good. He or she can subvert the evil through bribery, artifice and cunning. If, however, an honest, incorruptible and energetic enforcer presides over a system of corrupt laws, the door slams shut. Sodom's fate was sealed, Itzeleh says, when a scrupulous Lot was appointed to oversee the legislated evil of the city, and would see to it that corruption was doled out with consistency and regularity.
The proper way, then, to deal with unfair laws is to not regard them as lawful and binding.
Ironically, we often unconsciously turn our personal failings into binding patterns or predictable "laws" of behavior.
Voltaire -- the great French Enlightenment anti-Semite -- was likely correct. Hypocrisy, he wrote, is the homage vice pays to virtue. We should recognize that we are imperfect, that there are ideals not yet achieved that still ought to be cherished rather than dismissed. This is far better than telling ourselves that we are doing just fine.
Worse yet is to take our shortcomings and turn them into new ideologies and models of rectitude. We ought to be able to recognize when we have left Jerusalem, and wound up in Sodom. When we do, it would be best to let Lot rest in piece, rather than shlep him along to give evil the imprimatur of good.