Monday, March 23, 2015

Hypocrisy Isn't the Worst Sin, if One of the More Disgusting

"Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue."
— Francois de La Rochefoucauld, 17th c.
"Rich, you really should pay more respect to hypocrisy."
— Gary Elden, middle 1960s

            Hypocrisy, abstractly considered, is a set of disconnections in individuals among what they think and say and do. Hypocrisy encountered in everyday life is kind of like biting into a rotten apple; there's just something disgusting about it.

            Significantly in our culture, it's one sin that really seemed to tick off Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus could move among whores and (worse!) the tax gatherers for The Evil Empire, the goddamn Romans, but hypocrites? "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" (Matthew 23.27).

            As the sectarian divisions went at the time, Jesus was a Pharisee; a Pharisee was a sometimes populist proto-rabbi ("which means 'teacher'"[John 1.38]) — and prophets and reformers tend to be hardest on their own; and prophets and reformers (and God incarnate, if you believe) can get really, really, really get ticked off at colleagues in the religion biz who are hypocritical about it.

            So the gut reaction is familiar enough, and it's especially appropriate for Christians. Christianity is big on right belief, as St. Paul and the Protestants insist ("sola fide," fella), by faith and "by faith alone" shall ye be saved; and by your intentions shall ye be judged, as asserted by the Venerable George — George Carlin — although I couldn't find that exact quote on line. So it makes sense that the Jesus of the Gospels was upset by religious scholars and teachers who may have been punctilious in their observance of the Law but lacked generosity of spirit and maybe just generosity: Jesus was big on helping the needy, and even aliens, convicts and the detained (Matthew 25.31-46).

            The successors of those proto-rabbis, though, agreed with Jesus on good deeds but sometimes had a less absolutist view on motivation, on what constitutes "acts of love and kindness." And in the manner of teachers, some of the rabbis told a story about what many Christians ought to see as hypocrisy — it certainly features disconnects among thoughts and words and deeds — but in which hypocrisy might have its uses.

            Anyway: There was once a man well known for his piety. One day the man went to his rabbi and said, "Rabbi, I am a great sinner." The rabbi thought, "Oy, another overly-fastidious kvetch" (Ned Flanders on The Simpsons reflects a real variety of the nervously pious), and the rabbi mumbled at the man, "Oh, I'm sure it's nothing terrible."

            The man replied, "Rabbi, I'm a hypocrite."

            This got the rabbi's attention, and he told the man to explain.

            "Well," the man said, "I'm scrupulous in observing Torah and all the mitzvot and even the smallest rule making 'a hedge around the Torah'; but I don't obey out of love of God or, or even fear of God, nor a sense of gratitude nor out of regard for people, much less love for them. I do what I do because it's easy for me, and I like the reputation for piety."

            "So it's a kind of pride," said the rabbi, "and indeed hypocrisy."

            "Yes," said the man, "am I not a great sinner?"

            "Hmmm …," said the rabbi, and in the manner of rabbis and teachers and maybe just Jews answered the question with a question.

            "Would you like to be sincere?" asked the rabbi, "to act well because you love the Eternal 'with all your heart, all your soul and all your strength'" (Deuteronomy 6.5), "and 'your neighbor as yourself' — and the stranger, as well?" (Leviticus 19.18, 19.34)?

            "Yes," said the man; "so what should I do?"

            The rabbi thought a moment and then said, "Keep doing what you're doing."

            "Continue in sin!?" said the man, "in hypocrisy?!"

            "Continue to behave well," said the rabbi, "and try to do it for better reasons. God knows the intention behind your intentions; and maybe from habit better motives will follow. And even if they don't, you'll be doing no harm and at least some good."

            And the man went off to do what he was to do, with listeners to the story —in good Hebraic tradition — required to fill in an ending, if they want one.

            Now usually when we're disgusted by hypocrisy it's when people disobey the injunction to "Practice what you preach," and some hell-fire condemner of vice gets caught in the wrong bed or hanging around the "right," so to speak, men's room.

            But if hypocrisy is keeping words, actions, and motives in line, "to do the right deed / for the wrong reason" is also a problem. And it, too, can bother us.

            We Americans are really big on "I like" or "I don't like — your attitude." We want people to be sincere and authentic and "well-motivated" and want people to help us and show respect for us and be good to us because those people really respect and like us and want to help.

            Okay. Usually. Certainly if you are looking for a friend. Less so if we're not talking about friends but just people you want or need to deal with.

            It's easy and totally proper to despise politicians and preachers who condemn others for their own vices. Shakespeare's Duke Vincentio says of the puritanical judge Angelo, who condemns a man for fornication and then attempts to coerce sex from the man's sister, an almost-nun, "Shame to him whose cruel striking / Kills for faults of his own liking!" (Measure for Measure 3.2). Still, don't delve too deeply if people are treating you hypocritically, but decently.

            Hypocrisy is vice's little "curtsey" to virtue, and my friend Gary and one rabbinic tradition have a point. Don't go overboard with respect for nasty people doing the right thing for all the wrong reasons — but go along. You may get your stomach turned by politicians who despise your group but will help you out for your votes, but you may be better off with them than with their more honest opponent.

            "Hypocrisy isn't the worst sin, but it is the most disgusting," indeed. But we shouldn't forget the part that's it's far from the worst of sins, and can be useful. 

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