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Lamenting the loss of sincerity in modern times, Jean-Jacques Rousseau attacked the culture of ‘politeness and formality’ which filled the court society of his day. Rousseau passionately felt that cultures governed by strict rules of etiquette created an environment of artificiality. He believed that they trap people into formal moulds of propriety and provide a convenient mask for one’s inner thoughts. Rousseau wistfully pined for more sincere company: “How sweet it would be to live among us if the outward countenance were always the image of the heart’s dispositions!” (Discourses, p. 7). George Simmel (1858-1918) felt that the modern world was growing ever more complex and chaotic, leaving individuals increasingly insecure. During such uncertain changing times, the need for trust and sincerity becomes especially vital (Secret and Secret Society, p. 315).
Whilst sincerity occupies a rather positive position in Jewish thought, its precise nature is complicated by the narratives in the book of Bereishit. At the outset of parashat Toldot, Jacob is labelled an Ish Tam, a simple, naïve or wholesome man. Elaborating on this somewhat mysterious description, Rashi writes that whatever appeared in Jacob’s heart would reach his lips, he was “someone unacquainted with deception.” Jacob seems to meet the image of the ideal man of sincerity, unschooled in the art of deception and foreign to the cunning of disguise.
And yet, soon after learning of his naiveté, the Torah describes Jacob engaging in a most elaborate act of deception. Encouraged by his mother, Jacob disguises himself in goatskin to receive a blessing from his blind father, a blessing seemingly intended for his somewhat hairier elder brother. This simple sincere man unable to distort his inner feelings suddenly, and unexpectedly, commits an act of outright fraud. Even Isaac realised the rift between the inner and outer world of the man before him: “the hands are the hands of Esav yet the voice is that of Jacob!” (Bereishit, 27:22).
Many commentators throughout the ages have struggled with these verses and sought to explain why Jacob thought it was acceptable to masquerade. Reluctant to outright accuse a forefather of deception, many commentators, Rashi included, resolve this tension by diminishing the severity of Jacob’s mendacity. However, other thinkers, including Rabbis Abraham Ibn Ezra and Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, acknowledged the grave deception perpetrated by Jacob. Indeed, the numerous times Jacob is deceived later on in life, first by his father-in-law and then his sons, is described as a “measure for measure” punishment for this act.
Another fascinating thinker who followed this second path was Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905), leader of the Ger Hasidic dynasty and conveniently known as the Sefat Emet [The Language of Truth]. The Sefat Emet argued that Isaac had two sets of blessings prepared for his children; one for Esav which reflected his earthy physical existence and another for Jacob which was to propel his spiritual quest to continue the legacy of Abraham. Esav, however, was not yet ripe for his blessing. Jacob was called upon to take on Esav’s mission until he proved himself ready.
Important for this discussion is the Sefat Emet’s description of Jacob’s deception. For the Sefat Emat, impersonation, pursued constructively, represents a desire to expand oneself, to stretch one’s character beyond its previous limits, to learn new roles (Sefat Emet, 5647). In order for Jacob to adopt this new identity, he needed to go beyond himself, to create a false exterior, in a sense, to lie. The Sefat Emet felt that “in this world, deception is necessary to attain the blessing of this world” (Sefat Emet, 5637). The Sefat Emet saw a positive place in this world for mendacity, which allowed Jacob, in a very real sense, “to become Esav.”
The Sefat Emet felt that sometimes masks need to be worn and sincerity momentarily sacrificed to achieve genuine change. Masks serve not only to conceal, but also to stimulate tremendous growth. Forging a false exterior reflects a refusal to accept the world as it is, indeed ourselves as we currently are, and allows us to pursue a radically different reality. In his famous work on the use of language, After Babel, George Steiner similarly argued that if we only ever acted with complete sincerity, conveying frank truths day and night, “we would turn forever on the treadmill of the present. Ours is the ability, the need, to gainsay, or ‘un-say’ the world” (p. 228). Sometimes we need to act first, at times against our ‘true’ inner selves, to awaken dormant aspects of our identity.
If sincerity can indeed be ignored, how are we to treat the talmudic statement cited above demanding complete transparency from our role models? Interestingly, this concept of sincerity appears a second time in the Talmud, with a remarkably distinct flavour. The Talmud relates an interesting account of the deposition of Raban Gamliel, then leader of the Sanhedrin, by his fellow rabbinic colleagues. The Talmud details the changes the new leadership adopted: “On that day the doorkeeper was removed and permission was given to the disciples to enter. For Rabban Gamaliel had issued a proclamation saying that no disciple whose character does not correspond to his exterior may enter the Beth ha-Midrash. On that day many stools were added… Some say 700” (Berachot 28a).
Ultimately, the rabbis departed from Raban Gamliel’s purist approach demanding complete and constant connection between thoughts and actions. They realised that a world without any masks was unrealistic and even undesirable. As the story of Jacob reveals, sometimes a masquerade is necessary to stimulate meaningful change. As the saying goes, sometimes we need to fake it till we make it. Sincerity and truthfulness are still most definitely the core foundation of our interaction with the world around us. Yet, an occasional constructive impersonation is necessary to awaken dormant strengths we never knew existed.