Past Perfect: Hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is the greatest enemy of religious leaders.

One of the greatest crimes in the eyes of the general public is behavior of public figures that is patently hypocritical when judged by their previous public statements and pronouncements. The impression of hypocrisy as a great crime is reinforced by the high if not unreasonable expectations of the general public toward its political and social leaders. But people have frailties and temptations and people in high office are also human. This is not to condone any illegal or immoral activities on the part of anyone, but the fact that leaders put upon themselves such an aura of selflessness in their public declarations leaves them very vulnerable to the ravages of hypocrisy which almost always follow high-sounding utterances and declarations. I have always felt that part of Winston Churchill's greatness in the leadership of Britain in World War II lay in his refusal to make sweeping promises or proclaim easy solutions. He promised the English people "blood, toil, tears and sweat" with the hope that eventually victory would come their way. This promise in all of its form was eventually fulfilled. There were no promises of settling ancient disputes in a matter of months, no brazen commitments for immediate victories and no hiding from the evident facts of the situation. This enabled him to escape from the plague of hypocrisy that has plagued so many of our leaders on the social, military and diplomatic fronts. The greater the promises, the more outlandish the projections, the greater the toll that exposed hypocrisy exacts from the body politic. Hypocrisy is the greatest enemy of religious leaders. Fallen clergy are the stuff of legend, let alone popular literature and investigative media. They are especially vulnerable because of their usual posture of moral self-righteousness and their penchant for criticizing sharply those they feel to be derelict in their behavior, policies or thoughts and attitudes. Thus when their faults are exposed it is not only they that fall but they take down the faith that they represent as well. The tendency in certain religious circles and society to glorify its leadership to the extent that these people become superhuman only exacerbates the vulnerability to the accusation of hypocrisy. The Hasmonean king Alexander Yannai is recorded in the Talmud as warning his son against those "who behave as Zimri but expect to be rewarded as though they were Phineas." Hypocrisy was seen as a greater sin in public life than being a Sadducee. For hypocrisy when revealed drags down the entire structures of idealism and morality that once were represented by this now newly discovered hypocrite. Religious leaders have to therefore be careful not only in their private behavior, for in our times all private behavior eventually becomes public knowledge, but in their public statements regarding matters of moral and human behavior patterns. The Talmud warned the wise men of Israel to be very circumspect in their statements and words. Overstatements lead to exposure. Creating idols out of men, no matter how worthy and holy they may be - and there are many such people still in our midst, thank God - is dangerous and against Torah principles. It certainly raises the specter of hypocrisy to a warning level. The very recent fall from grace and office of political leaders in the United States because of their immoral behavior was hastened by the fact that they portrayed themselves as crusaders for family values, ethical business relationships and honesty in all matters of public and private behavior. This high standard doomed them when their own failings were revealed to the public. The public loves to punish a hypocrite, to puncture the balloon of pompous self-righteousness and personal infallibility. The Torah teaches us that there are no perfect people. Even the righteous have failings and sins. This is meant to therefore create a spirit of humility in all humans, especially in those who find themselves in leadership and influential positions. Arrogance leads to brazen claims, overstatements, hasty judgments and great risks. Pride and hubris go before a fall. It is stated in the name of the Gaon of Vilna that he predicted that later generations would be dominated by external appearances and posturing and not by true inner beliefs and purer motives. The greater the emphasis on externals, the more likelihood of the accusations of hypocrisy will occur. It is possible to recover from mistakes, errors and foolish behavior. But it is almost impossible for the public person in any forum to recover from the charge of hypocrisy if proven against him or her. The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator.