Published  in the J Weekly of February 19, 2015

Do hypocrites deserve a place in our midst?

We are often profoundly disturbed when the well-groomed, “clean” public image of a political figure, a communal leader — even an athlete, news anchor or movie star — is shattered. We find ourselves vexed by the distance between what was seen and what now lies revealed.

The insistence upon personal authenticity, or the rejection of hypocrisy, finds its symbolic representation in the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle).

In describing the Ark of the Covenant, which was made of acacia wood, the Torah teaches that it must be overlaid “with pure gold; from inside and from outside” (Exodus 25:11). In the same context, the Torah also demands that it be covered (Ex. 25:17-33), making the requirement to overlay the inside of the Ark with gold especially perplexing. Why insist on gold on the inside, if that part would not be seen in any event?

For many of our rabbis, the aesthetic aspects of the Mishkan symbolically express religious and moral teachings. For these rabbis, the Mishkan’s artistic details are meant to arouse spiritual contemplation and inspire ethical introspection among devoted worshippers and practitioners.

In that spirit, the fourth-century rabbi known as Rava explains the Torah’s insistence on covering both the inside and the outside of the Ark with gold: “From this we learn that any Torah scholar whose inside and outside are not the same is not a Torah scholar” (Yoma 72b). For Rava, the Ark’s artistic dimension conveys the lesson for the Torah scholar to close the gap between the hidden, inner recesses of his religious personality and his perceived public persona.

In his code of law, Maimonides expands this teaching beyond Torah scholars, arguing that every person “should not speak one thing outwardly and think otherwise in his heart.” Maimonides quotes the same expression used by Rava: “Rather, his inner self should be like the self which he shows to the world.” He then adds, “What he feels in his heart should be the same as the words on his lips” (Mishnah Torah, Hilkhot Deot, 2:6). Maimonides makes a strong case against tolerating any level of hypocrisy in anyone.

The complete rejection of hypocrisy (at least among scholars) was at the very heart of a major controversy, or more precisely, a revolution we find in the Talmud.

Tractate Brachot des-cribes how the sages rose up against Rabban Gamaliel, who ventured to standardize rabbinic practice, excluded many from participating in the Beit Midrash (House of Study). We are told that on the same day Rabban Gamaliel was removed from his leadership post, 400 (and some say 700) seats were added to the Beit Midrash. On that day, the sages opened up the doors to the house of study in rejection of Rabban Gamaliel’s proclamation that “Any Torah scholar whose inside and outside are not the same is not permitted to enter the Beit Midrash” (Brachot 27b-28a).

In this talmudic story, Rabban Gamaliel’s stance turns Rava’s descriptive statement into a prescriptive rule of exclusion. Perhaps more intriguing than Rabban Gamaliel’s approach is its rejection by the sages. A crude reading would lead us to believe that those added 400 (or 700) seats were meant for Torah scholars whose outward appearance did not match their inward appearance. Though the majority of them were probably not outright hypocrites, we are led to believe that at least some of them were.

A more nuanced reading might invite us to reconsider or reflect upon the sort of communal educational settings we wish to create. Shouldn’t educational spaces be the kinds of places that encourage growth among those of us (but honestly, all of us) whose inner lives are not fully caught up with the external lives that we lead (and vice versa)?

The Ark of the Mishkan, which symbolizes complete harmony between our internal and external worlds, sets our ideal goal. However, it is the Beit Midrash, with its openness and greater level of tolerance for imperfections and yes, even hypocritical behaviors, that then sets us on a path toward greater authenticity, ultimately guiding us toward the place where pure gold is found on the outside and within.

To see R. Cohen’s article in the J of February 19, 2015, click here.