“A liar is careful about upholding his lies.”
BT Bava Batra 167b
Forgeries are incredibly interesting. For one reason or another, the printed word is manipulated to either make the forger into someone of scintillating brilliance or to misconstrue the real author and the real agenda of a work. Art works are forged to make money or to hide theft. Signatures are forged to create credibility or to get someone in trouble. Forgers are driven by the animating belief that they will never be found out. Novelist Jonathan Gash writes in his book, Jade Woman that, “Once a faker's found out, he dies. Truly. It always happens.” This suggests that perhaps a forger’s identity is so tied up in the lives of others that his or her own personal identity weakens. There is shame in one’s own existence that can get covered by adopting the persona, if only temporarily, of someone else.
The sages of the Talmud were very concerned with forgeries, and in a lengthy discussion on the production of scribal documents, insist that a number of measures be taken to protect innocents from the corrupting, deceptive practices of forgers, understanding, as the quote above suggests, that liars are careful about upholding their lies. They will stoop to new lows simply to maintain deception. After all, what’s another lie to a liar?
To circumvent forgeries, the sages insisted that many official documents be signed in the presence of witnesses, that documents that were clearly erased be held suspect and that no spaces be left in the writing that might encourage a forger to insert a letter or a word that might change the document’s meaning. They were worried that people might falsely change their names or confuse others when signing documents if they had the same name as another in the town. They advised leaving the last two lines of an official document empty to make sure that no one cribbed in another sentence or two to change the subject or object of a document after it was already signed.
They cite a story about a document allegedly signed in front of the scholars Rava and Rabbi Aha bar Adda (BT Bava Batra 167a). The person named on the document came forward and claimed that although the signature was indeed his, he had never come before these scholars to sign anything. Rava sensed a forgery and said that although his own name was easy to forge, Rabbi Aha bar Adda’s was not. He had a shaky hand. When they caught the forger and pressed him on the matter, he confessed that he wrote the signature with his hands on the rope of an unstable footbridge, thus he was able to duplicate the handwriting with accuracy.
Judaism has suffered from some famous forgeries, most notable of which is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fabricated text disseminated in multiple languages in the early part of the 20th century with immense anti-Semitic repercussions. It contents are allegedly the minutes of a meeting of Jewish statesmen with a global plan to take over the world’s economy and subvert justice. This forgery, that still carries weight with anti-Semites even though it’s been falsified, confirms a pre-existing agenda that feeds on falsehoods. The social philosopher, Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism explains this curious fact: “...if a patent forgery like the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is believed by so many people that it can become the text of a whole political movement, the task of the historian is no longer to discover a forgery. Certainly it is not to invent explanations which dismiss the chief political and historical facts of the matter: that the forgery is being believed. This fact is more important than the (historically speaking, secondary) circumstance that it is a forgery.”
Why do we fall for fakes? We believe what we want to believe because it serves an important purpose for us. Take, for example, a famous forgery in Israel. In 1988, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, purchased a relic for $550,000. It was a small ivory pomegranate attributed to the era of the First Temple and the only evidence we have that dates from that period. I remember seeing the pomegranate myself and feeling overwhelmed. It was very small and well-lit and the fruit has always had symbolic significance for Jews. It is one of the seven species associated with Israel and mythically has 613 seeds, representing the number of mitzvot. We associate it with Rosh Hashana. I even went to the gift shop many years ago and bought a replica of it in sterling to wear as a pin. It didn’t dawn on me that it could have been a fake. It felt like it was a small confirmation of truths I held dearly, now supported by archeology.
The Israel Antiquities Authority reveled that it was a very old relic but the First Temple inscription on it was fake. But that was not all. The Authority uncovered a sophisticated forgery ring in Israel that had produced a number of “important” artifacts dated from the Bible. One of them was an ossuary box reputed to hold the bones of James, Jesus’ brother; another was an ancient tablet linked to King Joash during the days of Solomon’s Temple. Oy.
“You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another,” say Leviticus (19:11). There are lots of ways we transgress this commandment. Maybe the ultimate transgression in a case of forgery is the failure to be our own authentic selves.