Behavior

Forgery

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 once it had already been 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.

Shabbat Shalom

Table Peace

And a person shall not mistreat his friend, and you shall fear the Lord your God, for I am the Lord your God.
— Leviticus 25:17

This week, I read a USA Today article about a young woman who, because of her political Facebook posts about the election, was uninvited by her mother to the family’s Thanksgiving table. Sarah-Jane Cunningham will apparently be spending today with her own private turkey and her two cats in Boston. I assumed that ugly politics divides the holiday guest list in rare and isolated cases, even after reading a similar piece in The New York Times. It was only when I eavesdropped on a conversation last week that I came to wonder if this is a wider problem than I realized. “We were going to go home for Thanksgiving, but I just can’t respect people who voted for ______. I don’t want to be there for the holidays, and a lot of my friends have made the same decision.” Yikes.
 
This week, I also came across the famous Talmudic discussion of “hon’at devarim,” oppressing another with words, that is based on a verse from Leviticus above. The verb “to mistreat” is open to much interpretation. A few verses earlier, the same term in Hebrew is used to discuss financial mistreatment of another, usually regarding monetary exploitation. When our verse is used a bit later, the sages of the Talmud figured that money was covered so that left this new prohibition to mean something else: oppression with words.

There are a lot of ways that we can oppress someone with language, and this range is well-represented in the Mishna and accompanying Talmud that discuss this transgression [BT
Bava Metzia 58b]. 

One may not say to a seller, ‘How much are you selling this for?’ if he has no wish to purchase the item. If one is a penitent, someone should not say to him, ‘Remember your earlier deeds.’ If someone is the child of converts, one may not say to him, ‘Remember the deeds of your ancestors.

Let’s look at the last two examples first. While a person may volunteer information about his or her past, it is prohibited to “out” such a person. We leave that choice up to the person who has undergone a significant religious transformation. Some people may speak with ease about their spiritual journeys. For others, it is a source of shame, insecurity and vulnerability. It is not our place to expose someone else’s past and potentially compromise his or her dignity without prior consultation and permission.
 
The first case would seem, on the face of it, unlike the others in intensity and scope. Asking a seller the price of an item seems harmless enough. That’s true in today’s consumer market, but it may not be true even today, for example, at an art fair when the artist has not only made the paintings but is also trying to sell them. Creating false hope is not fair and, in some ways, can be an act of oppression for the thin-skinned who sees the failure of a sale as a rejection of talent.

The Talmud adds cases and details. One such case is to tell a person with an illness or one who lost a child that the suffering was brought on by his or her negligent religious behavior. The proof-text is one of the most difficult verses in Job, when Job's friends judged his suffering as a result of his spiritual deficiencies: “Is not your fear of God your confidence, and your hope the integrity of your ways? Remember, I beseech you, whoever perished being innocent?” (4:6-7). Suffering only happens to the wicked, they believe. Job must have done many wrong things to deserve his suffering. I don’t know about you, but I would un-friend these guys on Facebook.
 
Put the newspaper articles and the Talmudic passages together into a halakhic (legal) question: can questioning someone’s political judgment be considered “hona’at devarim,” oppressing someone with words? In other words, should Sarah-Jane Cunningham have consulted the Talmud before speaking to her mother? Disrespect works both ways, but since Mrs. Cunningham had the upper hand through her ability to withhold her invitation because of conflicting political views, I believe Sarah is the victim of this biblical transgression. I say, pack up the cats, put the bird in the freezer, and go home. And when poor Sarah enters her childhood home - which should always be a place of safety and love - she can make an agreement to keep the table peaceful by not having any discussion of politics.
 
People with the same political agenda might also want to give each other a break. Haven’t we talked about all this enough? Don’t we all need a Thanksgiving that is politics-free? I do.
 
And if your table cannot be a politically neutral zone, consider these three questions before the conversation starts:

  • Can all sitting here express their views comfortably and respectfully?
  • Can everyone here listen with curiosity and not with judgment?
  • Can we agree that we live in a remarkable country and that our chief task on this day is to be grateful?

Don’t forget that in the holy Temple of old, God also had a “shulkhan,” a table. Our tables are supposed to mirror God’s table: a place of gathering, a place of abundance, a place of holiness.
 
Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom

Good Enough

You shall do that which is right and good in the sight of the Lord...
— Deuteronomy 6:18

This week I spoke with someone on the phone who asked me several questions about Sabbath observance. He told me he found it interesting but was raised as a Catholic and is now lapsed. "I don't really believe in any religion. I don't have a faith. I raise my kids with one principle." Naturally I was curious and asked him to share his singular distilled value. "It's simple: don't be a jerk." I couldn't help it. "John, if you don't mind my saying, that's quite a low bar."

His principle was not entirely unexpected. I frequently hear that there is no reason to keep strict adherence to any rigid set of laws. "I'm a good person. Isn't that enough?" Naturally the minute someone advertises his or her own goodness, I am instantly suspect.

Who defines goodness anyway? Often it's a mask for an arbitrary determination of moral stasis. Good is wherever I am and whatever I am doing. The Hebrew Bible has some choice words for this kind of ethical anarchy: "You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes..." (Deuteronomy 12:8). The Book of Judges ends with a civil war and a description of what happens when there is no leadership: "In those days Israel had no king so everyone did as he saw fit." (Judges 21:25). When every person has his or her own prescription for goodness it often means that there is no reigning expectation of what constitutes that unique combination of compassion, kindness and justice that goodness is. It becomes descriptive of where you are rather than aspirational of where you might one day be if you work hard on it.

John's principle reminded me of something I first read decades ago that was fundamental to my own thoughts about traditional observance. In their seminal work, The Nine Questions People Ask about Judaism, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin also challenged those who think being good is good enough without necessarily defining goodness:

When asked to define a good person, these people answer ‘someone who doesn’t hurt anybody.’ We are convinced that most people define a good person as one who does not hurt anyone. This definition is as wrong, however, as it is popular. A person whose conduct consists of not hurting anyone is not good; such a person is merely not bad. To be a good person is the active pursuit of good.
— Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin. The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism

Simply not being a jerk is not asking enough of what humanity is capable of achieving with intention and moral energy. This week we've been given a little lift in this effort. David Brooks' new book The Road to Character is finally out. There he writes that "we live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to achieve an inner life." Life has often taught us to be overconfident about moral character and unprepared for what really matters. It would be better to say, "I don't know what goodness is" than to label ourselves as instantly good and then always suffer the deficiency.

Telushkin and Prager remind us: "You do not have to do something bad in order to do bad; you only have to do nothing. This is why Judaism consists of so many positive laws of goodness." We have to teach ourselves to refrain from gossip, to visit the sick, to attend to the poor, to mourn with those who are grieving, to sacrifice for charity.

Maybe you're good. If you assigned yourself that label, make sure you've earned it. There is plenty of literature by atheists who are trying in earnest to work out a shared moral code without God. But if that is not you, then ask yourself  - when it comes to a tough and enduring moral compass, are you really good enough?

Shabbat Shalom

Take Heed

Just as it is a mitzva for a person to say that which will be heeded, is it a mitzva for a person not to say what will not be heeded,
— BT Yevamot 65b

The word "heed" is an unusual word; it's formal and heavy and wouldn't be used in casual conversation. Maybe it needs to be re-introduced into common parlance because it means more than simply listening. A careful sort of attention or notice must be given to meet its demands, the kind of attention that in these days of distraction is harder to come by. We heed warnings or ignore them at our own peril. We think of Arthur Miller's Death of A Salesman: "Attention must be paid,"and wonder what kind of focused attention that is.

But what happens when we give feedback that no one pays heed to? This becomes an ongoing dilemma in parenting and partnering, in business and in education. Any time we are trying to grow someone else, there will be resistance, push-back, defensiveness and even heartbreak. One of my favorite verses on mentoring comes from Proverbs: "Correct a wise person, and he will love you. Correct a fool, and he will hate you" (9:8). We understand the sentiment well. If we give feedback to people who are responsive - who heed what we have to say, know that it comes from a place of love and concern and know that it's not so easy to say - then our words can take root. But if we correct fools, we might not know who the fool really is - that person for ignoring us or ourselves for the wasted breath.

 But it's not so simple, as any supervisor or spouse can attest. Sometimes we speak out and the response we get is initially defensive, pained or angry but over time, the words we say seep in, and we notice change. Sometimes a "wise" person nods a head in agreement, hears feedback, expresses concern and then continues doing whatever it is he or she was doing wrong in the first place. In other words, determining who is wise and who is not is more complicated than it looks. 

 Maimonides in the seventh chapter of his "Laws of Character Development" expounds upon this conundrum and begins by writing that, "It is natural that a person's personality and actions are influenced by friends and colleagues and adheres to the expected norms of behavior. Knowing this, he should surround himself by those who are pious and wise to learn from their behaviors. He should also, subsequently, keep a distance from the wicked who follow darkness, and not learn from their behaviors." Then Maimonides quotes another verse from Proverbs about who we should associate with as a prooftext: "One who walks with the wise will become wise, while one who associates with fools will become foolish" (13:20). All good advice. If you want to be a better person, be around good people and then you will grow even without the admonition. You will improve simply by virtue of good role-models and high expectations of personal goodness.

 In the event that this is not enough at times, Maimonides continues in law #7 and suggests that, following from Leviticus 19:17, we admonish those who are doing wrong. He advises us to help those in need of correction by telling such an individual that he is causing himself harm, rather than merely irritating others. He suggests an atmosphere of respect and privacy, the use of gentle language and communicating again the abiding sense that the correction is for his own welfare. Maimonides concludes with a plea to responsibility, which I will translate loosely: "Whoever has the possibility of correcting a sinner and fails to do so is responsible for that sin since he had the opportunity to do something about it."

These are all helpful recommendations, but they don't resolve the feedback dilemma for us. How do we know who is wise and who is a fool when it comes to issuing criticism? How do we hear it? Think of a piece of feedback or criticism that you have hear about yourself for years - especially if it has come from more than one person - that you have not "heeded" - paid any special attention to. Write it down.

What is it about this issue that is making you so "hard of heeding"?

 Shabbat Shalom