character

Does Charm Harm?

“Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.”
— Proverbs 31:30

A recent Wall Street Journal Magazine article had six luminaries reflect on charm. An author and director associated the word with "a smile that's very disarming and inviting." The columnists, in turn, described charm as warmth and natural charisma or cleverness and confidence. A novelist observed that when she was growing up charm meant knowing the rules of polite society and playing by them. "Real charm," she believes, "is about authenticity." The most charming people she knows "have knowledge of self through cultural and spiritual authenticity." I realized that this surfeit of good feeling - this charm - was not something I had ever associated with the word. I was drawn to the words of the actor Sam Elliott in this column, "...the word charm has two faces. On one side, you have those really delightful people, the ones we all love to be around. But on the flip side there is a kind of charm that is less sincere, that's used to manipulate others." It's hard for me to trust a charmer, and I believe I have the Hebrew Bible to thank for this.  

Our first biblical charmer was the snake in Genesis, a snake charmer, if you will. "Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, 'Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?" (3:1). He slithered with guile, a kind of deceit that is seductive because it appeals to some deep need to subvert authority and gain attention while having our more selfish needs satisfied. Eve had everything she could have wanted, but she also had a Boss. The snake lulled her into thinking that she has just as much power if not more. She did not have to listen. Without the snake, she would have spent the rest of her days in a bountiful garden.

In Proverbs, this sense of being manipulated by something or someone who leads one astray is confirmed in several other verses: "A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of the one who gives it; wherever he turns he prospers," (17:8). "He who hates disguises it with his lips, but he lays up deceit in his heart. When he speaks graciously, do not believe him..." (26:24-25). His charm is shallow; his duplicitousness has been honed into a fine tool to cheat others with his smooth talk.

Narratively, we find this sense of charming in the story of the would-be king, Avshalom, third son of David. He was not an heir to the throne but wished to be. And we learn another, not insignificant, detail about this prince; he was handsome: "In all Israel there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance as Avshalom. From the top of his head to the sole of his foot, there was no blemish in him," (II Samuel 14:25). His looks served him well when it came to manipulating people and drawing them into his campaign for the throne.

A chapter later, we learn that he woke up early and went to city gates, the place where law was adjudicated. He inquired after every person, asking what city he hailed from.  Whatever city that was, Avshalom claimed to be from there as well. Before making his request, he tried to ingratiate himself with others by creating a false sense of kinship. In other words, laying on the charm. Then he told the stranger exactly what he wanted to hear. "'See, your claims are good and right, but no man listens to you on the part of the king.' Moreover, Avshalom would say, 'Oh that one would appoint me judge in the land, then every man who has any suit or cause could come to me and I would give him justice.' And when a man came near to prostrate himself before him, he would put out his hand and take hold of him and kiss him. In this manner, Avshalom dealt with all Israel who came to the king for judgment; so Avshalom stole away the hearts of the men of Israel." Charm worked its magic, one person at a time.

For charm to work, there must be a charmer and a charmee - one who indulges the manipulator and falls for the deceit. No wonder we conclude the Proverb's passage, "A Woman of Valor" with a verse that begs us to be careful: "Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised." Charm, in this sense is the opposite of authenticity. Charm here is linked to the vanity of beauty. Good looks are a divine gift, not a tool with which to manipulate others.

Saul, our first king, also suffered from good looks and was ultimately undone. God even had to warn the prophet Samuel to be wary: "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart,"(I Samuel 16:7). 

And so should we. 

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