Sunday, January 22, 2023

Avot 1:15 A Little Hypocrisy Goes a Long Way

Avot 1:15Shammai says: “Make your Torah study a fixed practice, say little and do much, and greet everyone with a friendly face.”

In this passage, Shammai—who is best known as Hillel’s intellectual rival and interlocutor—offers solid, straightforward advice.  Who would argue against the virtue of regularly scheduled study time, the priority of actions over words, or the significance of kindly social interaction?

Yet even a cursory look into Shammai’s biography, as elucidated in numerous Talmudic passages, raises significant questions about this statement.

Of course it is good to receive others with a “friendly face”—but we do not expect to hear this suggestion from Shammai, who was widely known for his strict judgment and stern demeanor.  His most memorably encounter was with a mildly obnoxious potential convert—whom he struck over the head with a yardstick. Considered in this wider context, Shammai’s teaching may strike us as highly hypocritical.

So what might we make of the discrepancy between Shammai’s wisdom and his concrete actions?  For the most part, we rightly regard hypocrisy as an exasperating vice.  Yet as the longtime etiquette and advice columnist Judith Martin—aka Miss Manners—points out, there are times when it can be a kind of virtue: “Why abandon proper standards of society just because we can’t always live up to them?”  Her approach echoes that of the 17th century French writer La Rochefoucauld, who defined hypocrisy as “the homage that vice pays to virtue.”

Shammai’s actions did not always live up to his highest ethical intentions, but if those intentions were aspirational—if they sometimes inspired him to achieve above his default nature—then they were not for naught.

If that’s hypocrisy, we’re all in the club.  May we rise to our best as much as we can, and when we fail to meet that mark, may we try again—and again—always aiming up.

For more on this topic, see Richard Nilsen's excellent article, "In Praise of Hypocrisy" here:

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