Kosher Hypocrisy


By Rabbi Dov Greenberg

In a special edition of the classic literary periodical known as The Yellow Book, there’s a wonderful story called “The Happy Hypocrite” by Max Beerbohm. It tells of Lord George, a man with no scruples, a terrible villain, who not only is mean, but looks mean. His unpleasant face reflects his depraved character. George never loved anyone but himself, until one day he meets a beautiful, kind girl by the name of Jenny and falls in love with her. She rejects him, for she can see his wickedness.

As time passes, George begins to see himself through Jenny’s eyes and what he sees disgusts him. He decides something must be done, so he commissions the best mask-maker in London and has himself fitted for a mask that will make him appear handsome and kind. The mask is a masterpiece. It fits so perfectly that no one realizes it’s not his real face. Again Lord George seeks out Jenny. He courts her and proposes. She accepts, they marry and George transforms his life. He’s always careful to behave as a kind, unselfish and attentive husband. He is vigilant not to reveal any of his evil characteristics. He is successful and lives happily with Jenny. He becomes a good person.

That’s where we think the story will end. But there is a surprise at the close of the tale, which is actually the heart of the story. One day George encounters an old enemy who sees right through the facade. The old foe tears off the mask in front of George’s wife. As the mask is torn away, we discover that his real face has conformed to the mask—and underneath, George really does look handsome and kind. He had become the person he was trying to be.

Now that’s a Jewish story. I don’t know if Beerbohm was Jewish but we need to adopt that story, because it beautifully expresses a fundamental Jewish principle: We become good people by repeatedly doing good acts, until they become part of our nature. Good deeds, mitzvot, are eventually absorbed inside and change us.

The Talmud (Sotah 22b) teaches that because deeds have such a powerful effect on shaping our heart, “a person should always do good even for the wrong reasons—ego, fame, wealth — because by doing good for the wrong reasons, one will eventually do them ‘lishma’ for the right reasons.” In other words, over time underneath the mask of goodness, we do indeed become good. The Talmud (Rashi, Sanhedrin 3lb) tells a story about, Ukva, who was attracted to a beautiful married woman. His desire for her was so intense that when it couldn’t be satisfied, he became ill. A short time later, the woman suffered financial losses, and out of desperation, sent word to Ukva that if he helped her with a loan, she would consent to his wishes. He complied with her request.

After receiving the funds, the woman came to his home. As Ukva opened the door, he realized the wrong he was about to do. He overcame his evil inclination, telling her, “You owe me nothing,” and sent her away. She left untouched. Later, when Ukva went out into the street, his face radiated with a divine glow.

This is an extraordinary story because there were some 2,000 sages mentioned in the Talmud yet none of their faces radiated this kind of grace. The question is: Why? What was it about Ukva that allowed his face to shine?

The answer, I think, is simple. In a certain sense, the struggle of the imperfect heart is even more precious to G-d than the serene perfection of someone with impeccable character. Why? For the perfectly righteous serves G-d by being what he or she is, while virtuous acts of the conflicted heart take heroic effort and self-transcendence. The former inherits good character while the latter needs to make it.

So even before people fix their characters—even if decades are spent in that battle—the divine light generated in that effort shines upon them and illuminates their lives. Character is like the face under the mask. It may take many years but as we cover over the dysfunctional reactions with good deeds, what emerges is a life as a work of art, beautiful to behold.