In Praise of Dissembling

Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

By David Curzon

Published September 16, 2005, issue of September 16, 2005.
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Deuteronomy 22:1-3 contains the admirable commandment to return your neighbor’s lost property. At the end of 22:3 we have the following isolated clause, preceded by a colon in the King James and by a semicolon in the Jewish Publication Society 1917 translations:

thou mayest not hide thyself

Everett Fox concurs, offering, after a colon, “you are not allowed to hide yourself.” (Others, following Rashi, render the clause, “you must not remain indifferent” which has its own appeal, to which I will return.)

The clause appears added to the end of the commandment as a seemingly redundant repetition of its main idea. The commandment would be complete in Hebrew and English if the clause were deleted. But of course nothing can be presumed to be superfluous in the Torah. What can it teach us?

Wrenched out of context and considered by itself, a not unprecedented practice in the rabbinic tradition, the clause can be taken as an independent injunction: You may not conceal yourself from your neighbor. Do not hide yourself physically or, by extension, emotionally. Show yourself. Reveal yourself.

After a century of psychoanalytical approaches to personal and even social problems, this seems to be a perfectly contemporary sentiment. Let it all hang out, bare your soul.

Is there anything wrong with baring your soul? Is there a good word that can be put in for a little dissembling and hypocrisy? Of course there is; art depends on it, not to mention sane conviviality.

The case for the necessity of dissembling in art was made by Baudelaire, with passion and irony, in the third of the draft prefaces to “Les Fleurs du Mal”:

Do we invite the crowd, the audience, behind the scenes, into the workshops of the costume and set designers; into the actress’s dressing room?… Do we explain to them… to what extent instinct and sincerity are mixed with artifice and charlatanry, all indispensable to the amalgam that is the work itself? Do we display all the rags, the rouge, the pulleys, the chains, the alterations, the scribbled-over proof sheets, in short all the horrors that make up the sanctuary of art?

Art is not artless. But what of social hypocrisy, social dissembling? This, too, of course, is necessary if we are to function in a civilized manner. In fact, Freud himself made the case, if I have understood the point of “Civilization and Its Discontents.” He tells us, with his usual honesty, we are aggressive creatures by nature, and from this I conclude that the baring of a soul is not necessarily going to be a pretty sight, and that in general we should want our neighbors to behave in conformity with rigid customs of good manners that constrain most of their impulses.

Genesis Rabbah quotes Rav as making the same point when discussing the creation of the world:

In human practice, when an earthly monarch builds a palace on a site of sewers, dunghills, and garbage, if one says, “This palace is built on a site of sewers, dunghills and garbage,” does he not discredit it? Thus, whoever comes to say that this world was created out of tohu and bohu [out of the “unformed and void”] and darkness, does he not impair God’s glory!

Even science has its dissembling, if we can believe Nobel Prize-winner, P.B. Medawar in a talk he gave on the BBC, titled “Is the Scientific Paper a Fraud?”

The answer was “yes,” on the grounds that:

It misrepresents the process of thought that accompanied or gave rise to the work that is described in the paper.… The scientific paper in its orthodox form does embody a totally mistaken conception, even a travesty, of the nature of scientific thought.… The conception underlying this style of scientific writing is that scientific discovery is an inductive process… [which] starts with simple observation…

But, Medawar argues, and Karl Popper also, “innocent observation is a mere philosophic fiction. There is no such thing as an unprejudiced observation. Every act of observation we make is biased” in the sense that “hypothesis… provides the incentive for the inquiry and governs its actual form.”

And, to come back to the social, Ambrose Bierce, in his great work, “The Devil’s Dictionary,” has many insights relevant to the general issue we are considering. His definition of patience, for example, is, “A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.” And a necessary disguise it is. Where would we be if our neighbors inflicted their every little despair on us? Out of patience at the very least.

A naive belief in the virtue of honesty is incompatible with art and science and civility. And so I prefer Rashi’s alternative understanding of the last clause in Deuteronomy 22:3. We must not remain indifferent to the troubles of our neighbors, particularly if they’ve been kind enough not to bare their souls to us.

David Curzon is a contributing editor at the Forward.

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