Let Zusya Be Zusya
An archaeologist was digging in central Israel and came upon a casket containing a mummy. After examining it, he called the curator of the Israel museum in Jerusalem.
"I've just discovered a 3,000 year old mummy of a man who died of heart failure!" the excited scientist exclaimed.
"Easy. There was a piece of paper in his hand that said, '10,000 Shekels on Goliath'."
If only it were always so easy to determine the authenticity of an artifact. If it only it were so easy to determine the authenticity of anything, in fact!
Last week, I spoke about identity and inclusiveness as major themes in our lives these days, themes derived from or new banner – another key buzzword we see is authenticity.
It’s everywhere. We see it in advertising, where “real people” are suddenly being favored to promote products. I noticed a couple of weeks ago that Debbie Phelps is now the spokesperson for Chicos.
The opposite of a real person is a celebrity. We have a bottomless obsession with celebrities. Last Saturday, with the economy falling apart and the bailout bill just having been signed, the Advocate had on the top of its front page an article about Britney Spears going shopping in Greenwich. Of course, Britney Spears, along with Paris Hilton, embodies all that is wrong with the cult of celebrity. Celebrity is considered superficial and fake, and therefore evil. On a good day, Spears and Hilton must violate about half the al chets, and we violate the other half in our obsession with gossiping about them. No wonder the McCain campaign tried to paint Barack Obama with that brush, until their campaign took on a celebrity of its own.
All the candidates are marketing themselves as real people, rather than celebrities. The fact is that all four of the presidential and vice presidential candidates have compelling, poignant and real biographies. But they are also celebrities; that is, they are famous people, someone who is celebrated, which is what the word means. The party that wins will likely be the one that convinces the most people that the other presidential candidate is faking it more – is not showing his or her true stripes, and when they do, watch out! That’s how much we’ve come to value authenticity.
AL CHET SHE’CHATANU L’FANECHA B’GILUI U’V’SATER: “For the sin that we have committed before you by what is revealed and what is hidden.”
We hide so much. One candidate who didn’t pass muster in regard to authenticity is John Edwards. It’s ironic, in that his very downfall was precipitated by his attempt to create a documentary Web video that would enable voters to see him, in his words, “As I really am.” He hired Rielle Hunter to do just that, and, as we discovered, the Hunter soon became the hunted.
As Newsweek described it, Hunter’s crusade was to not only change Edwards’ image, but to refine his soul – she saw in him the potential to be another Gandhi or Martin Luther King – if only he could let go of the ego, tap into his heart more and use his head less – to be infused with the wisdom of spiritual guru Eckhart Tolle and the “Power of Now.”
Well, she was able to get him part way home: He certainly used his head less.
Tolle’s books were a mass marketing phenomenon even before he caught Oprah’s eye and this year hit the stratosphere. His book “The Power of Now” emphasizes the need to live for the moment. We Jews have another name for it: Yom Kippur. The Jewish power of now is, well… right now!
But it is Tolle’s most recent book that is most relevant to this discussion. “A New Earth: Awaking to Your Life’s Purpose,” explores how we can discover our true, authentic selves – to cut through all the layers of falsehood that cover up who we really are. The word “Authentic” after all comes from the Greek autos which means self.
In a confusing world where virtual relationships online can at times be far more real than our so called real ones; where even non celebrities can live very public lives, carefully constructing false images of themselves on Facebook, in the blogosphere and just walking down the street, we hunger for the real as never before – and we vilify that which is not. No wonder Universal is now doing a movie about the Mili Vanili lip synching scandal of the 1990s. We are troubled as never before when we hear that Dr. Phil is not licensed to practice psychology, when it turns out that Hillary Clinton didn’t have to dodge sniper fire on the tarmac in Bosnia, or when the cute little 9 year old at the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics wasn’t actually the girl who was singing – and she appeared only because the real singer, 7 year old girl, Yang Peiyi was deemed not photogenic enough by the Chinese thought police. It never seemed to bother us when Natalie Wood wasn’t really doing the singing in “West Side Story.” But it bothers us now. And then there’s Amy Bruce, the courageous 7 year old cancer survivor, who wrote a touching and magnificent poem that has circled the Cyber-globe endlessly. Only problem: not only did Amy Bruce not write the poem; Amy Bruce doesn’t exist.
We hate fakers. Don’t even ask me about Roger Clemens. When Jayson Blair plagiarizes and besmirches the name of the New York Times, it bothers us. And it is so easy to plagiarize these days – as simple as cut and paste – so easy that many student papers now have to be vetted by online scanners before their professors will read them. As one high school senior told Westhill’s newspaper “The Westword” last year, “Cheating has become the norm to maintain the status quo. It’s so ingrained in our lives; half the time we don’t even realize the implications of our actions. It doesn’t seem immoral on the surface—you do what you have to.”
According to research from the Society for Human Resource Managers, 53% of people lie on their résumé in some way. And I’m not proud to confess, on Yom Kippur, no less, that I just lifted that entire last sentence from Forbes.com.
Millions of Skype users worldwide will soon have access to the newly developed KishKish lie-detector. This free Internet service, developed in Israel, of course, based on voice stress analysis (a technique, commonly used in criminal investigations), will be able to measure just how truthful that person on the other end of the line, really is.
With all of that faking going on, we are literally hungry for what is authentic. Next time you are in the supermarket, take note of how many times you see the words “authentic” and “real,” and you’ll see what I mean. I can recall my high school chemistry teacher once joking about an ad he had seen for Ivory soap, claiming that the product is “99 44/100 percent pure.” He looked at the class and, deadpan, asked, “Pure WHAT?” Ivory has had this trademark since the 19th century – so our obsession with purity is hardly new.
But it’s taken on a new urgency. Last spring, a Time magazine article entitled “Ten ideas that are changing the world,” featured a consulting firm called the Aurora Group, whose leaders, James Gilmore and Joseph Pine are preaching to businesses the gospel of authenticity. "The dominant reason people buy today is their perception of what's real or fake," Gilmore told an Ohio newspaper. "Reality ain't what it used to be."
Gilmore's book, "Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want," has spent a good deal of time at the top of business book sales charts. It speaks of how we are moving from what he calls a “service culture” to an “experience culture.” Customers want to be engaged personally. The only problem is that he is teaching businesses how to LOOK authentic, not necessarily to BE authentic. So what’s authentic about that?
I picked up a cute little spoof at Barnes and Noble a couple of months ago, because its title seemed to fit in with this sermon: it’s called “Faking it: How to Seem Like a Better Person Without Actually Improving Yourself.” “The important thing isn’t who you ARE,” this book reminds us, “it’s who other people THINK you are.”
No wonder we’ve seen the revival this year of the old saying, “Fake it ‘til you make it.”
There is something to be said for faking it ‘til you make it. Twelve step programs utilize that principle, and it also is used by motivators to build self esteem. If you pretend to have self confidence and repeat an activity enough times, that confidence eventually kicks in. It also works with Jewish observance. Our ancestors at Sinai said “Na’ase v’nishma,” meaning we will do and THEN, we will understand. Sometimes we have to suspend disbelief before beginning to observe a new mitzvah, like lighting candles, for example – and eventually that mitzvah will gain meaning for us.
But there are limits to faking it. I can recall once when I was having Shabbat dinner at the home of a family with elementary school aged children. We began with the kids reciting the blessings – the Kiddush, the motzi - flawlessly. As I remarked at how impressed I was with their knowledge of the blessings, the mother said to me, “We’re making memories.” The implication being that the dinner was somewhat staged so that the kids would recall it later on, when they grew up. That’s admirable, but for these memories to indeed be indelible, they have to be of events that are in and of themselves meaningful, and not merely staged for future reference. It’s got to be more than just for the children.
In other words, it’s not about LEAVING your legacy so much as LIVING your legacy.
There’s that joke about a man who is chased into a cave by a bear. He is trapped and so, with his back to the wall, as the bear is closing in, the man closes his eyes and begins to recite the Sh’ma, expecting that this is his final moment. He opens his eyes and sees the bear in front of him also has HIS eyes closed and is praying. The man is overjoyed. He says to himself, “How lucky I am to have been cornered by the world’s only Jewish bear. He prays! He’s OBSERVANT! I’m saved!” But then, he listens a little more closely and hears the bear saying, “Ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz.”
Now that’s one authentic Jewish bear. That bear wasn’t making memories. He was making dinner. He wasn’t living for the future; he was living for this moment – the Power of Now. And he was to his own self being true.
Those pretending to be what they aren’t have become ironic heroes in this culture. People like the “Wedding Crashers,” who just sort of blend in to every crowd and family. You’ll never guess who is the fourth most trusted journalist in America: John Stewart, who follows only the big three network anchors. We’re finding authenticity, somehow, in fake news delivered by a fake anchor. There’s nothing deceptive in “The Daily Show” – and in some ways it seems more real than the network news, because there the masks are put on so tight that they actually come off.
Classic Hasidic literature places a premium on authenticity. The authentic person is the one who is fully present, fully focused on the present act – much as Tolle would describe the Power of Now. Hasidic authenticity also prizes simplicity over pretense – or what some in our politically charged environment call elitism. The early Hasids were real populists, championing the real people over the intellectual elites of the great rabbinic academies. But simplicity for the Hasidim never meant superficiality or emotional immaturity.
In his new book, “The Quest for Authenticity,” Michael Ross tells the story of Reb Simcha Bunim of Pesischa, who lived died in 1827, one of the great Hasidic leaders of his generation. He was such a real person that when he became a rebbe, he didn’t give up his day job. He was a pharmacist who also refused to forsake western dress even when other Hasidim did. And he could spot a fraud a mile away.
A student once complained to him: "The Talmudic sages say that, 'if a person runs away from greatness, greatness pursues him.' Well, I've been running from greatness all my life, but it has yet to pursue me!" Rabbi Bunim replied: "I've no doubt that greatness is pursuing you, in the manner that the sages promised. The problem is that when you turn around to check if it is running after you, you frighten it away."
His student, the Kotzker rebbe, also had little patience for false piety. He was a champion of authenticity, almost to a fault. At age nine, he is said to have come across a woman in the market who was selling apples, with the ripe ones on top and rotten ones beneath, he turned the barrel over, so people would see what was really there.
In Kotzk, they prayed when they felt like praying, which drew criticism, to which he said, “That’s because in your town they have clocks, in Kotzk they have souls.” And he added, “He who prays today because he prayed yesterday, a scoundrel is he.” On Purim, he once screamed at his disciples, “Your masks wear your faces.” On Pesach he praised Pharaoh, of all people, because at least he stayed true to himself – plague after plague, he didn’t waver. He was wrong, but at least he was honest! And for the first chapter of Genesis, where it says, "VaYivra et ha’adam b’tzalmo, betzelem Elohim bara oto,” the Kotzker’s commentary had an unusual twist. “The human being was created in his image,” – “HIS” meaning his own, not God’s. According to this interpretation, everybody is first made in his or her own image. Everyone has an innate character to which we can be true, and then you add the spark of God. And our task in life is to illuminate that which is unique to each of us. This is our true self.
Reb Meshullam Zusya of Anipoli was a descendent of the Kotzk dynasty and he embodied that same approach. His students revered him so much that they compared him to Moses. And in response, his most famous line was that when he gets to the Heavenly Court, they will not ask him, “Why were you not Moses?” but “Why were you not Zusya?” In today’s parlance, we would be saying, “Let Zusya be Zusya.”
e.e. cummings wrote, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
Big Russ never missed a day of work. When it came time to retire, he had to figure out what to do with 200 accrued sick days. “Two hundred? Why didn’t you take them?” Tim asked. Hi dad’s reply: “Because I wasn’t sick!”
When services don’t feel authentic to us, what do we do? One solution is to “fake it til you make it.” That works for a lot of people, who are able to pray fervently even though they have no idea what it means or they violently disagree. But eventually, the act of praying sort of takes on a meaning of its own.
For I have big news for you and Ira: There is no one authentic Judaism. There are many Judaisms, all clinging to some crucial common threads; but Judaism is evolving – and it lives and breathes through each of us. Among those threads are some of the things we’ve been talking about – kindness, inclusiveness, justice, Shabbat, kashrut, prayer – but these are very broad areas with a wide range of meanings that have changed over time.
But our tradition picks and chooses what outmoded technologies to keep. “Old” does not always equal “authentic.” For example, when the Israelites first crossed over into the Promised Land they were circumcised with flint knives, and this was long after the Iron Age had begun. Why use an outmoded technology like flint? Tradition. Authenticity. Fortunately, we no longer use flint knives for circumcision. Simply using old things doesn’t make us more authentic, whether it is flint knives, Maxwell House Haggadahs, or the furry hats and frock coats once worn by Polish nobility.
In a short story by Somerset Maugham called “The Colonel’s Lady,” a stodgy British colonel is confronted with his wife’s sudden fame as a poet. He took little interest in it until one day at a cocktail party, someone came up to him, not knowing that he was the husband and said, “These poems are so passionate, she must have had one unbelievable affair to have written them.” This notion gnaws away at him until finally he asks his wife at breakfast, “Who are these poems written about?” And she says “You don’t want to know.”
Leaping Souls, Intimate Numbness and Spiritual Audacity
We add an emphatic push upward to the kaddish on the High Holidays, an idea that was emblazoned on our source books long before we had this banner. “Ever upward.” L’ayla L’ayla."
Another way of interpreting that verse from Psalms is that our help will come from the mere act of lifting our eyes! The mountains are a target – to look at mountains you HAVE to look up.
Years before anyone with presidential aspirations wrote about the audacity of hope, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about the audacity of the spirit. And he claimed that the opposite of love is not hate – but indifference.
Wouldn’t it be easier to be part of a less demanding faith tradition, one that simply allows us to be happy with things as they are?
A British journalist named Richard Williams was asked why he embarked on a quixotic attempt to complete the British stage of the Tour de France last year. His reply: “there are currently aches in places where I didn’t even know I had places, along with what might be described as an intimate numbness.”
We need to replace that second type of numbness with the first. When the climber’s feet are frostbitten, he is numb, but intimately so – he can feel the pain, still – and the pain of not being able to fully feel it. Too many of us are now tobogganing rather than climbing, and we are descending from numb to number.
Each of us has had at least one of those moments that changed our lives forever. A moment where one action, however simple, or maybe one lack of action – like a sneeze – made all the difference.
I knew then that I was not alone in my bewilderment. An angel was with me on the bottom rung. A fellow soul was leaping alongside. Somehow it would all be OK.