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Authenticity in a False World

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What is the realest thing you know?

A few weeks ago, I posted this question as my Facebook status. These were some of the answers my friends wrote:
  • Nature
  • My family's love and support
  • Breath
  • Friends
  • Death
  • Diapers (from a new father)
This question of realness resonates so deeply, evoking our most powerful images and ideas. We may disagree passionately on what's really real, but we all agree that realness is to be valued. Authenticity is to be valued. We care about realness. We want realness.

Marketers know this. Think of all the products you buy that the word "real" or authentic somewhere in the name or slogan.

It's the Real Thing --Coke

Real Photo People --Ritz Camera

Real. Comfortable. Jeans. --Wrangler

Real people, real stories, real grills --Weber

Real shoes engineered for real athletes --New Balance

When I studied in yeshiva, one of my rabbis taught me that when you see a word or idea repeated over and over over in a text, it's a sign of an underlying anxiety about its exact opposite. In the word's of Hamlet's mother "the lady doth protest too much, methinks."

To get attention in today's world, you have to practically scream say real, real, real, because we experience so much of the world as fake, fake, fake.

The Holy Ark: Authenticity Inside and Out

In Exodus 25:10, we read about the construction of the ark. It says: וְצִפִּיתָ אֹתוֹ זָהָב טָהוֹר, מִבַּיִת וּמִחוּץ תְּצַפֶּנּוּ "Cover it with pure gold -- from the inside and the outside you shall cover it."

The Yalkut Shimoni, a collection of midrashim, notes something odd about this verse: Why cover the ark with gold from inside and outside? No one will see the gold on the inside of a cabinet. Ah, the internal gold teaches us that a talmid chacham, a wise student, must be like the ark. His or her inside must match the outside, tocho k'baro, in the words of the midrash. The external, the things a talmid chacham does or says, must align perfectly with the internal, what he or she feels and thinks. Authentic through and through.

The Tamud in Brachot (28a) tells a story about authenticity. After the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, the holy temple, the rabbis built a community of Torah scholars and students in Yavneh. Rabban Gamliel held the office of Nasi, the top rabbinic authority. He was known for ruling with power, strengthening the authority of the Nasi in order to save the nascent, fragile enterprise of rabbinic Judaism. In order to make sure that the yeshiva in Yavneh was strong, Rabban Gamliel denied access to the study house to any student who was not "tocho kebaro" -- whose inside did not match their outside. Only those who were fully authentic, the same through and through, could learn in his yeshiva.

This thirst for radical, uncompromising authenticity runs through the Jewish tradition. Hundreds of years later, the Kotzker Rebbe led a small but powerful group of Hasidim in Eastern Europe. He was known for his penetrating teachings and his intolerance for false piety and ideas. A classic quote from him goes as follows:

If I am I because I am I, and you are you because you are you, then I am I and you are you. But if I am I because you are you and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you!

In other words, if our identities are dependent on the perceptions and standards of other people and not on an internal authenticity, what are we? Such powerful, stirring words.

But Can I Really 'By Myself'?

And yet, I remember being 12 years old, struggling to navigate the typical middle school minefields: friends, fitting in, bullies. I came home to my Mom one day in tears with these problems, who proceeded to give me what I thought at the time was the single worst piece advice I'd ever received: "Just be yourself" Be myself? My self is the problem! I don't say the right things, I don't dress the right way, I get hurt when I want to be strong. If I could be someone else, that would solve all these problems!

Being ourselves is hard! Why? We want to be liked. We want affection. We need love. And we learn, from a pretty early age, we learn that certain ways of being in the world can get us that love and care, and other ways won't. So we shift from being ourselves to being what we think others want us to be.

Be myself? I'm God willing having my first child in a month. My outside my look calm and collected. My inside is an authentic, terrified nervous wreck! Should I go around and share that with everyone? Would that be socially appropriate? Sometimes our inner selves are beautiful, loving, open and sometimes they are angry, jealous, lustful. Would our relationships and community be able to sustain themselves if we always authentically shared all of our thoughts, feelings, judgments and desires with each other? 

Rabban Gamliel and the Kotzker model an ultimate search for authenticity, challenging us to push ourselves toward authentic being in every manner. But things did not end will for either of them.

After some years of his reign of authenticity, the community of scholars could no longer tolerate Rabban Gamliel, and against his will he was deposed. One might think that the community simply couldn't handle his authenticity. However, what the Talmud relates next is so telling.

אותו היום סלקוהו לשומר הפתח ונתנה להם רשות לתלמידים ליכנס ההוא יומא אתוספו כמה ספסלי
א"ר יוחנן פליגי בה אבא יוסף בן דוסתאי ורבנן חד אמר אתוספו ארבע מאה ספסלי וחד אמר שבע מאה ספסלי 

On that very day they removed the guards from the doors and gave the students permission to enter. And, they added benches. There is a debate: some say they added 400 benches, some said they added 700 benches.

Hundreds of new benches. Thousands of new students of Torah. Rabban Gamliel was devastated. He realized that he had caused people to be distant from the most authentic Jewish thing there is: Torah.

And the Kotzker? He attracted many Hasidim with his powerful teachings, but one fateful shabbat he had a tragic breakdown. Aryeh Kaplan writes: 

"Many different stories have been passed down regarding what occurred that Friday night in Lvov; that the Kotzker blew out the Shabbat candles, that he cast his Kiddush cup to the ground, that he removed his yarmulke and smoked a pipe on Shabbat, and that he declared 'there is neither justice nor judge.' He lived the last 20 years of his life in bitter seclusion, leaving his room only once a year for bedikat Chametz."

Finding a Balance

The constant pursuit of authenticity can undermine community, distance people from Torah, be alienating, even narcissistic. So where does that leave us. Authenticity is admirable but dangerous. It is the highest value and also undermines the study of torah. It's what we want and what we fear. I'd like to share three strategies for navigating this eternal problem.

The first is acceptance of our and our world's limiations. That first midrash about the gold inside and out, about how one should be tocho k'baro, that midrash carefully said that this is for talmidei chachim. Most of us are not talmedei chachamim. Most of us live in a world where if we were fully authentic day in and day out we would risk our relationships, our jobs, our support. Maybe that's why the Zohar calls this world -- alma d'shikra -- the false world. Next time you or someone around you seems inauthentic, remember that. Treat others and yourself with chesed and rachamim, compassion based on this acceptance.

The second is to find spaces in place and time where you can be fully authentic. The mishkan was a place of authenticity. It was a place where the Jewish people approached a God who knew everything about you, inside and outside. It wasn't a place where a Jew lived or worked, but it was a place she could go. Find or create those spaces in your life, and carry them with you. You might be able to be fully real during prayer, or with a chevruta, a study partner. You might be able to get to that vulnerable place in conversation with a trusted friend, or a therapist. Find a place where you can be you, and then return to the world, perhaps a little transformed.

Remember who you truly are. No matter what you do there is something in you that is always, no matter what, authentic and true. It's not your talents, or your secrets, your past or your future. No. You have a 100 percent genuine, fully authentic neshama, a soul, a breath of God, deep inside. Always remember that. Always.

There's a story that from Rebbe Nachman:

A king once told his prime minister, who was also his good friend: "I see in the stars that everyone who eats from this year's grain harvest is going to go mad. What do you think we should do?"

The prime minister suggested they should put aside a stock of good grain so they would not have to eat from the tainted grain.

"But it will be impossible to set aside enough good grain for everyone," the king objected. "And if we put away a stock for just the two of us, we will be the only ones who will be sane. Everyone else will be mad, and they will look at us and think that we are the mad ones.

"No. We too will have to eat from this year's grain. But we will both put a sign on our heads. I will look at your forehead, and you will look at mine. And when we see the sign, we will remember."

Our world may feel false. But we can accept it. And in the midst, we can create spaces and relationships where we can be real. And even when the world is at at its maddest, we can remember, remember who we truly are.