The Limits of Authenticity
Trumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19 )
Be true to yourself. That is, unless your self is meanspirited, obnoxious, and insufferable. Then be someone else.
Being authentic is generally viewed as a valuable trait. Knowing your thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and values, and then acting and interacting with the world based on those internal characteristics is a core principle behind several psychotherapeutic frameworks. Recent research has demonstrated that higher levels of authenticity are associated with increased general well-being and can improve personal relationships and overall job satisfaction.
While on the surface, Parshat Teruma outlines the measurements for the different components of the Tabernacle, the commentators were sensitive to unpacking from amongst the construction instructions various hidden symbolisms relating to personal growth. The Ark was to be covered with pure gold: “From within and from without you shall cover it” (Shemot 25:11). The Talmud (Yoma 72b) relates in the name of Rava that we learn from this verse the importance of authenticity: “any Torah scholar whose inside is not like his outside (tocho ke-varo), is not to be considered a Torah scholar.”
Yet, as Rabbi Norman Lamm contends, this maxim does not present the full picture of Jewish law and ethics. There are differences embedded between how we behave inwardly and outwardly. Concepts such as marit ayin enjoin us to be “inauthentic” and to put on a show for the outside, even when we know that there is nothing inherently wrong with our actions. Violating the Shabbat or profaning God’s Name are markedly more serious when done in public than in private. So how precisely are we to understand the value of having our insides like our outsides?
A close reading of Rava’s statement helps uncover the boundaries of his message. Rava does not suggest that our outsides should be like our insides, but rather that our insides should be like our outsides. There are parameters of how we are to behave on the outside. There is proper etiquette and there are commandments that we are instructed to follow, even if our insides aren’t quite up to par. If our insides are “cruel and filthy and corrupt,” in Rabbi Lamm’s language, then we are still better off projecting an image of being “clean and compassionate” to the outside world. If our insides are deficient, the message of Rava is not that we should be authentic in being deficient on the outside as well. We should fake being “clean and compassionate” on the outside while working on transforming our insides into also being “clean and compassionate.”
Another limitation to consider when aspiring to being authentic, is whether there actually is a stable and unified self that one can express in all situations. While this concept has been hotly debated within philosophy and psychology and will likely remain unresolved, there is one particular application of this discussion related to the vessels of the Tabernacle worth reflecting on. Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein quotes his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who highlights that there is a second vessel besides the Ark that a Torah scholar is compared to, namely, the Menorah. He suggests that each of these vessels represents a different part of the scholar’s personality and responsibility. The Ark is hidden, representing the private and introverted side of his nature, yearning for study, meditation, and introspection. The Menorah symbolizes the need to not just stay secluded but to shine for others, and the importance of interacting and influencing publicly. While there are several important lessons to glean from this idea, the one that resonates to the discussion of authenticity, is that it is normal, healthy, and warranted to have different, even seemingly conflicting, parts of our personalities manifest differently depending on the setting.
In sum, while authenticity is a worthwhile trait to aspire to, it has its limitations. Primarily, it is not an excuse to behave inappropriately. It is better to be inauthentic than to be cruel. Authenticity also doesn’t mean that there is only one set and stable way to think, feel, and behave across situations. Different parts of our personalities can express themselves in varied circumstances.
May we strive to have our insides and our outsides be authentically “clean and compassionate.”