Sunday, June 17, 2018

I Want You To Like Me!

My Parents told me what it used to be like before there were cell phones. To meet up with a friend, you had to set up a time and place in advance, and then you would go and hope the other person would show up. And once you were there, you were there. You couldn't text up your other friends to meet somewhere else, or show your friend a viral video, or check your email. You just had to look the other person in the face and talk. The same thing with job interviews, dates, break-ups. I can just imagine how nice that must of been, or how boring, our worry about whether I would have been able to do that.

Our way is much more convenient and flexible, and we share more information, even personal information, than ever before. But I wonder if communication is about more than facts and signals.

The Rambam delineates several laws of speech in the laws of perspective (hilchot de'ot) section of the Mishnah Torah. There is one law that forbids lying - transmitting facts through speech that don't correspond to reality. This is called שקר (sheker) or falsehood. There is another law that forbids speaking in a way that the heart is not aligned with the mouth. This second law is said to be more severe than the first. Even fetuses, says the gemara, that have not come into the world and are not affected by the distortions of falsehood, curse such a person. This second kind of false speech is called חניפה (Chanifah), or flattery. Why should flattery be more stringent than regular lying if it can even be objectively true? What is this strange way of expressing the stringency of חניפה, and what does it teach us?

A fetus has a unique relationship with speech. It says that while he is in the womb, he learns the whole Torah, and with his pure wisdom can see to all ends of the earth. But before he is born, an angel hits him on the mouth and he forgets the whole Torah. It's explained that this hit on the mouth gives him the power of speech, and it is the very power of speech that causes him to forget.

This is no bed-time story - it's higher wisdom clothed in earthly terms. It means a person comes into the world having an inner connection to a higher truth that he cannot express until he "remembers" - learning Torah is called remembering because you find the words for that which was always close to the soul. In a nutshell, a fetus is born into the world to "bring out" his inner potential by learning to express and act on his ideals and partner in the creation of a world that reflects the Torah that precedes the world.

So back the the Rambam. There is one kind of speech that is about sharing information, and for that there is the prohibition of שקר. But there is a second kind of speech that is essential for a person sent out into an external and confused world to reconnect upstairs and make it real here. For that kind of speech there is the prohibition of חניפה, a way of speaking that only pretends to connect from the inside but is really just playing nice. This kind of transgression may seem less severe - after all, it can be objectively true. But the Torah teaches that it damages the platform that supports the reason for a fetus to leave his pristine pre-world, all-spiritual existence. It makes this world lonely because people don't expect to hear the speaker when they hear his speech. It makes a world where people can be together externally and share all of there personal information, but can't really connect because the medium does not support it.

We are accustomed to praising the benefits of individuality and freedom, and the sensitivities of political correctness. To tell someone else he is wrong is mean and colonial. But where does that leave us? The opposite of חניפה is called תוכחה (Tochachah) or rebuke. It means more than just suggesting to reconsider or change. It is a special power we have to reveal to someone else something in our internal world that obligates him to change. Shlomo Hamelech in Proverbs calls the Torah itself תוכחה. In order to be connected it must be understood that what one person thinks is right and wrong carries weight for others. Isn't it a core part of hope for humanity that we can do more than just tolerate each other and get along? The Jewish hope, at least, is that we live in a world that is united spiritually, that my inner sense of what is right and wrong, and how the world should be, really means something to you and has consequences and vice-versa. A world where our speech is more than an exchange of information and more than white noise and flattery; where speech is a medium for genuine expression.

It might be risky and uncomfortable, but have to learn to be real and handle the rough and tough with each other face to face, learn to relate to the speaker behind the speech. I'm not saying we should be insensitive and say what ever we feel like, or assume that we know what's right and no one else does - on the contrary. I'm just saying, I wonder if when people say we live in a post-truth world, they've given up hope. And when we pour all that personal information out there, are we connecting or saying "I want you to like me?"

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