The Limits of Honesty and Religion, too

Look, obviously even my truth-bound father realized that somebody who told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth all the time would be intolerable.   He was a student of history, and politics, and also, not a sociopath.  Only a monster with no concern for the feelings of others insists on the absolute right to tell the truth all the time.  Can you imagine the damage somebody who is nothing but a strict truth teller could do to those around him?  

Besides, as we have already observed, there is nothing as simple as a “truth teller” except in the mind of an eight year-old.  There is only the relative degree of truth in the stories we tell each other, and ourselves.  Some versions are more truthful than others, more concerned with the hidden depths of the story than the shiny surface of it.

“A fool’s vexations are presently known but a prudent man concealeth shame,” says the Book of Proverbs.  What precisely is the excellent counsel of these words of wisdom?  Does it mean keep your mouth shut if something causes you shame?  Does it mean a wise person will hide any part of the truth that does not make him proud?   Shall I go into that dark booth and ask the smiling priest what it means, father?

I stumbled on the Book of Proverbs during a service somewhere, in some god-forsaken chapel where something was being celebrated, or lamented, at, (to me, anyway) always tedious length.  I have never been to any kind of prayer service where I could resist the mounting urge to take at least one very long bathroom break and, also, usually, a long, thoughtful tour of the empty building and the surrounding grounds.  I can’t sit still while people are praying, rising and being seated on command, murmuring earnestly in unison.  How my father managed to get through that long day at Hillcrest Jewish Center every year on Yom Kippur, on an empty stomach, no less, I will never know.

So in between “please rise” and “please be seated”, I’d sometimes search the back of the prayer book (where Pirkey Avot, “Sayings of the Fathers” was often to be found), or scan any Bible that was nearby, for whatever words of wisdom might be hidden there.  The Book of Proverbs, unsurpassed for pithy, fortune cookie-like aphorisms, was a favorite.  I’d sit and surreptitiously copy down any proverb or Saying of the Fathers that struck me as profound, troubling or both.  I’d noticed early on the withering looks my attempts at drawing pictures during the service always produced in the people around me, which is why I copied out these wise phrases stealthily.  Another favorite I recall jotting secretly: “As a dog who returneth to his vomit, so is a fool who repeateth his folly.”

The fool in all these examples, I quickly realized, was the person who refused to fear the Almighty, our eternally merciful, jealous, vengeful, petty God, the one who created us all in His image.  The basic idea is that only a disobedient fool does not fear the wrath of the loving Father who created us all, the giver of life, the bestower of every blessing.  It is apparently praiseworthy to be God-fearing, and foolish, prideful, and worse to have any hesitation to remain wisely afraid of the all-Merciful.

A prudent man, moreover, does not delve further than prudent into quibbling, faith-eroding questions like: why does the all-powerful, merciful Creator of the Universe allow the constant slaughter of innocents by people we may call Hitlers, large and small?  The answer is given conclusively, if also unsatisfyingly: God is all-merciful and in His mercy He gave man Free Will.  If man chooses to act like a violent asshole with his Free Will, how is this the fault of our all-merciful Father?  This wonderful shifting of blame from God to man for all the evil bad men do to good women, children, other men, animals, the earth itself, is called Theodicy, a kind of pious idiocy, it seems to me, but that’s only my opinionated opinion.

What my father’s opinion was on this subject, on the subject of religion in general, our’s in particular, I can’t be completely certain.  I know as he was dying I asked him about saying Kaddish for him.  Kaddish is the Aramaic prayer of praise to God and life that a first born male utters several times a day for a solid year to honor the departed parent whose soul has gone on to the World To Come.  I was prepared to say it for my father if it meant anything to him.  He waved it off, shrugged, said it really meant nothing to him.  

Since he was dying when he shrugged the Kaddish off, I said it every day for a month after he died, just in case, though I didn’t do it as required, in the presence of a minyan, nine other Jewish men, for a total of at least ten, the quorum for a real, honest-to God prayer service according to the rabbinic tradition.  For all I know, it may actually be one of the 613 actual commandments in the Bible, like the requirement to throw stones the size of your fist at adulterers and homosexuals until they are dead.

Which is why Jesus, the famously merciful Jewish rabbi of the never violent Christian tradition, stepped between a mob of true believers and an adulteress about to be stoned to death, according to the plain prescription of the Word of God, and said “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”  Why Jesus, a man without sin, didn’t start things off, is not recorded.  Of course, that’s not the point.  Nor did I know, as I asked my father if he wanted me to say Kaddish for him after he died, that he would, a few hours later, apparently shruggingly accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior.

What is meant by “a prudent man concealeth shame?”.  This curious admonition stood out to me among the proverbs, many of which are transparent commands to stop thinking so much and do what God and your superiors tell you, even as Pirkey Avot also warns a Jew not to become too intimate with the ruling authorities.  There are seeming contradictions in all these words of wisdom, and debates about the meaning of many of them, but that phrase translated as “a prudent man concealeth shame” always intrigued me, and, because I’ve always been a bit foolish, also vexed me.  

I was prone, as my father was painfully aware, to making many of my vexations presently known.  Wherefore, then, was I imprudent in not concealing the parts of them a prudent man would have concealed?  This vexed me, of course, as it does now.  It also vexed my father, who tried, as a general rule, to keep his vexations to himself except when he exploded from time to time.

My sister used a wonderful phrase that explained a lot about our father.  He was “shame-based”, she said.   He was also a prudent man, by and large, and, in accordance with the Proverb, took lifelong steps to conceal his life’s basis in shame.  Wherefore shame?    The simplest explanation is deep and dire poverty, a poverty so terrible it stood out in stark contrast to the widespread poverty of the Depression, so degrading it required its own singular adjective whenever he spoke of it, which was not often.  Grinding poverty.  

The other half of that shame no doubt involved the mother who cruelly whipped him in the face from the time he could stand, and sent him to Public School in Peekskill without a word of English so he could start off on the right foot, as a big, unwittingly hilarious dummy, the “dumbest Jewish kid in Peekskill.”  

I knew about the grinding poverty, of course, but the rest of it I only learned of as a middle aged adult, and only because I sought out still living primary sources like my father’s seventeen years older first cousin Eli.   Without the rest of it, I would have had no chance for a glimmer of understanding about my father.  I write these words now, the way Pat Conroy tells readers he always wrote, “to explain my own life to myself” as, in this case, I try to explain my father’s life to a reader who never knew either of us.




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