Abraham Joshua Heschel on Delusions and Deceptions

by Bob Schwartz

“Mendacity is the enemy of man, and yet more and more love is lavished on guile and lies. Truth is homeless in our world.”

From A Passion for Truth by Abraham Joshua Heschel:

A World of Phantoms

For most of us, life is a series of evasions, pretensions, substitutes, and rationalizations. We do not see the world as it is but as a projection of ourselves, and so we are prisoners of delusions that hold us in their spell even after we become aware of their deceptiveness. Gradually pretensions are converted into certainties, rationalizations become entangled, and madness sets in.

So many people become salesmen of their delusions. So few people are fully conscious of the non-finality of our here-and-now world.

In analyzing and discussing problems of Jewish Law, possible solutions are often advanced in the Talmud with the introductory words, “I might have thought,” “I might have been led to believe.” After proving that these arguments are mere suppositions or hypotheses, a conclusion is usually reached.

One must learn to understand thoroughly the precise meaning of these phrases, Reb Bunam said. For the world in which we live is a mere supposition or hypothesis. The conclusion is still to come. “At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve Him with one accord” (Zephaniah 3:9).

How did the Kotzker, who was consumed with a passion for veracity, for eternity, look at people whose whole life was spent serving spurious goals?

Falsehood is not merely a discrepancy between what is said and what is meant. It twists and distorts the basis of a man’s life, deceiving him into believing he lives in a reality that does not exist. A person living a lie and taking it to be the Truth moves in a world of self-delusion.

Falsehood is not just a stigma that sullies man’s thinking. A healthy life consists in knowing what one wants, seeing an ultimate goal ahead, and hoping to reach it by means of clearly understood actions. And mendacity is a disease that binds a man’s entire existence. As a result of it, our perceptions are false. We regard as real what can be measured and controlled; what defies measurement and control we reject as irrational and unreal.

In Jewish mystical literature the world here and now is called “the world of falsehood”; each grain of truth may be surrounded by shells of falsehood. Our truths are often half-truths, acquired piecemeal and preserved precariously, their only refuge being the lips of a few dying men. For so many people die for the sake of a lie. So many who profess truth really shun it. Their solemn proclamations are often veiled deceptions.

This is what Abraham did. He forsook community and deception to live with Truth in solitude.

Genuine solitude is the prelude to a new community. However, if you do not withdraw but remain part of “the world,” your supreme effort must be not to deceive yourself. Clearly one of man’s strongest inclinations is to deceive himself.

People do not know whether they are alive and where they are. The world abounds in misrepresentation—lives without design, movement without aim, roofs without walls. They think they dance, yet they are paralyzed. Delusion holds them enraptured. They feel so comfortable in the clutches of their self-deception that when Satan himself embraces them, they think he is in love with them.

Mendacity is the enemy of man, and yet more and more love is lavished on guile and lies. Truth is homeless in our world. We suffocate for lack of honesty. As a result, man dies while yet alive. Who can speak of resurrection when life itself has become death?

Coarse and swaggering, men make insolent speeches and engage in presumptuous dealings. But they are dead, while Truth, though buried in the grave, is alive. Sometimes a voice cries out from underground, and a few isolated individuals sigh and weep.

When a man does not delude himself, he does, at the least, recognize the world’s falsehood. As long as he believes that his delusion is ultimately coherent, that his conceits have final meaning, he lives in a realm of phantoms. Though idle, he is convinced of his achievements. Even as he lies dying, he persuades himself that he is alive.

Each person should wrestle with this question: am I living in a world of phantoms? Is my life, are all my concerns mere delusions?