Teaching Honesty Honestly

A Simple Guideline from Psalm 1

…Hashem, who may sojourn in Your tent?…He who walks in innocence, does what is just and speaks truth from his heart.  No slander is on his tongue; he has not done harm to his neighbor…Who has sworn even to his own detriment and does not retract…and [who] does not take a bribe against the innocent…


By Dr. Meir Tamari

The apparent failure to make honesty, in all its forms and at all its levels, a major dimension of our daily lives is a jarring note to the modern religious renaissance.  It seems as though we have developed a split religious personality, whereby integrity and honesty remain individual expressions of personal behavior, while more stringent codes of kashrut, Shabbat observance and regular Torah study have become universal hallmarks of the observant Jew.  Our justified pride in the rebirth of Torah Judaism in Israel and the USA presents as evidence of its success the growth of educational institutions, widespread devotion to study and the high standards of ritualistic observance.  Seldom, however, is materialistic morality, integrity, and stringent observance of Judaism’s personal ethical behavior presented as a similar modern achievement.  Seldom is the talmid chacham as envisaged by Maimonides — one whose word is his bond, to whom deception or fraud is alien and who removes himself even from the mere suspicion of dishonesty — insisted on as our role model.  We react to reports of business immorality or deceptive practices, in financial reporting, advertising, or claims on third parties, at best with snickers of amusement; but all too often with nods of admiration.  Nobody is black-balled by us because of such behavior, whereas we quickly show our anger at infractions of Orech Chaim or Yoreh Deah.

This “split personality” is so contrary to Judaism that it requires a healing through serious changes in our present-day education.  I venture to argue that its pervasiveness throughout all sectors of the Orthodox world — Chassidic, centrist, right-wing, yeshivish — overshadows any other educational debate, such as the role of secular education, etc.  This calls for a widespread and serious debate, because honesty is not just another aspect of Judaism, but is of its very essence.  God Himself is Truth and Justice is His Seal.  False weights and measures are described by the Torah as an abomination, just as idolatry and sexual perversion.  Man was created yashar [straight], and halachah, literally to walk, is a divine blueprint for maintaining us on that path.  The Torah, the Prophets and the Psalmist describe the God-fearing man almost exclusively as one far removed from all forms of falsehood or dishonesty.

Because of this, our Sages taught that the generation of the Flood was doomed to destruction only after they stole from one another, even as Adam and Eve were driven from Eden for theft.  The prophets ascribed the destruction of the First Temple to rampant fraud, dishonesty, and exploitation.  This view is echoed by Rashi when he explains the textual proximity in Devorim of honest weights and Amalek, as showing the latter to be a prototype punishment for dishonest weights.

Looking at Our Texts

The study of texts dealing with the mishpatim [laws], the whole basis of which is honesty, justice, and mercy, is a regular feature of all our educational systems, yet one that requires, it seems, a change in methodology,

     Chumash, Mishnah and Gemara have to be taught consistently together with the relevant Choshen Mishpat and responsa rulings.  After all, nobody would think of teaching texts dealing with Shabbat, the Festivals, kashrut or family purity, even at the most elementary level, without recourse to halachic decisions.  To treat the texts of honesty differently, as is done all too often, obviously sends a message that they are less obligatory and less binding; their study is sort of intellectual esotericism.

Students have to be made aware of shiurim in honesty as in kashrut: the only difference that will emerge is that there is no batel b’shishim in the former; like chametz on Passover, theft is forbidden even for the slightest, most marginal amount.  Concepts familiar to them from the laws of Shabbat, for example, patur aval assur, [not legally liable, yet forbidden] must be shown to exist in the field of honesty.  Just as we teach opinions that seem as norms such as glatt kosher, even though there are more lenient versions, so our textual study has to explain that religious people are expected to have only the most rigorous moral standards.  The Rosh, for example, when discussing whether there is ona’ah [coercion] in coinage or where the overcharge is less than above prutah, rules that one who guards his soul will refrain from price gouging, even in those cases where perhaps there are more lenient rulings.

Great care must be taken to make sure that halachic definitions in mishpatim [laws] are clear so that there is no margin for error.  I am repeatedly reminded that not all the authorities agree that theft from a non-Jew is medeoraita [Written Law]; this in contradiction to all the Codes — Rambam, Tur and the Shulchan Aruch.  I never understood why miderabbanan [Oral Law] is enough to obligate us in everything else, but seems to permit laxity in theft.  So too, the concept of ta’ut akum, exploiting the error made by a non-Jew, must be as carefully delineated as the laws of mikvaot.  This concept is used to condone all sorts of immoral and dishonest behavior, primarily because of widespread ignorance.  Many authorities hold that since non-Jews have an established legal system and officially observe the Noahide laws, none of this concept applies today.  All authorities, even the most lenient ones, never saw it as a carte blanche for dishonest behavior, and this needs to be said again and again.

The Imperative of Homiletic Literature

Textual halachic study by itself, despite its great importance, is insufficient in any area of Judaism.  It is perhaps even dangerous in regard to the mishpatim, since it may produce a religious personality who is a “naval bireshut haTorah” — one who is dishonest within the precise framework of the Law.  Since it is usually impossible to use all the medrashic material available, the teachers naturally select what they consider important.  Therefore, if not enough commentary and teachings strengthening honesty are used, that is a shortcoming of the teacher and does little to correct this paradoxical Torah personality.

Our Sages have taught that we paid for the tears caused to Esau by Jacob’s supplanting him, and that Laban’s substitution of Leah for Rachel was payment for Jacob’s pretense before Isaac.  Even those who explained that the sons of Samuel did not actually take bribes, as the text describes, explained their dishonesty as their association with the wealthy merchants who would include them in their profits, or their abuse of their position as priests in order to obtain more than their share of the priestly gifts.  During the plague of darkness, the Israelites were able to use their sight to know where the Egyptians hid their treasure:  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that any doubt of dishonesty is cleared when it is seen that they never took anything during the darkness.  In the days of Mordechai, our fathers never looted or took booty during their defensive war.

Sometimes the material needs to be updated, otherwise the moral message is lost.  For example, the argument between the shepherds of Lot and Abraham may seem to be irrelevant to us today as most of us no longer graze flocks.  However, the claim of the shepherds that Lot will inherit the land, albeit in 400 years, is so close to the many rationalizations for dishonesty in the modern, sophisticated world that it should not be difficult to show the pertinence of that medrash.

     There are a number of essential concepts that need to be constantly restated and re­emphasized, as they permeate almost every aspect of our moral behavior.

Chillul Hashem and Kiddush Hashem

The bitter experience of modern history has led to the synonymous relationship between martyrdom and Kiddush Hashem; yet it is essential that this not overshadow the tradition that our honesty which leads non-Jews to praise our God is a sanctification of His Name.  This is not an act of piety or of choice, but an obligation binding on every Jewish man and woman as a positive mitzvah.  The converse is equally binding.  So whenever religious Jews are involved in tax evasion, laundering criminal money, negligent landlordship, or fraudulent social security and insurance claims, the Chillul Hashem should be obvious.  The computer makes the discovery of such actions swifter and more inevitable than ever before in history while the printed and electronic media magnify the desecration of His Name.  Obviously the Chillul Hashem increases in direct proportion to the communal status, the external attributes of piety and the Torah knowledge of the perpetrator.

Honesty is not just another aspect of Judaism, but is of its very essence.

Perhaps the comment of the SMAG on the Mitzvat HaShavat Aveidah should be reprinted and posted in all  our synagogues and educational institutions. He explains that by our dishonesty and fraudulent behavior we prevent the Geulah [Redemption], since the “nations of the world” complain to Hashem that it would be unjust to redeem such a people.  Justice obligates Him to listen to them.

Geneivat Da’at

There is a dishonesty beyond outright acts of theft or robbery that often applies even to the average honest person.  This makes the Torah’s handling of it even more imperative and meaningful.  Geneivat da’at, literally stealing the mind of another person, occurs in misleading advertising, dishonest packaging, and even the creation of a false impression through our resumes, exaggerating the quality of our goods or services, making inaccurate job applications, cheating in examinations, padding our expense accounts or our insurance claims.  Furthermore, not only are we halachically forbidden from hiding such flaws, but we are obligated to reveal their existence in goods, services or financial reporting.  Geneivat da’at does not even require intent to defraud; we are halachically liable even when the misrepresentation is made in good faith.

It is forbidden to “steal the mind” of anybody, Jew and non-Jew alike.  The example brought by the Gemara and in all the Codes is a revealing one: the selling of treif meat as though it were kosher to a non-Jew.

Applying Communal Pressure

Communal displeasure is perhaps the most powerful weapon any society has against dishonesty and deceit.  It can be shown historically to be even more powerful and important in Jewish society in all countries and in all periods.  Given the national-group orientation of Judaism and our individual need for communal services, status and assistance, this is not surprising.  The fact that it is seldom, if ever, used by us today in respect to dishonesty is the result either of our blinding ourselves to such actions or our fear of disturbing communal peace; neither of these reasons would seem to condone this neglect by our rabbinical or religious lay leadership.

Neither is the popular consensus of hiding behind the smokescreen of lashon hara [prohibition against gossip], or the piety of judging everybody favorably.  There are enough halachic rulings to show that in case of fraud, deceit, falsehood and dishonesty there is an obligation on the community and its institutions to speak out and to punish.

One who does not keep his word or fulfill his contract is considered to be faulty in his faith in God and is to be rebuked, even where no financial loss results to anyone.  The public recitation of the “Mi Sheparah — He who requited as debt” from the generation of the Flood, from the People of Babel and of Sodom — is a ringing example of communal disapproval.  So, too, is the Be’er HaGolah‘s halachic approval of the recitation in the synagogue of the cases of bankruptcy whereby creditors are defrauded of their debts.

However, there is a further dimension to our public attitude to dishonesty that has developed over the past few generations.  Subconsciously, we have adopted, for reasons beyond the scope of this article, the non-Jewish concept of “the end justifies the means.” Through some strange, convoluted thought pattern, people see in their charitable contributions permission to be dishonest in their everyday practices.  Some religious schools, in order to maintain status or attract students or even in their ideological disregard for secular studies, permit cheating in their classes.  Hard­pressed institutions will sail close to the wind, if not worse, in order to fund themselves.  It is symptomatic of the split personality with which we operate that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s halachic rulings forbidding all these and allied practices “for the cause” seem to be the most neglected and least applied of his usually authoritative responsa.  Since the community, the students and all involved are fully aware of the dishonest actions for the sake of Heaven, it must follow that they are consistently closed to the contradictions between what is required of them by Torah and the everyday behavior they witness.

The Corporate and Public Sector Effect

A major stimulant to dishonesty in modern times is the dramatic growth of the corporate and government sectors.  These are structures that are depersonalized, vague and far removed from the individual, so that people permit themselves to behave according to standards different from those adopted with regard to their neighbor, employer or other individuals.  To cheat on taxes, to falsely obtain benefits meant for others, like frequent flyers, trade and professional discounts, and to abuse the welfare system easily become acceptable.  Improper use of the corporate employer’s facilities, goods or services is easier to rationalize than in the case of the family-owned, small scale firm.  Government and large corporations easily become “them,” regarding whom deceit, fraud and dishonesty seem to become a gray area.  This is not a specifically Jewish problem, yet it requires a specific Jewish answer, since we all live and operate within this modern society.

There seems to be no corporate veil in halachic sources, so that all the obligations of the owners of wealth apply irrespective of the legal form of the ownership.  Conversely, they have no halachic basis for moral behavior different in any way from that regarding any other form of business entity.  Regarding government, the same clear moral directive exists.  Dishonesty regarding the public purse means that other people either pay more in taxes or do not receive the services to which they are entitled; both results disallowed by halachah.  Today, moreover, we cannot use the escape hatch of discriminatory anti­Jewish governments, since most Jews live under benevolent and tolerant regimes, a fact repeated in many modern responsa.  Nor can we use the halachic concept of a corrupt king, since tax money is no longer the private purse of a ruler but the communal fund of neighbors in democratic societies.

In all the dishonest actions regarding the corporation or public sector, there is, however, a dimension that goes far beyond the halachic rules against such behavior.  They all require various forms and degrees of deceit and lying that ultimately pervert the perpetrator, leading him to lose sight of the clear demarcation between truth and falsehood and so adopt immoral behavior toward everybody.  This spiritual damage to the soul must obviously concern any religious Jew.  A tax evader must develop a double system of financial reporting, an exploiter of the welfare system must have some form of false personal status, just as in the abusing of discounts, etc.

Is it really possible to trust the supervision of individuals who adopt falsehood as a way of life in regard to their other relationships?  Is it really possible for educators to produce religious Jews when their personal lives are part of the accepted gray areas?  Why should we assume that we can trust our children or ourselves to be truly observant in kashrut, sex or prayer when it is socially acceptable to cheat on exams, evade our social responsibilities to society or abuse other people’s trust?

Dr. Tamari is the Director of the Center for Business Ethics at the Jerusalem College of Technology.  His latest book is The Challenge of Wealth:  A Jewish Perspective on Earning ans Spending Money.

This article was featured in the Spring 1996 issue of Jewish Action.