HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Ch/eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil

by Jan Katzew Issue: Ethics

Why do we do things that we know are wrong? This question has plagued every ben Adam and bat Sarah, i.e., every human being, since our creation. “G-d now said, Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness; and let them hold sway over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky, over the beasts, over all the earth, over all that creeps upon the earth” (Genesis 1:26). Everything else except for a human being could be created by divine fiat, e.g., “Let there be light, and there was light” (1:4).

Instead of thinking that we can eliminate cheating in schools and in life, we would do well to consider alternatives to the status quo that would accept cheating as a reality, and try to limit it by reducing the incentive to cheat.

The first “us” in the Torah is the “us” required to make the first person. The “us” is a fertile subject for the rabbinic mind. According to one midrashic source (Bereishit Rabbah 8:5):

When the Holy One of Blessing came to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties, some of them saying, “Let him be created,” while others urged, “Let him not be created.” Therefore it is written, “Love and truth fought together, righteousness and peace combated each other” (Psalms 85:11). Love said, “Let him be created because he will dispense acts of love”; Truth said, “Let him not be created because he is compounded of lies”; Righteousness said, “Let him be created because he will perform righteous deeds”; Peace said, “Let him not be created because he is full of strife.” What did G-d do? G-d took truth and threw it to the ground. Said the ministering angels before the Holy One of Blessing, “Sovereign of the Universe! Why have you despised your own Seal [Truth]? Let truth arise from the earth!” Therefore it is written, “Let truth spring up from the earth” (Psalms 85:12).

Although much has changed since Bereishit and Bereishit Rabbah, respectively were composed, one of the constants seems to be human nature. We are indeed capable of dispensing acts of love and performing righteous deeds, yet we are also purveyors of lies and conduits of strife. If, as the Sages teach, G-d experienced a profound ambivalence in the creation of a human being, the malady lingers as we often find ourselves on the horns of the same dilemma as children and parents and as students and teachers. G-d threw truth to the ground in the hope that it would arise again. Sometimes it does not, and we leave truth alone and inert.

Is there now alive or has there ever lived an adult who has never lied or cheated? In theory, it is a possibility. In reality, it is descriptive of an exceptionally rare individual. Such a person would be at least like Noah, righteous in his or her generation, an extraordinary human, humane being. The overwhelming majority of us lie and cheat knowing full well that lying and cheating are wrong. Therefore, instead of thinking that we can find a method of eliminating cheating in schools and in life, we would do well to consider alternatives to the status quo that would accept cheating as a reality, and try to limit it by reducing the incentive to cheat. Furthermore, we should reconsider the options for teshuvah once a student or a teacher has been caught cheating.

Parents can also play a significant role in this drama. I vividly recall receiving a phone call from a powerful member of the learning community who informed me that his son could not get a “B” in math. I assured him that it was not only possible, but that indeed his son had earned and received a “B” in math. It does not take much of an imagination to project a conversation in their home.

Not that research is required, but research that is cross-cultural and inter-generational has documented the prevalence of cheating, yes even in Jewish day schools. Recently, as teachers’ tenure and compensation have been tied to student performance, scandals have erupted as teachers and their supervisors have been found cheating. We should not be surprised that there are those who believe that the prize is worth the price, or at least the risk of being caught.

Lying or cheating can be the result of ratiocination, the deliberate calculation that the reward is worth the risk and that immediate gain trumps any ultimate long-term pain. Lying can be perceived as promoting one’s self-interest, and therefore, a justified action. However, lying is a complex, compound phenomenon that also includes non-rational elements. Knowing that something is right is not enough to cause us to act in consonance with what we know, just as knowing something is wrong is not sufficient to deter us from doing what we know is wrong.

In addition to being rational occasionally, people are also emotional. Our feelings can overpower our thoughts. Consequently, one of the rabbinic insights into human nature is contained in the following aphorism: “In three ways a person’s true character can be perceived: 1. liquor, 2. lucre, 3. anger; some add 4. laughter” (BT Eruvin 65b). When our proverbial masks are off we cannot hide what we look like underneath. Our raw emotions come to the surface and aspects of ourselves that we may otherwise be able to keep in check are bared for everyone to see. A person that is deliriously happy when drunk reveals a jovial self. A person that is truly generous will have a checkbook that proves it. A person that is irascible will have witnesses. A person that laughs with others will be seen differently from another that laughs at them. How we are goes a long way in defining who we are. Emotions can and do get the better of us, sometimes to our benefit, other times to our detriment.

We all err. We all have vices. Will we master our impulses or will our impulses master us? This is the question behind the maxim from Pirkei Avot 4:1: “Who is a hero? One who conquers his [her] evil impulse?” The evil impulse, the Sages hasten to note, is not purely evil. It enables us to create and procreate. In these cases we use the evil impulse to achieve a worthy, if not holy goal. The end justifies the means. We need the desire to win and the will to power in order to grow and succeed.

Do we also need to lie and cheat? “Most Americans condemn cheating in sports, business, and marriage, yet our culture is pervaded by cheating. Premier athletes use performance-enhancing drugs, cheating in business ravages our economy, and the media regularly exposes infidelity by prominent personalities and politicians.

“But it gets worse. Atlanta’s public school system, which won national recognition and millions of dollars of awards for apparent improvements in student test performance, is embroiled in the largest school cheating scandal ever: 44 of 56 schools and 178 teachers and principals allegedly were involved in altering student tests; eighty-two have confessed” (from the blog Commentary by Michael Josephson, “Even our Schools are Cheating,” http://goo.gl/DhlJk).

This excerpt captures just the latest in a series of indictments questioning the ethics of the educational system in American culture. Taking Vince Lombardi’s statement “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” to the extreme seems to be a powerful magnet. It may not be reasonable to ask of a person never to lie or cheat. Indeed, there are sanctioned, if not sanctified lies in Jewish life. They include lies to promote shlom bayit that find their textual origins in Torah and lies to promote a person’s physical, emotional or mental health at pivotal moments in their lives that have Talmudic support. Truth may not be an absolute Jewish value, but there is all too much lying and cheating in our society and our schools are a microcosm of our culture.

What can students, teachers, and parents do to limit cheating to extreme and egregious cases rather than be the accepted norm? One failed attempt from which we can learn is the status quo. Currently, the prevailing attitude towards cheating is the threat of punishment—failing a test, detention, suspension, or expulsion. The threat of punishment alone is clearly an ineffective deterrent to cheating.

If punishment is not a deterrent, then perhaps it is an effective means of holding a person who is caught cheating accountable. However, I question the efficacy and the wisdom of this rationale as well. If the punishment is to remove a person from a learning environment for a class, a week, a semester or an entire life, what is the underlying message? To be part of a learning community is a privilege, and a person that cheats has forfeited that privilege? Who suffers as a result of these consequences? I submit that it is the learner and the learning community. We all lose in this calculus. It may be utopian to imagine a school that would eliminate punishment for cheating, but I confess to being a mite quixotic. The current assessment system is broken and it needs a radical tikkun.

It is possible to suggest that without the threat of serious consequences there would be even more cheating, but in this case, such a claim seems weak at best. Cheating in school is just one manifestation of the midrashic claim that human beings are inveterate liars, inevitable prey to the lure of falsehood. Cheating in relationships, on taxes, in sports and in business are examples of cheating that prove it is much more than juvenile behavior. The consequences for cheating escalate over a lifetime, and cheating in school can have lifelong effects, whether or not the cheater is caught. The drive to excel at seemingly any cost—financial, social, and ethical—can be an addiction, and in the most extreme cases, a lethal one.

Even if there is no panacea, no intervention that would result in a profound reduction in cheating, we may make meaningful gains by considering values in Jewish education. The teaching in Proverbs 22:6, “Educate a child in the way he ought to go; he will not veer from it even in old age,” can be interpreted to suggest a lifelong learning strategy. Instead of the competitive environment we have cultivated with a valedictorian and salutatorian in every class, we could assess every child in accordance with her own past performance and his own future potential. Rather than an educational system that fosters competition to the extent that winning effectively becomes the only thing, perhaps we should take seriously the challenge to educate every single student uniquely—not just those that are outliers on the learning spectrum, but every student.

It is time for us to harness the technological power we possess to individuate learning throughout one’s life. If a purveyor of goods and services can track my purchases and activities and suggest to me what future purchases I may want to make and what future activities I may want to pursue, those of us in education should be able to help learners at all ages and all stages grow to fulfill their potential. When economic competition yields a chasm between the rich and poor, Jewish ethics promote tzedakah to help achieve a dynamic balance of shared resources. When educational competition yields a chasm between the educated and the unlettered, Jewish ethics should intervene to promote a healthy intra-personal competition, in which each learner competes only against his or her learning potential. We should not have to wait until the cheating becomes known to effect teshuvah.

Why do we do things that we know are wrong? Because we are frustratingly, fascinatingly human, perpetually caught on the horns of ethical dilemmas. We keep eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and we keep cheating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Our morality and our mortality have been inextricably intertwined from the first bite.

Perhaps we are not condemned to this ineluctable fate. Perhaps we can lower the cheating incentive, at least in our schools, by changing the game from measuring success against one another to measuring success against one’s past performance and future potential. On that day each learner would be a ben Adam or a bat Sarah, a unique individual created in the image of the divine, still struggling with love and truth, righteousness and peace, and yet able to hear truth rising up from the ground of his or her being. As Zechariah taught (14:9), “On that [same] day G-d will be One and G-d’s name will be One.” Until that day, we will keep ch/eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.♦

Rabbi Jan Katzew is Senior Consultant in Lifelong Learning and Congregational Consulting at the Union for Reform Judaism in New York City. He can be reached at JKatzew@urj.org.

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Ethics

Jewish law and practice mandate a society based on strict ethical standards and principles, tempered with great sensitivity to the complexity of real-life situations. This creation of the mentsch that emerges from these ethical practices resonates with many day school families. Jewish ethics offers day school leaders and students tools and approaches to confront daily challenges and dilemmas and guide decision making. 

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