Friday, November 07, 2008

Where Did Personal Integrity Go?

E-Kvetcher has a post today about frum people in Chicago who voted twice for McCain in the recent presidential election -- once under their Hebrew name and once under their legal (English) name. I don't know (and E-Kvetcher doesn't tell us) whether this was racially motivated or whether they simply preferred McCain's policies. In any event, it doesn't really matter, I suppose.

What I find interesting is how we pay a lot of lip service to the idea of honesty in all our dealings -- even with non-Jews, and yet we simply fail miserably at following through in real life. There is a story often told about a Jew who consistently returned a few cents that he regularly received in excess change to a non-Jew postal clerk. Years later that very same non-Jew, impressed with the honesty and piety of the Jew, goes on to save him and other Jews from the Nazis. Other vesions of the story exist (with a shopkeep, or with the Czar instead of the Nazis, but they're all pretty much the same story). Who among us hasn't heard a story of this type? I know I've heard it countless times -- and it's a good story. The point being made is that if you conduct yourself with honesty, and treat people fairly, they will respect you and see you (and possibly your community) as people to be treated fairly.

Sadly, this lesson has been lost on today's generation. Today's generation looks at the story and misses the point entirely. Instead of seeing the message of "be honest, you never know what the consequences are," the message has become "be honest when it only costs you a few cents. A few cents may save you in the future." But when it comes to larger issues, honesty falls by the wayside.

Now, I don't want to suggest that this is a simply a frum problem -- it's not. There are plenty of people around the world of all stripes who are openly dishonest; and, as a firm believer in karma (aka Divine Justice) I beleive that they will eventually have to answer for it. But we tend to pay a great amount of lip service to the idea of honesty. We say that the seal of HKBH is truth. We're taught to be scrupulously honest -- even with non-Jews. And yet, time and again, we see examples where we fail to live up to the very ideals we profess to hold as the highest values.

I'm not suggesting that we should be perfect. I understand that Jews, like everyone else, are only human. We're all subject to temptations and failings. We all (myself included) find that sometimes we fall short of the mark. But that's fine -- as I said, we're human and not meant to be perfect. However, when it comes to the measure of a person's character, I sometimes feel that what's more important is the subsequent actions that a person takes. If a person steals someting, are they ashamed of the fact that they stole? Are they willing to make restitution (even secretly) and resolve to sin no more? Or are they proud of the fact that they got away with it? In other words, are they essentially honest people who simply slipped up once and gave in to temptation, or are they simply dishonest people?

Much of our halachic system is built on the idea of trust and personal integrity. How do I know that the food Eeees prepares for my dinner is kosher? Because I trust her. How do I know when I go to a restaurant or somone's home that they food they serve is kosher? Trust. I rely on thier personal honesty. How do I know my tefillin and mezzuos are written in order (if they are written out of order, they are invalid -- and this is not something that can be caught on inspection)? Again, we rely on the honesty of the sofer. Heck, how did we know that the Kohen Gadol in the Temple performed the ketores service in the proper way? Sure, he was made to swear that he'd do it the right way, but once he swore, we relied on his honesty that he would carry out his oath. In short, much of our halachic system is built on the idea of personal honesty. To see it so casually battered in public speaks volumes, I believe, about how we've lost our way and how we've lost sight of what truly is one of the major underpinnings of our religion.

The Wolf

(EDIT: I suppose I was unclear in the post. I didn't mean to suggest that there is rampant election fraud in Chicago [or anywhere else]. The post wasn't really about the election, but the open dishonesty in general [collecting sales tax comes to mind] that goes on in our community. The election fraud is just an example. My apologies for all those who were misled by my post.)


Ezzie said...

It's horrible if true, but it's very thirdhand and hard to imagine that easy. I could see a few people getting registrations under two names if they often use either (say, Eliezer or Ezzie in my case), but I can't imagine that "many" people would both be able to and actually do it, particularly in a pointless state to do so such as IL. Even if you're dishonest, why risk going to jail for a wasted extra vote?

Anonymous said...

How do you go from the one person she knows of that did it, to there being an epidemic of voter fraud in the Chicago Orthodox community?

G6 said...

Since Jury Duty rolls are culled from voter registration records, I can't wait for these same people to be called to perform their next civic duty in duplicate!!!

BrooklynWolf said...

I guess I wasn't clear. The election fraud was just an example. I didn't mean to suggest that there is an epidemic of election fraud. I was referring to honesty in general (such as collecting sales tax, etc.)

The Wolf

e-kvetcher said...

Election fraud in Chicago? :)

I have no idea whether the story which was told to my wife was true or not, or if it is true, how extensive this was. i believe I made that clear in my post. However, the fact that this woman was proud of it is telling.

Anonymous said...

You note that "Today's generation looks at the the message has become "be honest when it only costs you a few cents. A few cents may save you in the future." But when it comes to larger issues, honesty falls by the wayside."

A related problem seems to be the message of "if everyone does something dishonest and/or illegal then it's ok." Everytime I read a story in VIN, YWN, etc. about someone getting caught/accused of something, the commenters all scream that it is antisemitism because other people do the same thing without getting caught or it's ok because others do the same thing. (This comes up frequently in the discussions about hiring undocumented workers, not paying fair or timely wages, doing business under the table, etc.) Since when are our standards determined by what other people get away with?

Anonymous said...

Here in Chicago there is a tradition of voting early and often. It's not limited to the Jewish community, but it's something that should never happen if one is truly an observant Jew.