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A Jewish View of Cheating in School
Prof. Steven H. (Shlomo Chaim) Resnicoff

A Jewish View of Cheating in School

Prof. Steven H. (Shlomo Chaim) Resnicoff
DePaul University College of Law

The media is replete with reports regarding alleged cheating on exams. The recently released survey of teens conducted by the Joseph & Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics, for instance, reports that 7 out of every 10 high schools questioned admitted to cheating on a test at least once last year, and almost 5 out of 10 said they did so more than once. But it's not just students who cheat. Principals, other administrators and teachers have also been accused of cheating - of giving students copies of exams in advance, of telling students the right answers during tests, and of allowing them to change incorrect answers after tests.

If so many cheat, society must believe that it is tolerable. Can Judaism accept such a position?

Fundamentally, the general Jewish answer to wrongdoing is not to permit wrongdoing in return. Rather than allowing a person to sink to the lower standards of the wrongdoers who surround him, Judaism urges a person to endeavor to elevate his contemporaries to the higher standards set by G-d. In the case of cheating, therefore, Judaism's response is, "It is wrong to cheat, and the fact that many engage in cheating does not justify the act."

But what is wrong with cheating from a Jewish legal (halachic) perspective?

To begin with, in instances where there are direct financial consequences, cheating may constitute theft under Jewish law. Take the case of high school students competing for limited college scholarships. Wherever money is obtained by cheating, Jewish law regards it as having been stolen. Thus, the student who qualifies for scholarship money by virtue of inflated grades obtained through cheating, deprives his fellow student of his or her own rightful opportunity to the monetary award, defrauds the person or institution granting the scholarship, and in the eyes of halacha is considered to be nothing less than a thief ("ganav").

Jewish law accords the same "ganav" status to those who cheat in order to satisfy required academic standards needed to retain scholarships. A student who maintains minimum standards by cheating takes the stipend fraudulently. Similarly, if a person achieves test scores by cheating and is hired by an employer who is impressed with the student's false academic accomplishments, that person is considered to have stolen the job that rightfully should have gone to another. Indeed, in such a case, the harmful consequences of the cheater's misconduct is exacerbated by the fact that he or she will never learn the identify of the person whom he harmed. This makes it extremely difficult to ever make adequate amends.

Even where there are no monetary implications, the way in which a person cheats can give rise to halachic problems. For example, if, before an exam, a student surreptitiously "borrows" a blank exam or answer sheet, such action constitutes an independent theft - even if the student intends to return the material later.

Moreover, even if no stealing of papers - or opportunities - is involved, cheating ineluctably involves deceit, an act which Jewish authorities forbid notwithstanding the lack of practical consequences. Since students are implicitly or explicitly instructed not to cheat, when a student copies another's work during an exam, essentially he is falsely asserting that he reached this answer on his own. Such deceitful behavior is all the more evident when the student has agreed, even if only when matriculating to the school, to abide by a specific honor code. See, e.g., Iggerot Moshe (authored by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein) Choshen Mishpat 2:30, and Mishne Halachot (by Rabbi Menashe Klein) 7:275.

Finally, whether or not a person receives any material benefit from cheating, if he enables someone else to cheat, he transgresses the Biblical prohibition against "placing a stumbling-block in front of the [morally] blind." And under circumstances where the cheating would have taken place without his help, he still violates a rabbinic rule against "assisting a wrongdoer." Indeed, as a general rule, not only is a Jew forbidden from violating HaShem's commandments, he affirmatively is obliged to try to prevent any other Jew from violating them. By preventing the transgression, a person protects both the prospective victim, from being victimized, and the prospective perpetrator, from the spiritually corrosive influence of sin. Thus, school administrators and teachers who help students cheat not only transgress as accomplices to a crime (sin), they miss the wonderful opportunity their position affords to influence those who look up to them to abide by G-d's eternal rules, as opposed to the fleeting and ever-changing mores of society.

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