22 October 2010
14 Marcheshvan 5771
This week was “Academic Integrity Week” at Gann, intended to raise students’ awareness of values and issues related to academic integrity, which typically revolve around cheating or plagiarizing. Teachers devoted time in their classes to clarifying rules and expectations around homework, especially shared work, as well as papers and tests, with a focus on helping students to understand rules of citation and the lines between collaboration and getting help or claiming someone else’s work as one’s own. In addition, advisor groups and many sichot (morning discussion groups) explored value dilemmas related to honesty and integrity. My sicha, for example, wrestled with whether and when we would turn in a friend if we witnessed this person cheating on an exam.
In advance of my sicha and in preparation to address our community about academic integrity, I looked up the word “integrity” on dictionary.com and found two different meanings that shed a beautiful light on what it means to live with integrity. The first definition of integrity was “adherence to moral and ethical principles,” which I interpret as making choices or behaving in accordance with values and ethical principles, usually with rules that are, hopefully, the concrete manifestation of those values and principles. This definition focuses on the choices we make about how we act in the world. The second definition of integrity was “the state of being whole, entire, or undiminished,” such as maintaining the integrity of a structure. This definition implies that to live or to act without integrity somehow diminishes us, makes us less whole as a person. It focuses on the consequences of how we act for who we are in the world.
When I read these two definitions, I gained new insight into one of the most famous scenes in the Torah, which occurs in this week’s Torah portion, Vayera. When God tells Avraham of his plan to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of how wicked their people are, Avraham, full of righteous indignation, challenges God’s plan to wipe out even a few righteous people along with the wicked. In perhaps his most poignant and confrontational plea, Avraham says, “. . .Chalilah lecha hashofet kol haaretz lo ya’aseh mishpat – Far be it from You (to do this)! Shall the Judge of all the earth not act/deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25) In the spirit of the first dictionary definition of integrity, I have always read this challenge to God with a focus on the last three words, “not act or deal justly,” in which Avraham is calling upon God to act in accordance with God’s own principles of justice and fairness. But this week, reading through the lens of the second dictionary definition, I see an emphasis on the first part of Avraham’s question, in which he refers to God as “Shofet col haaretz – Judge of all the earth.” This reading shifts the focus from God’s actions to God’s identity. Avraham reminds God who God is, as if to say: You are the Judge of all the earth. Please, be the God I know you are and the God you want to be. Act in a way that will maintain Your integrity, Your wholeness, and will be true to Your identity. Do not diminish Yourself by acting unjustly.
As I shared with our community this week, academic integrity and, more broadly, living with integrity, are about the way we act, the choices we make, and the values and principles by which we live our lives. However, if we are truly to live out these values, and if “character education” about values such as integrity is going to be successful, it has to be about more than just behaving according to a set of rules. We need to emphasize to our students and remind ourselves that this is about our identities and that the choices we make about how to act both reflect and shape the people we are and the people we will become.
May we all have the strength to be true to our best selves, to make good choices, and to live with integrity, undiminished and whole.
Rabbi Marc Baker