Stealing Minds

It is forbidden to steal anyone’s mind...”
— BT Hullin 94b

Yesterday's Washington Post had a shocking column about a Virginia school principal whose resume was full of lies about his educational background. He presented himself as having college degrees he never had from institutions he never attended. He obtained his teaching license fraudulently and falsified three university transcripts. Three days after this discovery, he resigned. It seems that he had been employed for 14 years before anyone made this discovery. Ironically, his last name is Toogood. Too bad. 

I scanned the next page of the Metro section to discover that a dermatologist practicing in Mclean, Virginia intentionally "misdiagnosed patients with skin cancer" to perform unnecessary surgeries. He employed unlicensed and unqualified medical assistants to suture and close wounds and conduct other procedures and billed for surgeries that he assigned to his nurses, sometimes billing at three different locations at the same time. Washingtonian magazine recently named him one of the region's top dermatologists. Oy. If this is the one of the best, what does the worst look like?

Reading on the same day how the public was duped is painful, but it raises, in many ways, a different question. How did each of these men get away with this fraudulent behavior for so long? Both of these professions - education and medicine - are regarded in Jewish tradition as sacred. They are mitzvot, commanded occupations, perhaps because they involve and assume a level of trust. Perhaps precisely because of that trust, no one bothered to do a proper background check or an investigation into business practices. We assume that there is a certain unspoken covenant we make with people who lead us and take care of us. Unfortunately that agreement is too often broken.

In Jewish law, there is a category of theft called genevat da'at, literally stealing knowledge, based on a biblical prohibition found in Leviticus 19:11. Some call it stealing the mind. It is a subtle robbery; you likely won't know it's happening until long after it has happened. It's not like getting pickpocketed. You may never know that something was stolen from you. Professor Hershey Friedman describes the term genevat da'at as "fooling someone and thereby causing him or her to have a mistaken assumption, belief, and/or impression. Thus the term is used in Jewish law to indicate deception, cheating, creating a false impression and acquiring undeserved goodwill." This is a prohibition of biblical order so if you weren't going to break any of the big ten, you might want to add this as an unexpected eleven on your Jewish dignity laundry list of commandments.

The example I often use of genevat da'at is buying someone a gift at Walmart and putting it in a Nordstrom box. You never said you bought it there. You let the packaging speak for you. It did not tell the truth. You get undeserved friendship points as a big spender when, in fact, Jewish law calls you a subtle liar. Because we take knowledge so seriously, we take deception seriously as well, the breakdown in knowledge that plays on false trust, ignorance or naiveté. Other examples of this include inviting someone to an event when you know they cannot attend so you get bonus credit with them (unless you are doing so specifically to show respect and honor) or any financial misrepresentation when you are selling or buying something.

You might claim that there is a universe of difference between faking a transcript and faking how much you paid for a gift because you took the clearance tag off and left on the "real" price. But in Jewish law, these are matters of scale and degree. The willingness to misrepresent yourself to look richer, stronger, smarter, more generous than you really are - may one day take you to someplace you really don't want to be: the land of deception, where integrity cannot live.

Alternatively, you can take the view of George Burns, "Sincerity - if you can fake that, you've got it made."

Shabbat Shalom