QUESTION: I heard it’s permitted to cheat, since it isn’t genevat da’at (deception), as the teachers know that cheating goes on, and also it would be “a decree that the community can’t live up to [and which therefore isn’t binding].” In our institution, there’s a hidden competition among the students to be accepted into a program (?), for which math, English, and Talmud are the main subjects, and the students are accepted based on their relative ranking of grades. Since there’s mass cheating in all the subjects, I’m asking if I may cheat, since it’s likely that I’ll be harmed.
ANSWER: G-d forbid that it be permitted to cheat on tests and the like.
It’s genevat da’at (Rambam, Deot 2:6), which is a prohibition in the Torah according to most halakhah-decisors (Smag, negative #155), which is included in the prohibition of “Don’t steal”; this is because “mind-stealing” is called stealing, as it says [when Lavan accused Ya’akov], “You stole my mind” (Genesis 31:26), and “Avshalom stole the mind of the people of Israel” (Shmuel II 15:6).
Furthermore, it’s possible that one is also violating “Stay far from a matter of lying,” which is a much broader prohibition than “Don’t lie,” and also includes indirect lying, various strategies, and even indirectly causing a misunderstanding by one’s silence — as we see from all the examples in the Talmud (Shevuot 30-31).
In addition, even without any verse, it’s clear that this is a lack of integrity. For a person to study Torah, he must first have integrity — an ethical character trait that’s elementary and general (i.e., not just Jewish — U.C.) — and only on its foundation can one build all the holiness of Torah.
The claim that “teachers know students cheat” does not permit it, just as the knowledge of the police that there are thieves does not permit theft. In fact, it’s the opposite — the police force uses this knowledge to prevent theft. So too with a teacher’s knowledge, it doesn’t mean approval, but rather the opposite — he tries to prevent [the cheating], and isn’t happy with it. The proof is that if he discovers a student cheating, he’ll punish him.
Similarly, the claim that [the prohibition of cheating] is “not a decree the community can live up to” doesn’t apply, because this isn’t a new decree, but an old decree of the Creator who commanded us to have integrity. Thank G-d, many students do not cheat — especially girls.
As for the concern that you’ll be harmed if you don’t cheat, this is not [grounds for] permission. Many times people of integrity get harmed, but “It’s better for me to be called a fool all my life than to become evil in front of G-d even for a moment” (Mishnah, Eduyot 5:6). Other people’s stealing does not permit you to steal. In the end the truth will win, and people of truth will be the leaders of the world.