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Distinguishing between honesty and integrity
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Distinguishing between honesty and integrity

Matot-Masei — Numbers 30:2-36:13

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Over the years, I have contemplated and written about the concepts of “honesty” and “integrity” and the difference between the two.

But never was I able to articulate their precise definitions and the difference between them as cogently and concisely as in the following passage from Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”: “Integrity includes but goes beyond honesty. Honesty is … conforming our words to reality. Integrity is conforming reality to our words — in other words, keeping promises and fulfilling expectations. This requires an integrated character, a oneness, primarily with self but also with life.”

Honesty for Covey, and I for one agree, is the virtue describing reality exactly as it is, of telling the truth. In this day and age, when there is so much confusion as to whether or not there even is such a thing as truth, it is refreshing to see the place of honesty restored to the list of important human virtues.

For Judaism, truth, emet, is more than just a virtue. It is one of the three fundamental principles, along with justice and peace, upon which the world stands.

As rare as the trait of honesty is, the trait of integrity — the ability not only to say what you mean, but to mean what you say — is even more difficult to find. Following Covey, it is the quality of conforming one’s actions to one’s words, of reliably following through on one’s commitment.

This week’s Torah portion opens with a lengthy and intricate discussion of the concepts of “the vow.” Biblical teachings insist that the words we express must be taken very seriously; indeed, we are taught that our words are sacred. Once a person, man or woman, young or old, simpleton or scholar, utters a commitment, he or she is duty-bound to honor it.

As helpful as is Covey’s succinct definition of “integrity,” it is also deceptively simple. There is so much more that we need to know about integrity. And about “honesty,” for that matter.

For one thing, honesty and integrity are not just descriptors of individual persons’ characters, but are social values, which ideally should define the essence of human communities and entire societies. From a Jewish perspective, “honesty” and “integrity” cannot be restricted to individual paragons of virtue, saints and holy men, but must become universal cultural norms.

Yet another lesson about keeping our word is taught in the Torah portion. Sometimes, we overextend ourselves and make promises that we cannot possibly keep. Can a vow thus expressed be annulled? The Torah, ever practical, answers “yes,” and describes some of the procedures designed to release a person from his or her vows.

Most well-known among the “ceremonies” releasing us from our personal vows is the Kol Nidrei prayer, a statement in which we declare our past vows null and void, that ushers in Yom Kippur. I personally have always found that it reinforces the role of integrity in my life and in the lives of all of us who live in the “real world.”

During the entire year, you and I make many commitments and resolutions. With the noblest of motives, we promise things to our loved ones, verbally establish objectives to improve the world around us, or simply vow to lose weight, stop smoking, or start exercising.

As the year wears on, situations change, priorities shift, and we ourselves become different. At least one time each year, on Yom Kippur, we realize how unrealistic we were and that we erred in our assessment of what we could accomplish. And so, we ask that the Almighty release us from these impossible and often no-longer-relevant commitments, and begin with divine help a new slate.

Judaism teaches us the primary importance of keeping our word. But it does not lose sight of our human frailties and limitations and recognizes that often it is not moral failure that explains our lack of integrity, but simple human weakness, hopefully rare and surely forgiven by God.

Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.

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