Fearing God As Much As We Fear People
Life Lessons from the Varsity Blues College Scandal
The crime was breathtaking in its audacity. Dozens of well-heeled parents paid millions of dollars to help their children cheat their way into top American colleges, including Yale, Stanford, UCLA and Georgetown. Parents paid middlemen to fake college test scores, bribe universities’ athletic coaches, and fake students’ athletic credentials. The years-long scheme came crashing down on Tuesday, March 12, 2019, when federal prosecutors charged 50 people with bribery and corruption counts.
Among those charged were 33 parents, some of whom were prominent celebrities and business people, coaches, proctors and officials at the College Admissions Board (which administers the SAT standardized test), and the mastermind, William Singer, the founder of a California-based business called Edge College & Career Network, who masterminded the scheme.
In our home, the charges and description of the outlandish scheme felt personal. With teenagers in our family, we’re knee-deep in the college admissions process. Our days are spent discussing the merits of one college over another; our Sundays are often taken up with standardized tests. A recent dinner party turned into a major question and answer session about the college admissions process as our friends all shared their experiences visiting colleges, talking with admissions staff, and signing their kids up for various tests.
One troubling aspect of the recent bombshell charges of corruption are just how unsurprising allegations of fraud and unfair advantage seem. Even before the US Justice Department announced the 50 criminal charges in the college admissions scam, my kids and the kids of my friends were already comparing notes about the best ways to get into colleges. Do some schools discriminate against Jews? How easy is it to get into an East Coast school when you apply from the Midwest? Does being a “legacy”, whose parents are alums, help? Will students whose parents paid for fancy summer programs have an advantage over us?
It’s heartbreaking to see students become cynical just when they are preparing to leave high school and enter the wider world. My fear is that this corruption scandal will cement some students’ views that society at large is an unethical place.
Tragically, that worldview seems to be gaining currency. A 2018 Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans harbored trust for only three institutions (the military, small businesses and the police). Other public institutions – including religious organizations, public schools, newspapers and branches of government – saw dismally low levels of trust. We seem to be living through a crisis of trust. It breaks my heart to think that a whole generation of kids might be learning to mistrust some of the most central institutions in their lives, including school and college officials, coaches and even parents.
One of the saddest aspects of the unfolding scandal is the fact that in some cases parents duped their children. Some parents paid William Singer and his corrupt business huge amounts, ranging from $15,000 to $75,000, to buy off standardized test proctors and rig students’ scores. In an email exchange released by prosecutors, Singer wrote that many of the students whose parents hired him believed they’d done well on the SAT and other tests themselves. “It was so funny ‘cause the kids will call me and say, ‘Maybe I should do that again. I did pretty well and if I took it again, I’ll do better even.’ Right? And they just have no idea that they didn’t even get the score that they thought they got.”
Instead, Singer counselled parents to concoct reasons that their family had to be out of town on the date of their children’s tests, then take their children to take a standardized site at a testing center where Singer could manipulate the results, either having employees change students’ answers afterwards or in one case even have an adult pretend they were the child and take the test for them.
One parent who eventually decided not to enroll her daughter in the scheme, recognized that her daughter would want to do her best on the tests. She explained in a recorded phone call that her daughter should take one regular test first, then a second, rigged exam. “I just know that no matter what, she’s so academically driven…no matter what happens, even if we go, ‘This is a great score,’ that she’ll go, ‘I really want to take it again.’”
That sort of optimistic hope in her own abilities and capacity for self-improvement is exactly what we all want for our children – and what this scandal has dealt such a grievous blow.
We all want our children to feel that the world is a hopeful place and that their own abilities will be enough to carry them through and allow them to blossom. I’ve told my kids that this admissions scandal is an aberration and that most people would never ever do this. I want to believe that’s enough to reassure them but I’m not so sure. Surrounded by so many examples of unfairness and inequality, it can be hard to raise children who trust that the world is really fair.
I want to give my children a blessing that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai gave to his disciples 2,000 years ago: they should fear God and heaven as much as they fear flesh and blood.
One of the greatest gifts I can give my children is a sense of right and wrong and the courage and inner conviction to live by those standards.
Why Are Jews Called the People of the Book?
The term People of the Book originated in Arabic: Ahl Al-Kitab. It’s first found in the Koran, and describes not only Jews but also Christians, Zoroastrians and another group known as Sabians (whose precise identity isn’t known today). In Islam, all of these religious groups are considered to own divine books and have therefore historically enjoyed some protections in Muslim-controlled lands.
Despite its Muslim origins, many Jews have embraced the term People of the Book. Perhaps this is because it seems to describe the close relationship we Jews have with the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, and with learning the Talmud. In fact, studying the Torah is a mitzvah, a commandment, in Judaism.
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, a Medieval Spanish sage (also known as Rambam or Maimonides), put this bluntly: every Jew, “whether he is poor or rich, whether his body is healthy and whole or afflicted by difficulties, whether he is young or an old man whose strength has diminished…” is obligated to spend at least some of their day studying the Torah.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks noted that “the holiest object in Judaism is a book, the Scroll of the Law. The reverence we pay it is astonishing. We stand in its presence as if it were a king, dance with it as if it were a bride, and if, God forbid, it is desecrated or ruined beyond repair we bury it as if it were a relative who had died.”
Each year on the holiday of Simchat Torah, we dance with the Torah; on the holiday of Shavuot we celebrate having the Torah by staying up all night studying. Books and learning are causes for celebration in Judaism. Learning the Talmud, which is so wide and vast, is often compared to swimming in an ocean. There is a book for each and every Jew that speaks to them.
Perhaps another reason Jews have so readily welcomed being labeled the People of the Book is the vivid imagery the Talmud employs in describing the solemnity of Rosh Hashanah, when God sits “on the throne of judgment” with “the Books of Life and Death…open before Him” (Talmud Rosh Hashanah 32b).
It’s a stirring image that conveys the core Jewish belief that everything we do and say in our lives has profound consequences and is recorded for posterity. We are part of the never-ending story of the Jewish people. Each of us is engaged in writing the next chapter of Jewish history. Accessing the timeless Jewish wisdom through our holy books can help equip us to live the very best lives we’re each capable of creating.