A one-liner from comedian Steven Wright: “They told me in school that ‘practice makes perfect.’ Then they told me, ‘Nobody’s perfect.’ So I stopped practicing.”

A droll observation. But it raises a serious issue. Between these two truisms, which one is really true? Or is the truth somewhere in between. Is perfection attainable or is it not?

If we’re talking about proficiency and skill—like a major-league hitter batting a thousand—then perfection may be pie in the sky. But if we’re talking about matters of integrity and decency, then perfection is actually our bottom line. Indeed, perfection doesn’t seem like such an unreasonable expectation, if we are to think of the alternative as an employee who doesn’t steal 99% of the profits, or a spouse who is faithful 99% of the time.

I Am, I Do

The first Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812; known as the “Alter Rebbe”), wrote a whole book as a step-by-step guide to actualizing one’s complete personal potential. The book is called Tanya, and its premise is that anyone who earnestly applies the methods clearly outlined in the book will be able to attain personal perfection and, with continued effort, consistently maintain that state for the rest of his or her life.

In Tanya, R. Schneur Zalman points out an interesting dichotomy in the human condition. On one hand, man is fallible by nature, prone to selfishness and self-justification. On the other hand, man is in control over his impulses. He is not an animal, and has free will to act as he wills at any given time.

In other words, we might not be perfect, but we have the choice to do perfect. Or to put it in psychological terms, not everything that is wrong with us on the inside do we necessarily have to bring into expression on the outside.

This is the perfection which, R. Schneur Zalman tells us, we can achieve—to become a person who, despite being rife with imperfections on the inside, chooses to behave perfectly on the outside.

The Lie of Being Genuine

There is a common knee-jerk reaction—at least from some people—to brand this advice as a prescription for hypocrisy. “If you’re flawed on the inside, how dare you project perfection on the outside?”

Is impulse control hypocrisy? If you cover your mouth before you cough, are you a hypocrite?But is impulse control hypocrisy? If you cover your mouth before you cough, are you a hypocrite? Do you have to say every random thought that pops into your head in order to be “real”?

The correct definition of a hypocrite is one who preaches one set of standards to others while personally adhering to another. But that’s not at all what we’re talking about here. Feeling like doing something selfish and rotten but forcing yourself to do something altruistic and noble isn’t called hypocrisy; it’s called being a healthy, normal, decent human being.

Whenever we overcome our impulses to behave in a particular way, we aren’t pretending not to be something we’re not; we are making the decision to do what ought to be done.

In 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, members introduce themselves at every meeting, “My name is so-and-so; I am an alcoholic.”

Essential to his survival is the alcoholic’s recognition of the difference between being and doing. On the one hand, he is an alcoholic. He says so at every meeting. And since that’s who he is, it’s obviously not his fault. On the other hand, he can’t drink. He must maintain total abstinence. Because drinking or not drinking is something he does, and it is entirely up to him what to choose.

It is axiomatic that if we are human, then we suffer from the human condition. That’s just who we are and we’re not responsible for it. At the same time, the human condition is a poor excuse for misconduct. Whatever our foibles and flaws, behavior is a choice, and if we choose to do the wrong thing, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Jimmy Carter’s Heart

When Jimmy Carter first ran for president, a journalist asked the candidate if he had ever been unfaithful in his marriage. Carter’s solemn response was, “I’ve lusted in my heart,” to which he added, “But G‑d knows I will do this and forgives me.”

What is that supposed to mean? Was Carter admitting to having natural urges and desires? And, indeed, if that was the case, should we care? What kind of news is that?

Imagine asking a Jew, “Did you ever eat on Yom Kippur?” and he answers, “I felt hungry in my stomach.”

You felt hungry. That’s not a moral issue.You felt hungry. That’s not a moral issue. It’s a physiological issue. You were hungry. And even if you say that you felt hungry when it was only an hour into the fast and your stomach was still full from the pre-fast meals, then it is still just an emotional or psychological issue. The bottom line is that you did not eat! You didn’t do it. You didn’t talk about doing it. You didn’t even entertain it as an actual thought. You felt it.

That’s why Carter’s statement that he “lusted in his heart” makes no sense in the Jewish idea of morality. If he was trying to convey that he had felt urges, then what substance is there to his “confession”? It seems rather like admitting to having driven 50 mph in a school zone . . . “in your heart.”

If, on the other hand, what he was saying is that he hadn’t just felt impulses but actually calculated and made plans to act them out, but never actually gone through with them, then that might be worthy of mention. But then the tag-on, “G‑d knows I will do this and forgives me,” makes no sense. Why should G‑d give out a free pass for a person’s scheming, just because the All-Knowing is aware of it before it happens?

Either way you read the statement, both its logic and its belief system seem weak. At the very least, we can say that it’s not a very Jewish answer.

1) The very notion that I am condemnable for impulses and feelings is consummately un-Jewish. Humanity is not damned for being human.

2) The idea that I am entitled to forgiveness for wrongdoing because my human frailty and fallibility excuses me is equally un-Jewish.

On the one hand, a Jew doesn’t need to “come clean” about the fact that he is human; but neither does he assume absolution for misdeeds on those same grounds. Judaism teaches us that we are innately imperfect, but at the same time, G‑d has high enough expectations of us to judge our actions against a standard of perfection.

When Benjamin Franklin wrote about self-perfection in the late 1700s, his ideas were thought to be very un-Christian by many of his coreligionists. After all, the chief tenet of that religion, the need for salvation, is predicated upon the assumption that we are all hopelessly imperfect. Self-perfection has no place in such a belief system. It throws a wrench into the theological gears.

But we Jews don’t look to G‑d for salvation from our imperfections, but for direction how to heal the world from its imperfection. Our job—the job we were chosen for—is to put our own imperfection aside and take actions that help make a perfect world.

A Jew thus has not only the license but the obligation to pursue perfection in his or her deeds. After all, there is really nothing stopping us. Or as the saying goes, “Everyone is just as much of a mentch as he wants to be.”