Monday, March 23, 2015

Plagiarism, Citation, and Redemption

Plagiarism, Citation, and Redemption
 By Jeremy Brown
Jeremy Brown is the author of New Heavens and a New Earth; the Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought. He writes on science, medicine and the Talmud at
Plagiarism, it seems, has never been so widespread. Remember How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, the 2006 debut novel from Harvard undergraduate Kaavya Viswanathan? The author had plagiarized several passages from others (including Salman Rushdie) and the publisher Little Brown recalled and destroyed all its unsold copies. It's not just authors; politicians plagiarize too. In 2013 the German minister for education resigned amid allegations she had plagiarized her PhD. thesis, and last year Senator Jon Walsh of Montana had his Master's Degree revoked by the US Army War College, which determined that it had been plagiarized. (Walsh dropped out of the Senate race as a result of the scandal.)  

Plagiarism is not just for politicians; academics do it to. Retraction Watch has reported at least 268 academic papers that were plagiarized. In fact plagiarism has become so pervasive in academia (and the need to report it has become so important) that a recent paper paper in Ethics & Behavior gives advice for academics considering becoming plagiarism whisleblowers. 

This seems to be a very good time in which to remind ourselves that the full and proper attribution of the work of others is a core Jewish value.  When authors of ideas are properly acknowledged, the Talmud (Yevamot 97a) states that “their lips move in the grave.” Life is briefly restored to the author when his teachings are recalled.

Sadly, Jewish literature has a many examples of plagiarism, improper attribution, and other infractions of publication etiquette. So widespread is the plagiarism of Jewish texts that it might even be considered a separate genre of Hebrew literature. Some examples have already been examined in the virtual pages of this Seforim Blog, but we will focus on three. They are each different, and their ethical breaches are not to be equated, but they are reminders of the responsibility of those who publish to check, double check, and attribute. 


Inaccurate citation is a relatively lightweight problem, but it's a problem nevertheless. The English language Schottenstein Talmud, published by ArtScroll, chose a censored text of the Talmud as the basis for its translation project. (Full disclosure: I enjoy the Schottenstein Talmud, and study from it each day, God bless it).  As I've pointed out before on this blog, this was a sad choice, and a missed opportunity to return the text to its more pristine (and more challenging) state. 

One example of ArtScroll's decision is found very early on in Berachot (3a). There, the original uncensored text records a statement said in the name of Rav:

 אוי לי שהחרבתי את ביתי ושרפתי את היכלי והגליתים לבין אומות העולם

Woe is me [God], for I destroyed my home [the Temple], burned my Sanctuary,  and sent [the Jewish People] into exile among the nations of the world. 

However, the editors of the English ArtScroll Talmud chose to use a censored text in which an additional phrase was slipped in by the censor:

Woe to my children who sinned, [and hence made me, God] destroy my home [the Temple], burn my Sanctuary, and send them into exile among the nations of the world. 

Here is a version of the uncensored text- the one that ArtScroll could have used.  As you can see, the censor's additional text is not there:

Then, to compound the error, the ArtScroll Talmud adds a footnote explaining the metaphorical meaning of this erroneous text!

To be clear: ArtScroll did not plagiarize anything, but they should have done a better job of quoting the text accurately. After all, isn't that what Rabbi Yochanan taught us to do? Had they done so, the lips of the great sage Rav, whose teachings were improperly amended by the censor, would again "move in his grave".

Now on to more egregious issues – hard-core plagiarism.


Copying a chunk of text or some choice word phrases without proper attribution is also plagiarism. One example of this is found in the 500 year-long debate over whether Jews could believe in the Copernican model of the solar system in which the sun was stationary.  In the late nineteenth century Reuven Landau (c. 1800-1883) took a conservative position against this model. He found it to be existentially threatening, and argued that because humanity was the center of the spiritual universe, it must live in the very center of the physical one. But rather than outline his claims in his own words, he stole from the very -widely read Sefer Haberit, an encyclopedic work that had been published some one hundred years earlier. Here is an excerpt from Landau's text, in which he raises what he believes to be scientific objections to the Copernican model. The bold text shows where the text is identical to Sefer Haberit, first published in 1798. 

Quite simply put, Landau stole from Sefer Haberit. A simple attribution was all that was needed. And it was not there. (You can read more about this plagarism here, and more about Sefer Haberit in my book, and in this recently published work from David Ruderman.)

Finally, let’s look at an example of full, unadulterated plagiarism: the stealing, word for word, of paragraphs – and then an entire book.


In 1788 in Berlin, Barukh Linda (not to be confused with the plagiarist Reuven Landau) published a small encyclopedia for children called Reshit Limmudim. In it, Linda carefully explained the heliocentric model of Copernicus and how the planets moved around the sun. This book became, in the words of the historian Shmuel Feiner the “most famous, up-to-date book on the Hebrew bookshelf at the end of the eighteenth century,” And then, a year after it was published a Rabbi Shimon Oppenheimer, living in Prague, stole from it.

Oppenheimer (1753-1851) objected to the claim that the earth revolved around the sun, and in 1789 in Prague he published Amud Hashachar in which he detailed his opposition. But rather than use his own words, he stole, word for word, the descriptions of the solar system from the pro-Copernican Reshit Limmudim, carefully leaving out the bits that supported Copernicus. In a move that pushes hutzpah to a new level, Oppenheimer even published a moving dedicatory poem as if it had been written to him, though he changed a few awkward phrases here and there, since the original poem mentioned Linda by name. However, the poem plagiarized from one written as a dedication to the real author Linda - from the great man of letters Naphtali Herz Wessely. 

When it came to plagiarism, this Rabbi Oppenheimer was a repeat offender.  Because in 1831 he published Nezer Hakodesh, a book on religious ethics (I'll say that again in case you missed it - it's a book on religious ethics)...which he plagiarized from the 1556 work Ma’alot Hamidot!  Here's an example so you can see the scale of the plagiarism.

There is a fascinating end to the story. The famous Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (that’s the third Landua/Linda in this little post –sorry), head of the Bet Din in Prague, banned Oppenheimer from printing further copies of Amud Hashachar, but not because it was plagarized.  Rather, Chief Rabbi Landau objected to the book’s frontispiece, in which Oppenheimer described himself as “The great Gaon, sharp and famous, the outstanding investigator Shimon”. Read it for yourself:

First edition of השחר עמוד, Prague 1789. From the Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem

Remarkably, in his rebuke, the head of the Bet Din made no mention of the fact that sections of the book were plagiarized, even though this information was widely known. Oppenheimer proceeded undeterred, and published a second edition of his plagiarized and anti-Copernican work – although he was “honest” enough to remove the stolen poem praising his book - the poem that had originally been written by Naphtali Herz Wessely in praise of Lindau’s Reshit Limmudim.

In his recently published autobiography, the British comedian John Cleese (of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers fame) recalls how he reacted the very first time that he was recognized after a stage performance. As he walked home, a family who had been in the audience pointed at him and waived. It was by all accounts a small gesture, but Cleese recalled its effects in detail even fifty years later:

I can still remember the sudden feeling of warmth around my heart that swelled and swelled and lifted my spirits. It is as though I had been accepted into a new family, and acknowledged as having brought them something special that they really appreciated. It was only a moment but  it was wonderful, and they didn't even know my today's celebrity culture it must be hard to imagine that a tiny moment of recognition like that could feel so uncomplicated and positive...

The need for recognition is not a vice or a character flaw, but a profound human need. To ignore it is not just an oversight but an act of neglect.  The rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud understood the corollary: that to attribute is to nourish. To acknowledge the creative act of another person is a kind of blessing, like those required before eating, or on seeing a beautiful vista.  Blessings and citations acknowledge the creative impulse in others, and so make the world a little bit better. They are redemptive. As we approach Pesach, the festival of our redemption, we should remember one final text about the power of correct citation. It was, after all, a citation that saved the Jewish people:

“Whoever cites something in the name of the person who originally said it, brings redemption to the world. As the prooftext states - “And Esther told the King in the name of Mordechai...”  (Pirkei Avot 6:6)

1 comment:

ישבב הסופר said...

תודתי להרב הכותב על פוסט מעניין ומושקע. רק הערה קטנה, דומה שמכון ארטסקרולל משמש כאן באתר כשק החביטות, ולפעמים טופלים עליהם אשמות שאין בהם ממש. ודומה שכאן אין עליהם שום טענה. הם לא עסקו בבירור נוסחאות כלל. הם מביאים פירוש לש"ס נוסח דפוס ווילנא, והוא הש"ס המובא בעבר השני של הדף, זה מול זה. האיך היה הרב הכותב מצפה שהם יביאו נוסח אחר מהמופיע בדף המקביל? בש"ס וגשל, למשל, אין איזכור בכלל שהנוסח לקטע זה בראשונים ובכתי"י שונה. במהדורת עוז והדר זה מובא בציונים בגליון הדף. ארטסקרולל הביאו פירוש לנוסח הפנים של מהדורת ווילנא, ולא עליהם התלונה. אטו כי רוכלא ליזיל ולימני כל מקום שיש גירסא מתוקנת יותר בדק"ס?

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