Hot on the heels of that controversy, we in America had the scandal involving Rabbi Michael Broyde, a senior rabbi and rabbinic judge on one of America’s top rabbinical courts. Rabbi Broyde misrepresented himself in order to gain entry to a rival rabbinic organization, the International Rabbinic Fellowship (of which I am a member). He also used fake names to write letters and comments to bolster ideas he was disseminating. Broyde, like Bernheim, was forced to resign from his position as rabbinic judge at the Beth Din of America.
Even more recently, an article in Israeli daily newspaper Maariv accused Rabbi Yona Metzger, the chief rabbi of Israel, of plagiarism in his book "Mayim HaHalacha." Metzger maintains his position as chief rabbi of Israel.
So what is it with rabbinic plagiarism and scholarly integrity?
Being truthful about the origins of any idea is a Jewish value. The sages tell us that “whenever something is repeated in the name of the person who originally said it redemption is brought into the world” (Avot, 6:6, Nida, 19b). Yet citing a source for an idea is not seen as obligatory within Jewish tradition.
Hidden ideasThe great medieval Jewish codifier and philosopher Maimonides, for example, is somewhat loose with quoting his sources. In fact Maimonides himself admits that many of the ideas he brings are not his own, yet he balks at giving the proper attribution to the original sources of the ideas. In explaining this position Maimonides says that “there is no evil in this, and I am not glorifying myself for what a previous person said because I have already admitted to it” (Introduction to Shmona Perakim).
Maimonides goes on to give the main reason he does not reveal the names of the sources he brings. “It is possible that, had I brought the name of this person (who originally said the given idea, the reader) who does not find (that name) palatable, will lose the (entire idea and will see) negativity in it and will therefore not understand (the larger concept). And since my intention is to benefit the reader, to clarify for him hidden ideas within this tractate, I saw it fit not to cite my sources.”
Not all medieval Jewish scholars believed that this was the correct thing to do. One prominent example of this is Jacob Anatoli (1194–1256) who disagrees with Maimonides. In the introduction to his book "Malamad HaTalmidim," he says that he will even cite non-Jews, specifically Michael Scot (1175–1232), from whom he heard “words of wisdom.”
His reasons for citing all his sources are as follows. First, he does not want to bring glory to himself by using “borrowed vessels.” Second, he says it is important for a wise person to see wisdom for what it is and not write it off just because it originated from a source they don’t like. He adds that if Moses saw it fit to quote a gentile, Jethro, in the Torah, he should follow that example in his books. Finally he says that he follows the way of the Torah which is to always give attribution to his sources.
Yet, many authors have followed Maimonides lead. Here are two prominent examples of this, both books that have had a large impact on modern-day Judaism. The classic Chassidic text "Tanya," written by Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812), borrows heavily from the ideas of medieval Jewish philosophers, specifically Maimonides’ "Guide to the Perplexed," but from many others as well. He writes on the opening page that the book “has been gathered from holy books and authors,” yet he does not cite or credit the actual “holy books and authors” he takes ideas from.
The classic Mussar movement text "Chesbon HaNefesh" by Menahem Mendel Levin (1749–1826) seems to have taken entire concepts from Benjamin Franklin without any acknowledgement or citations whatsoever. I surmise that both of these authors, Shneur Zalman of Liadi and Menahem Mendel Levin, shared Maimonides’ concern that if they divulged their sources, the ideas would be devalued in the eyes of their very conservative religious readers. They therefore intentionally kept the sources of their ideas a secret.
In fact Jacob Anatoli, who insisted on citing all of his sources including those that came from non-Jews, had his worked banned by prominent medieval Jewish scholar and Talmudist Shlomo ben Aderet, also known as The Rashba (1235–1310). It is possible that other later scholars took note of this and decided that it was better if they hid their sources rather than have their work potentially banned and derided by the masses.
In the final analysis we have two competing values here. Concern that the idea be accepted to the reader and academic and scholarly integrity that insists on citing every source. When academic integrity causes the reader to become prejudiced towards the ideas presented, Maimonides is willing to compromise and not cite his sources. Jacob Anatoli, conversely, would like to educate the reader to see past the person saying the ideas and judge the ideas for what they are. He is not willing to compromise academic and scholarly integrity because readers may be too shallow to do this.
Literary tacticsIt seems that the view of Maimonides dominated over time. We therefore have books like the "Tanya" and "Chesbon HaNefesh" by Menahem Mendel Levin which obscure the sources of the ideas they contain, and have thereby obtained a much wider ranging readership and influence. Is this dishonest? Maimonides would argue that because a book is written for the benefit of the reader, as long as hiding the source of the ideas is positive for the reader it is acceptable. Others disagree.
There is however, another element to all of this which is pseudepigrapha, where a book is attributed by its author to a more prominent figure from the past. A classic example of this is the Kabbalistic work known as Sefer Yetzirah which was attributed to the Patriarch Abraham. Although it is clear that Abraham did not write the book. In addition, many argue, in my view convincingly, that the magnum opus of the Kabbalah "The Zohar" is pseudepigraphical and was not actually written by the Talmudic scholar Rabbi Shimon bar Yochia in 70 EC. There are many other examples, like the commentary on Tractate Nidarim that is attributed to Rashi (1040–1104) but is known to have been written by someone else. Yet the importance of these works and their respectability has not been diminished in the eyes of most people.
One may argue that the reason pseudepigrapha was an acceptable literary tactic in previous eras was similar to why it was permissible to quote ideas without citing sources. Authors of important works used these tactics as a way to get readers to take their ideas seriously. They would either hide their own authorship or hide the sources of the ideas they presented, whichever worked better for the particular text and subject matter, in order to get the reader to take the ideas seriously. It was then up to the reader to either accept or reject the ideas based on their own merit. In other words, the value of disseminating ideas was seen as paramount, and scholarly integrity was secondary in importance.
All this brings us back to the recent scandals. It is first important that I make it clear that I am personally strongly opposed to any type of plagiarism or scholarly forgery in all its forms. In this sense I side with Jacob Anatoli. However, when taken from a historical perspective, the matter is far from clear.
If Rabbis Broyde, Bernheim and Metzger employed unorthodox literary strategies as a means to disseminate ideas that would otherwise not be accepted by their audience, they are standing on strong ground in doing so. Whilst I do not like it, if such a crime truly warranted their firing from their positions of prominence, there are bookshelves full of classical works we should be throwing out with them.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is co-founder and executive director of Youth Directions , a non-profit organization that helps youth find and succeed at their unique positive purpose in life