The sins of the New York Times are no longer subtle or hidden. It’s hiding of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, anti-Israel bias, anti-Orthodoxy, and Trump hatred are out in the open and inexorable. However, this past Sunday it took an extraordinary and more insidious form. As this column discussed several weeks ago, one of the university presidents who could not bring herself to condemn campus calls for genocide of the Jews was discovered to be a serial plagiarist. Dr. Claudine Gay eventually resigned under pressure because of the academic sin of stealing words rather than the much more egregious one of condoning and certainly maintaining silence about those who would perpetrate and encourage another holocaust.
Although some rose to Dr. Gay’s defense, the evidence seems to have been incontrovertible that she had purloined ideas and language that were not her own. Even for Harvard, this was either unforgivable or politically hazardous. However, the Times, through one of its columnists, furtively found a way to defend Dr. Gay by changing the offending term. Ironically, as even the writer admitted, this came from an associate professor of linguistics, although he should perhaps be teaching semantics instead. John McWhorter, writing in the New York Times Sunday Opinion section (January 28, 2024, page 9), admits that under the circumstances, it is best that Dr. Gay submitted her resignation. However, he contends that “the term ‘plagiarism’ is overstretched.”
Prof. McWhorter suggests that “there may be nothing wrong, if it was done accidentally,” as long as “there was another term for citing boilerplate statements.” In other words, speaking of words, as long as we can redefine an ancient and time-honored objection, it may be overlooked and cast aside. For a moment, the substitute term “duplicative language” seemed to suffice, but academia is currently searching for an even more innocuous term. Now, it is important to note that although Dr. Gay is an Afro-American woman, there was no racial aspect to the charge of plagiarism. One of her most forceful critics and victims was also an African American woman who felt aggrieved and intellectually robbed by Harvard’s president. Indeed, our professor of linguistics jumps through several semantic hoops to differentiate between different types of stealing other people’s work. But when an ostensibly objective journalistic medium can attack an entire ethnic minority – Orthodox Jewry – and a country that has just been savagely attacked, making it into the aggressor, it is not so surprising to publish a defense of plagiarism as long as you call it something else.
As usual, let’s see what the Torah says about the subject. When Esther reported to Achashveirosh that Mordechai had saved his life, Chazal (Megillah 15a) enshrine as Torah law that “one who repeats something in the name of its originator brings redemption to the world.” To invoke last week’s parsha and our daily tefillah, we know that just before singing the Shirah, the Torah testifies that Klal Yisroel “believed in Hashem and in His servant Moshe.” The Maharal (see also Ohr Chodosh, page 55) there explains that this means that Moshe Rabbeinu heeded the edict we learned from Esther. He never took credit for himself, always attributing all miracles, kindness and gifts to the Creator. If someone is scrupulous to ascribe whatever he hears to that scholar, he will surely never take credit for great salvations, giving credit only to the Creator. Indeed, Rav Yerucham Levovitz, the pre-war mashgiach of the Mir (Daas Torah 4:190; Mir Haggadah, page 239) specifically attributes Moshe Rabbeinu’s ability to redeem Klal Yisroel to this trait, which is called in the Torah “Venachnu mah – What are we?” (Shemos 16:7). This means that Moshe Rabbeinu, also speaking for Aharon Hakohein, thought of himself as having absolutely no power at all other than fulfilling the Divine will.
Furthermore, the Mogein Avrohom (No. 156) codifies this ideal as a transgression if one does not quote directly from the person who originated a thought or idea. His source might be a Medrash Tanchuma (Bamidbar No. 22), which states that one who doesn’t quote his source transgresses the posuk (Mishlei 22:22) which teaches, “Do not steal from a poor man.” This means that not quoting accurately is not just stealing, but is viewed as if one stole from someone who is impoverished.
For Torah Jews, unlike university academics, this raises a daily question. We very often hear or see something in a sefer that is quoting someone earlier. Must we mention everyone in the chain of mesorah, as indicated in the beginning of Pirkei Avos, or not? This question is discussed with trepidation by many poskim, illustrating the seriousness with which this topic is considered. Rav Moshe Stern, the Debreciner Rov (Be’er Moshe 4:19 and see Chelkas Yaakov 2:66), concludes that it is preferable to quote from the sefer one has consulted, such as the Pischei Teshuvah, even though in reality he is citing the earlier authority such as the Chasam Sofer or Nodah B’Yehuda. The gravity with which this is discussed gives an insight into how important our sages considered this issue.
The Debreciner quotes from the Sefer Meishiv Devorim citing the earlier Machaneh Chaim (Choshen Mishpot 49) that “it is a very grave sin to misquote and not give due credit for his statements…such a person is surely considered a thief.” For us, based upon the source from Moshe Rabbeinu and Esther Hamalka, this teaching goes much further than attempting to steal a thought or someone’s words. The Imrei Emes (Michtevei Torah 19, Pe’er Yisroel, page 53) taught that just as Mordechai was a novi, Esther was a neviah. Therefore, she, too, knew on her own that Bigson and Seresh were plotting to murder Achashveirosh. Nevertheless, she gave Mordechai credit, although she knew this fact on her own. Chazal (Nedorim 38a) teach that Moshe Rabbeinu could have kept the Torah for himself, but generously gave it away to Klal Yisroel, keeping nothing for himself. This goes far beyond not just stealing or taking credit from someone else. It means sharing the knowledge and greatness with others with no concern whatsoever for glory or acknowledgment. This is the Jewish and Torah way.
In conclusion, to return to the Harvard debacle, Dr. Gay’s two sins are not unconnected. Her – and the other University Presidents’ – inability to simply condemn calls for genocide of the Jews and her repeated plagiarism both show a lack of respect for words. Yes, words do count and ignoring hurtful and dangerous words count even more. Indeed, in Harvard’s case, this egregious behavior was not limited to its president. Under pressure to crack down on campus anti-Semitism, they appointed Derek Penslar as co-chair of a presidential task force on anti-Semitism. This is the same person who joined a petition accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing and of implementing “a regime of apartheid against Palestinians.” He has also written that “veins of hatred run through Jewish civilization” in addition to making light of anti-Semitism at Harvard itself. Some chair of a task force! Clearly, Harvard thought that his hateful words meant nothing at all.
It may be that one of the many differences between the secular universities and our unbroken mesorah is our view of the essence of man. The Torah (Bereishis 2:8) declares that G-d “blew into his nostrils the soul of life and man became a living being.” The Targum Onkelos defines this creation as “a speaking creature.” It is speech that defines us and speech that can be our glory or destruction. Indeed, the Chofetz Chaim devoted his greatest efforts to improving our speech so that we would never speak ill of anyone or misuse this celestial power that we have been granted.
My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Pachad Yitzchok, Purim, No. 24), asks why the statement that saying something in the name of the original source brings a geulah was established from Megillas Esther and not during any other geulah. He answers, based upon the Maharal, that returning someone’s words to them is like returning a branch to its tree, since a person’s words constitute their essence. The geulah of Purim came to correct the commitment of Klal Yisroel at Har Sinai, which was incomplete since it was done under coercion (see Shabbos 88a with Tosafos). Therefore, when our naaseh venishma was restored to us at Purim, it led to the geulah from Haman and Achashveirosh and it became the source of our eternal commitment to treat words and their sources with the utmost of respect.
May we indeed rise above the apparent trend toward plagiarism in all forms, thus helping to bring the true geulah sheleimah bemeheirah b’yomeinu.