Borrowing words of wisdom

Borrowing words of wisdom

One might expect Judaism to have clear teachings when it comes to plagiarism, but — maybe predictably — not so. Not to dampen the delight of those reveling in this week’s gold-plated example, but it turns out the sages were a little fuzzy on the issue.

Just to recap: On the opening night of the Republican convention on Monday, even those adamantly opposed to Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency must have been conceding that his wife Melania was hitting a home run. Quite aside from the former model’s beauty, her accented English was fluent and her comments about her husband and their shared ideals were indisputably eloquent.

That was, until viewers began recognizing her words. At least one passage echoed almost entirely First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech to the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

Overnight, that word “plagiarism” swept across the media landscape like a tsunami. While the campaign tried to minimize the blame and attribute the “oops!” to her speechwriters (though she had told interviewers she had written much of it herself), TV commentators, newspaper columnists, and great armies of Facebook and Twitter followers pounced with glee not seen since the mogul’s first — and supposedly terminal — gaffs at the start of his campaign last year. 

As of this writing, the actual fallout is yet to be assessed, but a pause for cultural introspection seems appropriate.

To avoid falling into the same trap as Mrs. Trump, let it be said right now that the primary view cited here comes from a blog written by Rabbi Levi Brackman a few years back for The Denver Post (May 6, 2013). 

As Brackman mentioned, in recent years a number of revered Jewish scholars have been accused of stealing material from unacknowledged sources. One of them was Rabbi Yona Metzger, the chief rabbi of Israel, who was accused of using such material in one of his books on Halacha. While other plagiarists were fired for their transgressions, Brackman wrote, Metzger maintained his position as chief rabbi. 

(It must be noted that he was removed from that office in 2015 after being indicted on charges of bribery, fraud, money laundering, and more. The case is still in process.)

Brackman pointed out that taking language and ideas from others is not a clear-cut moral issue. While many sages have insisted that words of wisdom must be attributed to their original source, one of Judaism’s greatest thinkers, Maimonides, claimed otherwise. Commenting on his own failure to name the people from whom he drew some of his concepts, the great medieval philosopher said, “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.”

His take on timing might be questioned, but here lies the advice Melania Trump could perhaps draw from her Jewish stepdaughter, Ivanka. If she would just acknowledge what happened, and say thank you to Michelle Obama, her image might yet prove as Teflon-tough and error-proof as her husband’s.

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