When May a Rabbi Use the Words of Others?

Conservative Leader Apologizes to Two Prominent Rabbis

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published August 24, 2012, issue of August 31, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

The leader of Judaism’s Conservative movement has publicly apologized to two prominent rabbis for his use of their words in his own writings without attribution.

Steven Wernick
Steven Wernick

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO and executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, apologized after the Forward inquired about two instances in which paragraphs written by the other Conservative leaders appeared in Wernick’s online writing. Wernick asserted that the incidents did not amount to plagiarism, and he said that plagiarism standards for rabbis are looser than those applied to journalists and academics.

“Among rabbis, while one strives always to credit… the reality often falls short of the aspiration,” Wernick wrote. “Indeed, all but the most disciplined of rabbis have found themselves neglecting to credit… because they forgot that they were not the author of the particularly quote-worthy passage in the sermon they delivered two months or two years earlier.”

Conversations with rabbis and experts suggest that the plagiarism standards applied to rabbis are strict. But many also said that in practice, as Wernick suggests, citation in the context of spoken sermons is not always possible or even desirable.

All agreed, however, that it is never acceptable for rabbis to present others’ words as their own in written work.

“There have been plenty of times where a rabbi will read another sermon, be inspired by that sermon and then create a sermon on a similar topic” without citing the original sermon, said Rabbi Bradley S. Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, a Conservative Jewish seminary. “If I present it as my own original insight, that crosses a line in which we undermine our own integrity and the integrity of our entire tradition.”

Artson was speaking without knowledge of Wernick’s unattributed use of others’ work, including Artson’s.

Pulpit rabbis are expected to deliver new speeches all the time: Each Friday night, each Saturday morning, on holidays, at funerals, at weddings. That’s a lot of material, even for full-time writers, which pulpit rabbis are not.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.