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.
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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.


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