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“It just seems a ridiculous thing to ask any human to do all the things a rabbi has to do,” said Randy Cohen, the original writer of the New York Times Magazine’s Ethicist column. In his new book, “Be Good: How To Navigate the Ethics of Everything,” Cohen suggests that Christian pastors be allowed to deliver sermons written by others. In an interview with the Forward, he made a similar argument for rabbis. “He has to be a psychologist to his flock, he has to be a skilled administrator… he has to be a gifted writer and an inspiring orator? Who can do even one of those things?” Cohen asked.
In fact, rabbis have plenty of tools to help them cope. There are sourcebooks, like A Rabbinic Anthology by Claude Montefiore and Herbert Loewe, a 74-year-old compilation that gives rabbis easy access to useful texts.
Other, perhaps more easy-to-abuse options are services that distribute prewritten sermons to rabbis. One, called Torah Fax, sends its 500 subscribers emails and CD-ROMs with weekly sermons, holiday sermons and sample eulogies.
“It’s something to get the rabbis started, not [for them to] copy,” said Bernhard Presler, president of the rabbinic support network Torah Fax. “When you have a funeral… you have a day to write the eulogy, so you need last-minute ideas to get you off the ground.”
Teachers at rabbinical schools say that graduates know that delivering others’ words or ideas as their own is not allowed. And codes of ethics and professional conduct of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbinical associations all explicitly warn against plagiarism. The Modern Orthodox rabbinic association also bans plagiarism.
But Rabbi Jack Riemer, a well-known Conservative rabbi and author who advises other rabbis on sermons, said that citations are not always useful in spoken sermons. “If I were to publish a scholarly article, I would certainly use footnotes, but I’m not sure that I would weaken the drama of the living moment by complicating it with footnotes, knowing that ideas travel…. It would weaken the sermon, and it would not enlighten the congregation,” Riemer said.
In a letter distributed to USCJ members hours after the Forward inquired about Wernick’s writings, Wernick explained that the two instances highlighted by the Forward were a result of the gap between citation standards for written and spoken rabbinic work. Wernick said that he had reused in online writings pieces of sermons he had previously composed for oral delivery.
“… I pulled especially quotable sections of my sermon for use in a blog post and online essay, neglecting to check if they had been borrowed from other sources,” Wernick wrote.