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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A former pulpit rabbi, Wernick has led the USCJ since 2009. Facing shrinking membership rolls, he has cut the organization’s staff and backed a controversial new strategic plan in an effort to rebuild the organization.

The two instances of unattributed paragraphs apparently written by others appeared in Wernick’s writing published in the past year. In an essay posted on the USCJ’s website to mark the 10th anniversary of September 11, Wernick included a paragraph that former Jewish Theological Seminary chancellor Rabbi Ismar Schorsch wrote for a 2002 essay on the terrorism attack’s first anniversary.

The paragraph Wernick took from Schorsch reads, in part: “The judgment we seek from God is not for life eternal, but an extension of our lives for one more year. Confronted by our own vulnerability, we affirm the gift of life and rededicate ourselves to fill the time allotted to us with acts of compassion and generosity to others.”

In the second incident, Wernick used a paragraph originally written by Artson for a 2002 Torah commentary in slightly different form. Wernick’s version appeared in an August 12 post on his personal blog, which carries the USCJ banner on its logo.

“Here, in stirring eloquence, our greatest prophet and teacher reminds us that the central task of the Jew is to live in accordance with the teachings of God — to conduct ourselves and our dealings with others in such a way that we cultivate the wisdom, compassion and justice possible for all human societies,” Artson’s version reads, in part. Wernick’s version substitutes “political leader” for “teacher,” adds Moses’ name and makes two other small changes.

In a statement to the Forward, which he titled “The Occupational Hazard of Being a Rabbi in the Cyber-Age,” Wernick apologized to Schorsch and Artson, but said that the incidents did not amount to plagiarism.

“In the act of repurposing earlier sermons, the nametags fell off important passages,” Wernick wrote.

Artson was on vacation when queried about the passage he had written. He did not respond to a request for comment. Schorsch also could not be reached.

In his letter to the USCJ, Wernick described the Forward as being out to get his organization.

“Since learning of these charges, I have had many feelings and am the first to admit that in our hurry to respond as rabbis, we are not always careful to make sure we do not commit the offense of misattribution,” Wernick wrote. “However, I have also felt — and not only today — deep resentment of the prosecutorial zeal of this particular newspaper for Conservative Judaism and especially United Synagogue.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter @joshnathankazis

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