Sunday, April 2, 2017

Citing Others by Name and Redeeming the World

I feel like a crime victim. Someone stole my ideas. Let me explain…

Two days ago, I was googling a few sentences from a post that I wrote in my TanachRav blog six years ago on why we don’t eat chametz, leaven, on the Passover holiday. I wanted to see how similar a Word doc version that I had saved on my computer was to my online version. I found two matches for my search, my post and an article authored by a Rabbi Yehoshua Schechter that very day, March 31, 2017, on a Torah site called Hidabrut which bills itself as “The World’s Largest Jewish TV Network”. When I clicked on this article, I discovered that it was a paragraph by paragraph copy of my original piece. Since then I have run the Hidabrut article through TurnItIn.com, an educational site devoted to teaching students the writing process by, among other services, providing an originality report which checks for plagiarism. The TurnItIn report found a 77% similarity between the Hidabrut article and my original TanachRav post. You can view the originality report here.

Why I am sharing this on my blog?

Firstly, because I am angry. I am proud of my TanachRav post. The hiddush, the novel idea, which I shared connecting the prohibition against leaven on Passover with the historical fact that yeast risen bread was actually an invention of the ancient Egyptians, the enslavers of the Israelites in the Passover story, has made the rounds online. It was even mentioned in an article in the Washington Post last year, The science behind Passover’s broad bread ban, which quoted me by name. For someone to copy my words without attribution, attempting to pass it off as their own, makes me feel victimized. In the future, when someone googles chametz and Egypt, they might come across this post and credit Rabbi Yehoshua Schechter, whoever he may be, instead of crediting me.

On a deeper level, this has caused me to think about how much I give proper credit for ideas which I cite. As the Mishna in Avot says, "One who says something in the name of the one who said it, brings redemption to the world" -translation by Sefaria.

The commentary Lechem Shamayim explains that besides the obvious fact that one who attempts to pass off the words of someone else as his own is stealing, this Mishna teaches us something much more difficult to accomplish. That one should carefully examine the source of every one his ideas and properly cite them since by citing the words of someone who might no longer be with us, one causes that individual's lips to move in the grave. In other words, by citing ideas learned from others by name, one perpetuates their memory for all eternity, bringing about their personal redemption. For example, in Jewish tradition, one does not cite the commentary Rashi as Rashi said but Rashi says. In the world of Torah learning, the giants of the past are still very much alive and speaking to us when we quote them by name. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik famously calls this a symposium of generations.

Thinking about my TanachRav post, while the words were my own, I am indebted to ideas which I learned from others. 


The connection between the prohibition against leaven on Passover and the year-round prohibition against idolatry which is a central part of my thesis was one which I saw in the writings of Rav Menachem Mendel Kasher. You can view his article on this in Hebrew in Volume 19 of his seminal work, Torah Sheleimah here.

The connection between the Egyptian invention of yeast and the biblical experience of Joseph in Egypt is one which I first heard long ago from my colleague at Yeshivat Frisch who has since retired, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Goodman. When I shared my post on Facebook last year, I gave Rabbi Goodman credit for this idea. I plan to write an expanded version of my original TanachRav post later this week in which I cite these two sources by name.

My feelings in this situation has made me even more sensitive to the need for all of us to be careful to always give proper attribution to others. It is my hope that the author of the Hidabrut post, who I have already reached out to, will realize this as well. Perhaps by correcting this unfortunate oversight on his part during this Passover season, the holiday celebrating our redemption from Egypt, he can bring us one step closer to the ultimate redemption.

One who says something in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world.



Postscript

This morning Hidabrut took down their article. When you navigate to the original link you receive a Page Error message. Hidabrut has yet to respond to me but I feel their removal of the article is a tacit acknowledgement that it had been posted in error. I published the following response on my Facebook page. To be continued...


Cross-posted on TechRav.