Missed Attribution

As the saying goes, ‘after the ecstasy, the laundry.’ This observation is clearly illustrated in the two latest sequential Torah portions of Yitro and Mishpatim. Yitro begins with Moshe’s father-in-law’s suggestion to appoint a hierarchy of judges to decide mundane cases between people, instead of Moshe handling it all. Then comes the ethereal preparation and experience of the divine revelation at Sinai. Mishpatim operates in reverse; First comes many and very detailed civil laws, and ends with another heavenly description of the revelation. One purpose of this juxtaposition is to emphasize the intertwined relationship between the spiritual and the material in our divine service.

Morah Yehudis Fishman

Another very contemporary way of seeing the dichotomy that the Sinai revelation attempts to overcome is what is sometimes called the division between the ritual and ethical aspects of Judaism. People often excoriate those who seem to focus exclusively on one over the other-either the vertical link between people and G-d, or the horizontal link between people and each other. My visual of this combination is Moshe coming down from the mountain intentionally and equally balancing the two tablets which could express the two above mentioned aspects. Ideally they should be inseparable and should both stem from the very first words, ‘I am the Lord your G-d.’  Whichever of the 613 commandments one commits to, without dedication to the ‘commander-in-chief,’ in day to day life, a competitive stance that can be divisive is bound to override a cooperative one that can be more inclusive.

Many of you are familiar with the quip about the man looking for a parking space in a busy urban location. After circling around for a long time, he gazes upward and calls out: ‘G-d, if you get me a spot, I’ll donate x amount of money to a worthy charity.’ Suddenly he sees an opening, looks up again, and calls out, ‘Never mind, G-d, I found one myself.’ Another line I often quote is: ‘If G-d is your co-pilot, you might consider changing seats.’ However, nowadays, even the idea of G-d being a co-pilot is foreign to many individuals as well as to social groups.

Two recent experiences may bring this resistance to the forefront of our world. Current social media has magnified the two manifestations of plagiarism and antisemitism, both of which I contend have a common root. Regarding plagiarism, Jewish tradition cites: ‘Whoever quotes something in the name of its author, brings redemption to the world.’  And this confluence can also be found in the upcoming holiday of Purim. Allow me to explain. The above quote from Pirkei Avot, Wisdom of the Fathers, is the ‘grand finale’ of the forty eight ways through which Torah is acquired.

 But really?  Can such an apparently minor omission of leaving out the author of one’s statements contributes to the delay of the world reaching utopia? To understand why, let’s look- from contemporary parlance- at the ‘context’ of this statement. The Mishna brings a proof text for this idea: ‘Esther said in the name of Mordechai’..This is from the Scroll of Esther when two men were, in a little known foreign language, plotting to kill the king, and Mordechai, who as a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court, had, in pre Duo lingo days, mastered seventy languages. Mordechai then told Esther who told the king, who wrote down being rescued by Mordechai in his book of records. This led to the night when the sleepless king was read from the book which ‘ happened’ to be turned to the episode of these would-be assailants. When the king wanted to reward the rescuer Mordechai, Haman the wicked one ‘happened’ to appear and was asked to lead Mordechai through the streets on the king’s horse. The rest is history and the Purim redemption rescued the Jews from the threat of annihilation by the anti-Semites of the time, led by Haman and the king himself. The sequence of events would not have taken place, had Esther taken credit for discovering the plot.

What is the current connection to plagiarism? Harvard University which failed to condemn the verbal assaults on Jewish students, has around the same time, called out the president for her silence and then the practically simultaneous exposure of her multiple plagiarisms in her professional writings. Other institutions of higher education are dealing with many similar issues.

 How do these happenings relate to Antisemitism? What is the common denominator? The philosopher Thomas Sowell years ago was asked, ‘What is the root of Antisemitism?’ He gave a one word answer- ‘Success.’ And what would stop it? Another one word answer, ‘Failure.’ In brief, the world is jealous of Jewish achievements. Throughout history, many non-Jews have acknowledged Jewish contributions to the advancement of civilization, as indeed reflected in books like ‘The Gift of the Jews,’ and in the writings of Tolstoy and Mark Twain’s famous essay-  and of course as proven by the huge proportion of Nobel Prize winners. As someone responded to a person who was ‘hell bent’ on Israel bashing..’You must then throw away your cell phones, medical advances, etc. The fact that so many refuse to give credit, i.e. to ‘source’ where so many of the positive improvements in life come from, shows that they are really ‘plagiarizing’ Judaism, and even turning around to be ungrateful for Jewish accomplishments.

Fine, as far as it goes, but what is the underlying basis of Jewish commitment to achievement if not divine assistance? In my opinion, there is a similar dynamic of the deeper roots of Antisemitism to the Torah’s insistence on quoting the original source of a quote: Don’t steal someone else’s ideas; if you feel they are important enough to quote, then make the source explicit, even going back to the Source of all life A logical deduction might therefore be: both antisemitism and plagiarism are antithetical to redemption. Thus, I contend that the confluence between plagiarism and antisemitism is not an accident.

  Redemption will come to the world because in the words of the Maharal of Prague and others- the definitive source of profound ideas and their authors, is G-d! In fact, the Talmud says that one reason the Holy Temple was destroyed is that people failed to bless the Torah before they learned it. But the sages tell us that most people were generally and ubiquitously familiar with Jewish teachings and practice, so the latter reason for the Temple’s destruction cannot be taken so literally. Instead it must mean that they did not acknowledge the ‘Notain HaTorah,’ the Giver of the Torah, who according to the Sages, actually first looked into the Torah before creation of the universe, as an architect first looks into a blueprint.

To this day, Jews themselves can be guilty of misappropriating the source of their brilliance and ingenuity by taking credit for themselves and not expressing allegiance to their Creator. In Temple times, the main concept behind bringing gifts and offerings of all types to G-d was to strengthen both their commitment and awareness that all their possessions and accomplishments are due to G-d.

When I first went to Israel in June of 1968, I saw strange looking, telephone like booths in many places conveying euphoria on the anniversary of the ’67 war. The sign on the booth said, ‘Israel’s secret weapon.’ There was one window near the top and finally my curiosity got the better of me and I peeked inside. What I saw made my skin crawl. I was coming from a few years after Yeshiva high school graduation and expecting to see a Torah scroll inside and instead it was an Uzi!

A verse in the Torah that states explicitly about the response of the nations to Israel: ‘And all the nations of the earth will see that the name of G-d is upon you, and they will be in awe of you.’ What is the name of G-d? The Talmud says, ‘this is the Tefilin in the head.’ The Vilna Gaon observes, ‘It doesn’t say the Tefilin on the head, but rather IN the head.’ In other words, even if Jews are wearing Tefilin, if they don’t have the awareness of their meaning inside their heads, they won’t make a positive impact on the nations.’ The Sefat Emet goes even further: He first asks, ‘What’s the import of the nations’ seeing them on you? Rather it means that when they see that the name of G-d is IN you, they will learn from your reverence, and adopt the seven Noachide laws incumbent on all peoples.

So there you have it, a rather wild, but I think well argued, explanation of the astounding confluence of the latest upheavals in Harvard and other places, in spite of much of the so called advanced education in the current academic world, and in the contemporary disloyalty to Israel, America’s closest ally and bastion of democracy of our times. The solution for both plagiarism and Anti-Semitism?  Be faithful to your sources and don’t miss opportunities for attribution even for small positive contributions to those who are occupied in working to repair the world to bring us back to the Garden of Eden and beyond.

Regarding the land of Israel, in particular, the Torah states explicitly who the ‘reserved parking spot’ belongs to. In a powerful talk, the former chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Lau, related that he once had a long conversation with Ben Gurion. The Prime Minister related how he had appeared before the Peel Commission to decide the fate of Israel, together with a Christian and Muslim leader, all with their respective ‘holy books.’ The latter two regaled the commission with the historical presence of their two groups. When it came to Ben Gurion, he just picked up the Tanach, the Hebrew bible and waved it before the commission. No one else had in their text any reference to legitimate purchases of plots of land, as well as multiple divine promises of ownership.

How to deal with challengers may be open to dispute, but regarding the original ownership, there should be no reservations. If Israel is to fulfill its mandate to be a ‘Light unto the nations,’ it must be allowed to live in peace, in the land of Israel, as the people of Israel, and with the G-d of Israel as its source and beacon of light.

About Morah Yehudis Fishman

I have been teaching Torah and Chassidic writings for over forty years to students of all ages and backgrounds, both on the East Coast and the Midwest. I have been a director of several Jewish organizations in Santa Fe and Colorado. My articles and poetry on a wide variety of Jewish topics have been printed in many publications, and also are available online.

Check Also

In Becoming

A new poem from Todd Greenberg.

Finding Holiness in Living and Dying: Introduction to Jewish Death Practices

Join author Rick Light on June 10, 2024, at Boulder JCC for a workshop on Jewish death practices, including a free book and Q&A session.