Perspectives on Leadership, Accountability, and Plagiarism

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, January 5, 2024 / 24 Tevet 5784

Summary: This week, Claudine Gay resigned as the president of Harvard University. Today’s Oasis Songs examines some of the discussion surrounding her resignation before offering up a particularly Jewish approach to plagiarism. For those interested in this event primarily from a contemporary perspective, you may want to read the first part of this analysis, while the second section, Plagiarism and Jewish Values, is strictly a Jewish analysis that we can ultimately apply to our own lives.

Section One Reading Time: Five minutes
Section Two Reading Time: Five minutes

Section One: Lessons from Claudine Gay’s Resignation: Perspectives on Leadership, Accountability, and Plagiarism

This week, much of the Jewish and general social media universe have quickly written about the meaning of Claudine Gay’s resignation as the president of Harvard University. There are people who view this as a victory in the war against antisemitism on college campuses, while others think this is a terrible result for Jews as it will be used by our enemies to exaggerate the strength and reach of Jewish power. Some view this as just another case of racism and sexism against a Black woman. There are those who decry her downfall as nothing but the machinations of those on the right, while others believe that an academic who is a repeat plagiarizer deserves serious punishment or rebuke.

If we are being honest, there is no way that anyone can properly judge whether this decision will be a corrective or an accelerant to campus antisemitism. The only way we will have proof of what President Gay’s resignation means is by watching how campuses react even as we track the data on antisemitic incidents on our university campuses, as well as how college administrators respond to those occurrences. All other conclusions lack merit, stemming primarily from one’s politics. No one yet knows. It is as simple as that.

Despite this, there are insights we can glean about accountability in the larger society in addition to deepening our understanding of Judaism’s perspective on plagiarism.

Regarding accountability, many of Gay’s supporters want to brush aside the critique of her plagiarism. These are some of their main reasons:

  1. Her enemies are not good people: they are not the friends of the Jews, nor do they genuinely care about the social ill of discrimination.
  2. It is bad for society when people of tremendous wealth can exert this much power over our private (or public) institutions.
  3. Her plagiarism was linguistic, meaning she copied many passages verbatim, yet her scholarship is quantitative in nature, meaning that what she lifted doesn’t impact the value of her work.i
  4. She was taken down because she is black and female.

It is worth responding to these points before asking what Judaism has to say, not specifically about Claudine Gay, but the expectations our tradition has for our own self-conduct.

First, in our partisan era, it seems that accountability of our leaders and those in privileged positions is meted out primarily by their enemies. Why the Harvard Corporation did not vet Claudine Gay’s work more carefully is a question that remains opaque to those of us on the outside, though as I read from one commentator online, their process may well change. Nonetheless, the application of accountability by one’s political enemies is as true for those on the left as those on the right. We may not like it when we support a given person, or what we think they stand for, but that is our own moral obtuseness. Unless we incentivize and build different structures of accountability, this is likely to be the primary mechanism in which people will be held responsible for their actions. Moreover, I am not convinced this is automatically a bad thing. The human body defends itself in much the same way, by attacking what it views as foreign. It may be that this is not a hack, but a feature of human politics. Therefore, reason one is not convincing to me.

Second, it is indeed bad when people of tremendous wealth—or any small group of people with inordinate power, can exert undue influence in the public sphere. At the same time, the world has always operated this way. If we are serious about changing this, then, like the previous answer, we need to figure out impartial mechanisms to limit sway across the board while being cognizant that majorities are no more likely to act in an even-handed and above-board manner than individuals. If we look at global levels of corruption, America does better than most countries, but worse than many in preventing abuse by the powerful.

Third, this is a very interesting straw man argument. In effect, those promulgating it are arguing that Gay’s plagiarism is not plagiarism because it is not the heart of her research. Once one realizes that this is a straw man argument, it hardly dignifies an answer. Our academies are based on standards of rules around what constitutes plagiarism; one can’t simply rewrite the rules when they become inconvenient or hurt someone we wish to keep in power. I have tremendous sympathy for Gay: properly recording each thought, quote, or idea is tedious, mind-numbing work. It is one of the reasons I never pursued a doctorate. Yet she did.

On the other hand, the ancient world had very different notions of plagiarism and minimal concern with intellectual property rights, although the two seem related. If we want to change our value system around repurposing other people’s contributions, this again needs to be approached in an even-handed, systematic manner.ii Additionally, leaders are traditionally held to a higher standard than others because their very position turns them into powerful role models. I can’t say I like that, from my relatively low perch of rabbinic power, but this is also the way the world works. Individuals who take on mantles of leadership know this; if they don’t, that alone should probably disqualify them.

Fourth, there are two parts to the charge of discrimination. It is hard to imagine that Gay’s skin pigmentation played a primary role here given that the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and MIT, two white women, were also put on the firing line. This still leaves on the table the possibility that they were attacked primarily because of their gender. Given how intensely the political right has been challenging the systemic biases they have identified on campuses for several years now, it places the burden of proof on those who would argue that these three women (Gay, Kornbluth, who is Jewish, and Magill) were put in the hot seat because of their gender. It seems more likely that as the heads of three very prestigious universities that have struggled to create a safe environment for Jewish students, they were high-value symbolic targets. The downfall of Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who resigned from his role as president of Stanford over the summer for data falsification also calls the gender assertion into question.iii Rather, the political right has been gunning against universities as part of America’s culture wars, even as levels of plagiarism, data-falsification, and fraud have been spiking.iv An overhaul is needed in the academic and scientific communities to reduce the prevalence of fraud.

Section Two: Plagiarism and Jewish Values

There are two primary categories through which the Jewish tradition has examined plagiarism; these are genevat da’at and b’shem omro.

Genevat da’at literally means theft of the mind, but the concept is normally applied to express the impermissible gain or leverage we achieve by misrepresentation. Genevat da’at operates in wide parameters. If memory serves, a question was presented to a halakhic authority wondering if a person with grey hair may dye it to increase their job options in interviews, given the age bias in our society. The answer is that one may only do so if the person has sufficient energy to perform the job; in such a case, the hair coloring actually helps to overcome implicit bias. But should the person not have the necessary vigor, coloring one’s hair is forbidden by genevat da’at, for a potential employer can be led to hire someone on the mistaken assumption that the person has the energy needed for the role.v

Plagiarism falls into this category: if an employer hires someone, even partially based on their academic achievements, this becomes an act of misrepresentation, thus a form of theft. Do universities hire their presidents because of their academic credentials, because of their fundraising acumen, or for other reasons? Without knowing Harvard’s criteria, it is difficult for an outsider to properly evaluate whether Claudine Gay misled her employers. I do suspect, however, that universities would be less willing to extend tenure to professors guilty of plagiarism, so if Claudine Gay committed an act of genevat da’at, it may have occurred earlier in her career. Her ascendancy to the presidency, in other words, may have been based on other skill sets, which were not misrepresented. Given how many variables are unknown to all but a handful of people, the rest of us would be well-served to maintain a posture of humility as to whether or not her resignation was warranted.

What we can say is that while halakhah does permit companies to maintain corporate secrets for competitive reasons and negotiation tactics, outright misrepresentation is a form of theft. As individuals, we should strive to stay far from this sort of behavior. Part of maturation is recognizing that “it’s not all about us.” That means that not all forms of leverage are allowed, even if refraining from their use means we won’t get as far ahead.

B’shem omro offers us a very different and quite Jewish take on plagiarism. The phrase literally means “in the name of the one who said it”; this is the nearest, most applicable Jewish concept to our Western laws of plagiarism and intellectual property rights. Yet the origin of the phrase offers a unique take. It is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah (15a), in which we read:

וְאָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר אָמַר רַבִּי חֲנִינָא: כׇּל הָאוֹמֵר דָּבָר בְּשֵׁם אוֹמְרוֹ מֵבִיא גְּאוּלָּה לָעוֹלָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וַתֹּאמֶר אֶסְתֵּר לַמֶּלֶךְ בְּשֵׁם מׇרְדֳּכָי״.

“Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Hanina: Anyone who quotes a statement in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world, as it is said in Megillat Esther 2:22, ‘And Esther told it (the plot by Bigthan and Teresh to kill the king) to the king in the name of Mordecai.’”vi

In the Purim megillah, this act resulted in Mordecai being rewarded, while as we all know, the decree to kill all the Jews is miraculously overturned. The particular example of the megillah in Jewish thought can be extrapolated outward. Anytime we quote someone, the world moves a bit closer to redemption. This is a beautiful concept, yet it boggles the imagination. Really?

Ohr LaShamayim, a Chasidic commentator, in a note on parshat Behchukotai, offers us a reality check:

מצינו ממש בכל דף שאומר התנא דבר בשם חבירו או בשם רבו, ומדוע עוד לא נושענו מהגלות. ותירץ, כי הבאת הגאולה הואגאולה פרטית לאיש ישראל ממצוקותיו, כאשר אמרנו, ותקם בעוד לילה (משלי לא, טו) שבהגלות יוושעו ישראל ויקומו בהרחבהוהרוחה…

“We find on every page of the Talmud that a scholar quotes something in the name of a colleague or one of their own teachers—yet we still have not been redeemed from the punishment of exile! The solution [to this paradox] is that the statement refers to the sort of personal redemption individuals experience from their own troubles.”vii

In a classic Chasidic move, a universal statement that doesn’t match our experience of reality is saved by personalizing it, locating its meaning in something that we can believe. I am certain that at this moment, Claudine Gay recognizes that had she given proper attribution to the sources she utilized, she would indeed have been saved from many of her current personal troubles and travails.

But I am less interested in the downfall of a public figure than what each of us can derive from this teaching. So much human pain and suffering are the results of our ego; they are the ways we try to inflate our importance as individuals. The act of giving credit to those from whom we learned a teaching fixes in our minds to whom we owe a debt, reminds us how few original insights we each actually have (thus emphasizing how we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us), while it preserves peace because the person from whom we liberally borrowed does not feel affronted. This approach to plagiarism cares less about intellectual property than it does about our personal development. It possesses a moral and aesthetic beauty that we can appreciate.

I want to conclude by saying that many of us are news junkies: we express our political identity by how we interpret current events. What is most useful to us as Jews is the way in which our venerable tradition can offer us a very different take on our world that ultimately cares about advancing our own moral understandings. It’s not easy being a person: all of us inevitably stumble, yet our tradition provides us a powerful set of guardrails along with the encouragement that each of us can do a bit better.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D


ii I would like to see academics, and all those who write for a living, given a grace period during which one’s work can be run through AI software to identify uncited sources or copied wording. This would be a non-punitive way to eliminate plagiarism while recognizing that good people err in this way.



v In the attempt to maintain my own standards of intellectual honesty and avoid even a hint of plagiarism, I no longer recall when or where I read about this example of hair coloring. If a reader does know, please contact me so that proper attribution can be given.

vi Sourced from Sefaria’s online version of the Babylonian Talmud; translation by David Kosak.

vii Translation by David Kosak

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