Letter from Rabbi Egolf 8/11/2016

Rabbi Jim EgolfShalom, I hope you are staying cool during this summer.

As we were leaving for camp, I was struck by something that happened.  Among all of the other conversations revolving around the political convention Cleveland hosted, I saw the need to raise an awareness of a mitzvah.  Especially as this mitzvah spoke the actions during the convention.

If you have ever studied Talmud or Mishnah, you will invariably encounter a long list of names before you ever get to the ‘teaching.’  Beginning Mishnah Avot we read:

MISHNA A. Moses received the Law on Sinai and delivered it to Joshua; Joshua in turn handed it down to the Elders (not to the seventy Elders of Moses’ time but to the later Elders who have ruled Israel, and each of them delivered it to his successor); from the Elders it descended to the prophets (beginning with Eli and Samuel), and each of them delivered it to his successors until it reached the men of the Great Assembly. The last, named originated three maxims: “Be not hasty in judgment; Bring up many disciples; and, set safeguards for the Law.” (Mishnah Avot 1:1)

Before we get to those ‘maxims’ Mishnah Avot needs to record seven or more points of transmission to arrive at the teaching which begins “Be not hasty…” This is known as the mitzvah of B’Sheim Omro, literally, ‘saying in the name of the one who said.’ Another way of putting this is that footnoting in Judaism is considered to be sacred work because it differentiates something original from something that is the teaching or, intellectual work of another. Even in the ethics statement for the American Conference of Cantors (ACC), this idea is invoked:

Adhering to the principle of b’sheim omro (saying or presenting something in the name of its creator or originator) demands that we not plagiarize or illegally copy the work of others. [1]

If we have done the work, we can claim it.  When we don’t do the work, give credit where credit is due.  It seems simple enough, yet when we read of NYT reporter Jason Blair [2] or Fareed Zakaria [3] we begin to realize that it may not be as simple as we might think.

Fast forward to the speech given by Melania Trump and how parts were lifted from a speech of Michelle Obama [4].   This is where the notion of B’Sheim Omro comes into play in that to give credit seems to have been absent. If you are going to plagiarize a speech of a first lady, Michelle Obama is probably one to pick. Yet to do so and declare a ‘whoops’ is not in keeping with Jewish values or our tradition. B’Sheim Omro tells us God wants credit to be given where it is due.

Rabbi Jim

[1] http://accantors.org/acc/system/files/ACCRevisedCodeofEthics+final+7-7-11_0.pdf
[2] http://www.cnn.com/2003/US/Northeast/05/10/ny.times.reporter/
[3] http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2015/02/michael-kinsley-fareed-zakaria-plagarism
[4] http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/19/politics/melania-trump-michelle-obama-speech/index.html

Some people asked about the article which was at the center of my sermon on 8/5/16. The following is a link to the article from The Forward.


Rabbi Jim