Thursday, June 12, 2008

Bringing Redemption to the World....

Mordechai and Esther (Aert de Gelder (1645-1727)

Hazal, who lived and functioned a world of oral tradition, were emphatic about the precise attribution of one's sources. In addition to the basic value of intellectual honesty, this was essential in order to authenticate and evaluate the teachings that were being passed on. The best-known expression of the value they placed upon intellectual honesty is the oft-cited phrase (Avot 6, 6 and parallels): 'One who says something in the name of he who said it brings redemption to the world, as it is written (Esther 2:22), "And Esther told the king in the name of Mordekhai."*

Following the examples of my own teachers, I am extremely careful to cite sources (including comments that were made to me orally). The result is that my articles (and the emerging book on Ashkenazic mentalite) are heavily footnoted (a friend calls me the 'בעל הפוטנאטס'), despite the unhappiness of the editors who need to cope with it. Since I do a fair amount of editing, I fully understand their angst, but that's part of the job. Indeed, I insist upon the same level of sensitivity and intellectual honesty from my students when they write both MA's and PhD's. [In light of the amount of plagiarism that marks contemporary academic discourse, this demand is both timely and incurably old-fashioned.]

Recently, though, I became aware of the fact that one really needs to be careful to indicate exactly what type of assistance or information was provided. In other words, people should be thanked in terms that are commensurate with, and accurately portray, their contribution to a specific piece. Thus, instead of listing everyone who was of assistance together in one category, one should specify who read the whole (or part) of the article or book, and who simply assisted in specific connections. That way, those who invested more time and effort receive their due, while those whose involvement was more limited are acknowledged in a measure appropriate to their involvement. [Needless to say, one must always close by declaring that all of the contents remain one's own responsibility.]

We all bemoan the devaluation of language, and the destruction wrought by Deconstruction (which is happily in retreat, everywhere but in Jewish Studies). In a take off on Rav Kook, that situation requires us to strive for greater precision, greater clarity and less incorrect implications. God only knows when He will bring the final redemption. However, as the alternative reading has it, such behaviour will certainly 'bring blessing to the world.'

*For those interested in this issue in an historical context, I strongly recommend: Y. Elman and I. Gershuni, Transmitting Jewish Traditions: Orality, Textuality, and Cultural Diffusion, New Haven : Yale University Press 2000 and D. Sklare, Samuel ben Hofni Gaon and his Cultural World: Texts and Studies, Leiden: Brill 1996.


Anonymous said...

actually, i think a fair view of the sources, without presentist revulsion at plagiarism, would dictate the opposite. the mishna in avos seems to be saying that footnoting is a [very] positive thing to do. little more.

Dan said...

Many Rabbanim actually take full shiurim from others without ever giving credit, because they prefer looking as if they came up with the stuff myself. I realized that when I started learning the stuff of Rav Nevenzhal on PArasha or Rav Mordechai Elon on Parasha, and realized rabbis around me were taking the stuff straight out without giving credit.

Anonymous said...

"Recently, though, I became aware of the fact that one really needs to be careful to indicate..."

What exactly is behind this post?
Has an someone been recently accused of plagiarism?