The Immorality of Plagiarism

Stealing another's work, week after week, month after month, is a premeditated wrong

Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, became its ex-president through the confluence of two factors, neither one of which seemed sufficient to remove her from office but, together, generated sufficient public (and, apparently, internal private donor) criticism to render her continued incumbency untenable. As you may remember, Gay was criticized for her responses to a House committee investigating pro-Hamas demonstrations on elite university campuses. New York Rep. Elise Stefanik asked Gay whether chanting an anti-Semitic trope used to advocate Israel’s genocide was consistent with Harvard student codes, to which Gay responded, “It depends on context.”

Penn’s Liz Magill was much more rapidly defenestrated, while it looked like the Harvard Corporation was going to circle the wagons around Gay. It was then that a second line of attack, which had been fermenting in the background, moved to the fore: that Gay had plagiarized parts of her dissertation and other works in her comparatively thin publication record. Even here, a Harvard committee that looked into the charges did its best to equivocate, rebranding plagiarism as inadequate citation or other euphemisms to rescue the president of America’s most prominent Ivy League university from what might get an undergraduate expelled. Eventually, the pressure became unsustainable and Gay resigned, though retaining her tenured faculty appointment.

The effort to pooh-pooh plagiarism shocked many, though not me. I remember from my undergraduate teaching days in my first academic job at a different university, confronting a senior who lifted parts of her theology term paper verbatim from a book without citation. She was a senior, who presumably had been writing term papers for four years, not a freshman who might have come from a high school where she wasn’t exposed to term paper writing. She was also an education major, which meant she would be forming future minds when her own still seemed in need of formation. I’ll admit, even back in 1987, my dean was not particularly interested in making a case of the matter.

Which is why I was impressed by a short story I recently discovered. “The Plagiarist” is a short story by Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer. The work is about one Reb Kasriel Dan, presented as the rabbi of Machlev in Russian-partitioned Poland at the start of the 20th century. Reb Kasriel is an older man who has applied himself diligently to the exegesis and explication of Torah. But he is a modest man who, forty-some years in the rabbinate and despite entreaties, had still not published any of his writings. As a consequence, though deeply respected, that respect had not translated into tangible benefits — like assuring that his son, long given the title “assistant,” would succeed him in his rabbinical post, and like something more than a subsistence wage.

Along comes Shabsai Getsel. He’s young. He’s talented. He’s sure of himself. And he even publishes! His writings are received with the highest accolades.

Except that they’re lifted from Reb Kasriel. Getsel has supposedly been studying the rabbi’s wisdom, without adding that the notes he was making didn’t just stay in his notebook.

Reb Kasriel knows of the dishonesty, but he’s the only one who knows. The Rabbi’s wife is upset, though she knows nothing of the plagiarism. Her grievance is her unambitious old man sits in his study puttering over his scholarship while the family ekes by, father not assuring his son a future while this rising star would soon be making two guldens more than her husband.

The story itself is mostly about Reb Kasriel’s own moral conundrums. To expose the word thief or not? Would that be an act of justice or a backdoor expression of his wounded ego seeking revenge? Is exposing him detraction? Should he leave the matter to G-d?

I’ll not reveal the story’s ending (nor express my judgment on it), but I will share one citation (properly documented, since we are discussing plagiarism!) Reb Kasriel is taken by the chutzpah that, for him, Getsel’s plagiarism represents. Most sins are momentary impulses or lapses, he reasons, but what kind of moral turpitude is found in a man who, day after day, week after week, month after month, could sit and steal his work, almost before his own (closed) eyes? There’s nothing impulsive in such premeditation over so extended a time. That causes Reb Kasriel to conclude “the end of the days is at hand!” Why so eschatological a judgment? Because he remembers a Jewish tract that discusses signs preceding the coming of the Messiah: “’In the Messiah’s footsteps, brazenness will grow, prices will soar, the vine will bear fruit but wine will be dear. Idolatry will become heresy practiced with impunity … and the wisdom of the scribes will be dulled, while those who fear sin will be held in contempt, the truth will be absent. Boys will mock their elders and the aged will rise before youth…”  [“The Plagiarist,” in Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories, Ilan Stavans, ed. (New York: The Library of America, 2004), p. 612].

It might be worth reflecting on that quotation today — even if some of the boys doing the mocking are girls.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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