Q: My teacher thinks I plagiarized an essay, but I didn’t. True, I looked at Cliff Notes about the assigned book, Moby Dick, but I also read much of it and only used the notes as a guide. So what’s wrong with that?
A. Truth be told, I lifted this question off the Cliff Notes website. I didn’t lift it, really… I adapted it. But since I credited the source, I didn’t do anything unethical. Cliff defines plagiarism as “any time you copy, borrow, or quote someone and don’t give them credit… and pass it off as your own writing.”
The rabbinic sages put it more positively: “One who mentions a teaching in the name of the one who originally said it brings redemption to the world.” (Avot 6:6)
If you gave credit, you didn’t plagiarize, and you should tell your teacher that. But, the more interesting question is whether reliance on Cliff Notes is a form of cheating. Not surprisingly, that question does not appear on the Cliff Notes website.
Everyone takes short cuts. I’ve based many a sermon on the spark of another rabbi’s thoughts. But the internet has made it far too easy, and too tempting, to forgo good old fashioned reading in order to save time. In effect, we’re filtering Moby Dick through someone else’s spout, and Will Shakespeare has been reduced to simple plot lines.
Jews have long had their own Cliff Notes, and we call him Rashi. Even his name is shortened, as it’s an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak. It’s long been a pet peeve of mine that Jewish schools teaching Bible only as “Chumash with Rashi,” filter an eternal text through the eyes (brilliant though he was) of a guy who lived in a very specific time and place, 11th century France. Rashi, like Cliff Notes, makes the text more accessible, but his commentary should be a springboard and not a shortcut.
In our day, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has become the new Rashi, and Talmud professors routinely beg their students not to rely on his brilliantly concise Talmud commentary as a crutch (something I confess to having done on more than one occasion). Steinsaltz’ accomplishment was recently celebrated on a Global Day of Jewish Learning.
We’re all busy people and sometimes corners need to be cut. But reliance on study aids isn’t a question of stealing from another. You’re just cheating yourself.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read his blog here, and follow him on Twitter.
Have an ethical dilemma? Email Rabbi Hammerman at HammermanOnEthics@gmail.com