When I was a student in rabbinical school in Cincinnati, I wrote the annual Purim spoof. A few years after I left Cincinnati and was an ordained rabbi, a friend happened to tell me about that year’s play and said, “Stuart, it was even funnier than anything you ever wrote.” As they described the play to me, I realized that in fact, the play was one I had written several years earlier for our class in Jerusalem. I was somewhat disappointed that it was being performed without proper attribution.
Fast forward a few years later.
I was visiting family in Miami when my sister-in-law returned from a baby naming and told me that the rabbi had read a beautiful and moving poem at the ceremony. She proceeded to show me the booklet with the poem that had been used in the service. Imagine my surprise when I read the poem and realized it was one I had written when my oldest son, Ezra, was born.
I mention these incidents because recently, a congregant told me about a sermon they heard delivered by a rabbi from a nearby synagogue in our area. As the member was telling me about the topic of the sermon, I realized that I had already read the sermon. It was written by someone else, not the rabbi who delivered it.
I cannot help but feel disappointed when colleagues deliver a sermon they have not written as if it was an original piece of work. Unfortunately, with the advent of the internet, this is becoming more commonplace. Some justify it by the many demands on our job and pulls on our time. But congregants rightfully feel robbed of authenticity when work that is not original is presented as if it were. My personal feeling is that if that is the case and a sermon written by someone else is delivered, then they should indicate this and give attribution.
Traditional Jewish sources place an emphasis on quoting “b’shem omro,” in the name of the one who spoke. The rabbis were meticulous about insisting on this. When you read a passage of the Talmud, sometimes you go through three or four names before you get to the actual text because so many rabbis are citing their teachers and other rabbis. They discuss the sin of genavat da’at, plagiarizing, long before copyright laws or Nilli Vanilli were around.
People occasionally ask me how I go about preparing a sermon. I relish the challenge of sharing with congregants the message of Judaism as it applies to our lives and of how it speaks to me. I prefer the old fashioned way of looking in books, although I do use the internet for some of my research. If it is for the weekly Shabbat service, I usually begin by reading the section of the Torah we will be reading that particular week, along with commentaries from between six – twelve different books. I also read a wide variety of newspapers, journals, magazines, books and articles of a religious as well as secular nature, (not to mention my collection of books of humor). Sometimes I already have an idea of what I want to speak about and will look to see if there is a way to tie the theme or topic into that week’s Torah reading, and sometimes the idea will emerge from the text or a commentary I have read.
The High Holidays are a much longer and more arduous process. I think about High Holiday sermons and collect articles and potential topics all year round and in the upcoming months I will begin working on the themes I want to address this coming year. I find that it takes anywhere between 20 – 40 hours to write, research and edit each of the six sermons I give on the High Holidays. It is intense, but gratifying to impart a message from our tradition at a time when people are receptive and anxious to be inspired or touched.
I often feel as if I am painting a picture and think of it as creating a work of art. And as true of any work of art, while imitation may be the highest form of flattery, we especially value and appreciate original art more than reproductions.