In the Crossfire: President Claudine Gay’s Harvard Journey Examined Through Torah Standards.

In the Crossfire: President Claudine Gay’s Harvard Journey Examined Through Torah Standards.

Rabbi Shay Tahan


Since the widely discussed testimony of Harvard University President Claudine Gay, where she hesitated to declare whether “calling for the genocide of Jewish people” constituted bullying or harassment within her university, significant attention has been drawn to the issue. Although she survived the hearing, with the university board steadfastly supporting her, troubles for her have not ceased. Claudine Gay now confronts plagiarism accusations regarding older papers. Allegations suggest that she may have plagiarized the work of others throughout her extensive academic career.

What is plagiarism in simple terms?

Plagiarism is the act of using someone else’s work without giving them proper credit. In academic writing, it involves incorporating words, ideas, or information from a source without correct citation. While plagiarism is generally not illegal in the United States, it is deemed a breach of honor or ethical codes. Consequently, it can lead to disciplinary action within an individual’s educational or professional institution. At Harvard University, for instance, students can face expulsion if their work is found to be plagiarized. The question arises: why does the university president remain in office even after being apparently found guilty of what would result in severe consequences for students?

What is the Torah perspective on plagiarism? The Tosefta  (ב״ק פרק ז,ג)states: “One who follows another to hear his words of Torah and then repeats them as his own, although he is considered a thief, he still gains for himself. He gains authority or leadership within the congregation and earns merit both for the public and himself.”

The Tosefta derives this principle from the pasuk in Mishlei (פרק ו,ל): “A thief is not held in contempt for stealing to appease his hunger.”

Rabbi Shmuel Vosner(שבט הלוי ח״ח סימן שיג)  was consulted regarding this Tosefta, which seems to permit the appropriation of others’ Torah ideas. Rabbi Vosner clarified that the Tosefta refers to an individual who is genuinely hungry for Torah, as mentioned in the pasuk in Mishlei, and has no alternative means of presenting Torah thoughts except by borrowing them. In such a case, it is acknowledged that he may be elevated through these ideas. However, he is still labeled a “thief” because he ought to have acknowledged the source of his work. Conversely, when dealing with someone not driven by such hunger, meaning someone with the capacity to produce original work without relying on others, particularly a Torah scholar, the Tosefta does not permit the appropriation of others’ work for personal advancement.

One might question how it is possible to steal wisdom or ideas. Isn’t stealing typically associated with taking something tangible from someone, depriving them of its possession? The Machane Chayim(ח״ב סימן מט)  responds by referencing a concept in the Talmud(סנהדרין נט) , which states that a non-Jew is not allowed to learn Torah because doing so is considered stealing from the Jewish people. This illustrates that wisdom can indeed be stolen, and even if the person from whom it is stolen doesn’t lose possession of the knowledge, it is still regarded as a form of stealing.

Not everyone concurs with the opinion of the Machane Chayim. The Maharam Shik  (יו״ד סימן קנו)argues that the concept of stealing pertains solely to the actual taking of physical items. He draws a parallel to the Talmud, which states that one cannot steal voice or sound because it is intangible. Applying the same principle to Torah, as it is intangible, he maintains that it is not considered theft. Instead, he posits that the prohibition lies in a different realm – copying constitutes a form of deception or lying to others(גניבת דעת) , leading them to believe that one deserves credit that may not be rightfully earned.

Building on the preceding discussion, it becomes evident that even among those who might permit the reproduction of another’s work; it is generally applicable to Torah subjects. However, when it comes to appropriating non-Torah, secular subjects—such as the case of Harvard’s president—it should undoubtedly be prohibited.

Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that this matter is also a subject of dispute. The rabbis during the era of the Chatam Sofer implemented a decree prohibiting the copying of others’ sefarim. This decree was established with the intention of safeguarding those who invest significant time and effort in writing about Torah subjects.

Certainly, this decree by the rabbis is specifically aimed at safeguarding Torah writings, and it does not extend to secular studies(שו״ת מנחת צבי סימן יח אות ח) . However, when it comes to secular subjects, rabbinic authorities express strong opinions regarding cheating on tests. They underscore several prohibitions: firstly, lying(מדבר שקר תרחק) ; secondly, cheating(גניבת דעת שאסור גם מגוי) ; and thirdly, since individuals obtained their degrees dishonestly, all future employment relying on those degrees is considered ill-gotten, making the money earned through such employment tantamount to theft.

(הגר”מ פיינשטיין בשו”ת אגרות משה חלק חושן משפט חלק ב’ סימן ל, וכן הגר”ש וואזנר בשו”ת שבט הלוי חלק י’ סימן קסג. והרב מנשה קליין בשו”ת משנה הלכות חלק ז’ סימן ערה)

Drawing from the aforementioned considerations, given that Claudine Gay, the President of Harvard University, plagiarized her work to obtain her advanced degrees—clearly a violation that should warrant revocation—she should, at the very least, face dismissal. Moreover, legal action should be pursued for her unmerited appointment, and the substantial salary she received under misleading circumstances ought to be promptly returned.