Who is a plagiarist?

One story that is sure to grip the Orthodox world in coming months is the civil suit for plagiarism brought against best-selling author Naomi Ragen by Michal Tal. Well-known chareidi writer Sarah Shapiro has entered the fray with her own story of Ragen’s “borrowing” from her book Living with My Children (1990), a tale that she shared with me already many years ago. Below is a copy of the letter published by Mrs. Shapiro in last Thursday’s Jerusalem Post in response to Ragen’s op-ed piece “I am not a plagiarist.”

Readers who are interested in a full list of Ragen’s borrowings are invited to Email Mrs. Shapiro at [email protected] Yet another flagrant example of Ragen lifting incidents from the works of chareidi writers has been uncovered, though whether that writer will bring a civil suit (and if so in what forum) still depends on the ruling of her rebbe. Incidentally, Michel Tal, the original plaintiff is not Orthodox, and Mrs. Shapiro, who is chareidi, has not been joined as a plaintiff nor has she yet brought suit independently in civil court.

Sir, ­

Re: “I am not a plagiarist” by Naomi Ragen (March 22)

In 1994, a reader told me that scenes from Chapters 4 and 5 of my autobiographical book Growing With My Children: A Jewish Mother’s Diary (1990), had appeared — with considerable wording intact — in Chapter 13 of the novel Sotah by Naomi Ragen (1992). I couldn’t believe it, especially since shortly after my book’s publication, Ms. Ragen had invited me to her home and had warmly encouraged me to continue writing. Only when a second reader made the same comment did I bother to look into it.

What I saw shocked me. Some lines had been reproduced exactly, others obviously modified to disguise the similarity. Above all, it was painful to find significant events in my personal life misused and twisted for purposes I found repugnant.

In a phone call, Ms. Ragen completely denied everything. Upon my insistence that the similarities were too blatant to deny, she finally admitted having been “inspired” by my story, but said I should be happy because my audience was very small, whereas she had an international following. Ultimately, she agreed to either delete those passages or acknowledge my book in future editions.

I chose deletion, and informed her publisher. However, Ms. Ragen now maintained that any similarities were due to the fact that Judaism is a compendium of ideas passed down through the generations.

For three or four years on erev Yom Kippur, I sent a one-line message to Ms. Ragen saying I had not forgiven her. She never replied. Apparently this was something she could live with.

Michal Tal’s recent lawsuit prompted me to contact her attorney, Gilad Corinaldi. I had never read Sotah in its entirety, and at first couldn’t believe it when his staff discovered a second episode of my book (Chapter 15) in Ms. Ragen’s novel (Chapter 39).

As it is written in Psalms 85:12, “Truth comes out of the ground.”

Sarah Shapiro

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18 Responses

  1. mother in israel says:

    I wrote to Sarah Shapiro privately to tell her how much I enjoyed her book, Growing with My Children. I found it a very honest portrayal of the struggles of motherhood. It’s too bad that she was “used” in this way.

  2. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Ms. Ragen should not be allowed to continue with this sort of behaviour. The attitude that the secular or barely-religious world has that the hareidim are the sheep that the wolves can raid freely whenever they need a little “yiddishkeit” is only valid when you properly attribute. Chazal (our sages) said that one who speaks a word in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world. If I may dare to add to that thought, the corollary is that one who quotes without giving credit brings exactly the opposite of redemption, G-d forbid, because it creates causeless hatred, the source of the destruction of the Temple. And Chazal stated that every generation which does not act to rebuild the Temple is considered as havinbg participated in its destruction. More causeless hatred is not the answer. The answer is justice + plus healing. Ms. Ragen seems to have something bugging her which causes her to behave in this way, and the right person or persons must address it.

  3. Toby Katz says:

    Sarah Shapiro is a much better writer than Naomi Ragen.

    The latter is a B-grade flack who would be an unknown nobody if not for her false and sensationalized portrayals of charedi life. If she wrote about charedi life accurately her books would never be reviewed in the NY Times.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    Now that it’s so easy to use search engines and other computer tools to reveal plagiarism, it takes colossal chutzpah to attempt it in public and then to deny the obvious after exposure.

  5. Bayla S. Brenner says:

    I remember hearing about Naomi Ragen’s books and refrained from reading a word. I found it repulsive that a “frum” person would want to enthusiastically hang out supposed dirty laundry about frum Yidden to the world. And make money off of it! It smacks of an axe to grind and self-hatred turned outward, which so often stems from a very deep-seated jealousy. There’s a reason why the term “ehrliche frum Yid” link so smoothly. This exposure of wrong doing could be the loving wake-up call from Above to which this wayward sister will respond and get ehriche already! I couldn’t think of a more genuine person to help the process than Sarah Shapiro. I urge Ms. Ragen to accept it gratefully.

  6. Charles B. Hall, PhD says:

    Perhaps this would be a good time for the survey of the halachot regarding intellectual property. Do all halachic authorities agree that it is ussur to copy someone else’s writing?

  7. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Proper disclosure: I worked with Alex Ragen, Naomi Ragen’s husband, for a few years in the past century. I met her a couple of times, and she seemed a nice person. That may bias my opinion.

    Meaning no disrespect to Mrs. Shapiro, how many here have personally verified her claim to have been plagiarized? If we hear about a dispute, are we allowed to assume that one side is right and the other wrong based on our like or dislike of their opinions and previous behavior? Or should we withhold judgement until we verify the facts or a competent court rules on them?

    If Mrs. Shapiro is right, then repeating her accusations may be permitted. If Mrs. Ragen is right, then repeating those accusations would be Motzi Shem Ra. Isn’t Motzi Shem Ra sufficiently serious to avoid the risk of doing it until you see evidence?

    I am mostly ignorant about Halacha. If I misunderstood the Lashan haRa and Motzi Shem Ra, please correct me.

  8. Steve Brizel says:

    This case has the potential to pit Mrs. Shapiro, a brilliant Charedi female writer against Mrs. Ragen, a MO writer who specializes in sensationalist and overly negative portraits of Charedi life to further a LW MO agenda. If this case was filed in the States, I am sure that the two author’s books would be subject to an expert’s review for plagiarism,etc and any old drafts would be subject to discovery.

  9. Joel Rich says:

    Interesting is the conflation of different issues in some of the discussion. As we say in the beit medrash – plagarism lchud (by itself) and politics lchud (e.g. flack, brilliant, charedi, mo, sensationalist….)

    Thought experiment – would all the reactions have been the same if the claims were reversed?


  10. Bob Miller says:

    We now need a statistical measure of conflation.

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    Joel Rich-Interesting comment, BUT in this case, the modifiers IMO are quite accurate. I have never read anything by Mrs. Shapiro that was not brilliant, well written and thoughtful while definitely evidencing a Charedi BT’s thoughts. Mrs. Ragen’s writings evidence hostility towards the Charedi world.

  12. de la costa says:

    and overly negative portraits of Charedi life to further a LW MO agenda.

    —mr brizel’s allegation needs proof.

    it seems to me that most novels are sensationalistic; and that many/most/all of her themes involve issues that tend to be ‘covered up’ in the haredi community, which often prefers suppresion to aeration of controversial issues, unless forced to the surface by public pressure [ blog exposure etc]

    while she may be overtly anti-haredi , the allegation that she wants a LW MO model needs to be substantiated….

  13. Mel Balsamo says:

    I actually was able to read one her works until I found about this. That is such a humiliating episode for her. What’s worse for a writer than to be convicted of plagiarism. They should run a thorough check on their works.

    Mel Balsamo

  14. Steve Brizel says:

    De La Costa-Ms. Ragen has been quoted in the J POst and elsewhere that she will not cover her hair because of what she views as the inherent prejudice against women within the Beth Din system.

  15. dovid says:

    The issue at hand is integrity and not world outlook, caliber of the writer, etc. It is only fair to let Naomi Ragen have her day in court to defend herself. As far as her world outlook and quality of her writing are concerned, you can choose to read whomever you want regardless of the outcome of her trial.

  16. Steve Brizel says:

    Have any of the prior posters seen the just posted PDF accessible comparisons of the texts between Ms. Shapiro and Ms, Ragen as well as Ms. Ragen’s justification for her actions? Assuming that the Beis Din finds in favor of Ms.Shapiro, how would she seek enforcement of its award, whether in Israel or the US? FWIW,in NY,the courts will give judicial approval to Dinie Torah in the same fashion as arbitration awards. WADR to Ms. Ragen, the PDF textual comparison and the justification of Ms. Ragen clearly should make any reader of Ms. Ragen’s work think twice before accepting her works as representative of Charedi life on any issue.

  17. Steve Brizel says:

    Whoops-I should have noted that Ms. Shapiro was not a party to the Tal v Ragen matter, but rather at least another author whose works were allegedly plagiarized by Ms. Ragen.

  18. Renee.Kessler says:

    Dear Sarah,
    I applaud you for having the courage to stand up for yourself and defend your intergrity. There is much to be learned from your experience. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. Sometimes we must fight to get justice.
    Your Friend,

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