Quoting Shakespeare (and Redemption)


Quoting Shakespeare (And Redemption)

I’d like to start with a game. I’m going to need you to be very brave for this to work. The stakes are low: there are no points or punishments involved. 

The game is this: I’m going to say a quote, and I want to know if you think the origin of that quote is Tanakh - Hebrew Bible - or Shakespeare. 

Here we go. First quote:

                “What a piece of work is a man?” (Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2)

                “The better part of valour is discretion.” (Henry Fourth, Part I, 5, 4)

                “Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears.” (Jeremiah 9:1)

                “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” (Proverbs 17:22)

                “How poor are they that have not patience!” (Othello (II, iii)

                “How the mighty have fallen.” (2 Samuel 1:25)

                “There is nothing new under the sun.” (Kohelet 1:9)

        That last one was perhaps the easiest, at least for those of us who aren’t already Shakespeare buffs, but it is also telling. There’s a reason the origins of sayings get lost. The truth or beauty of the phrase is what is considered important: the person who said it, or often the context it was referring to, gets lost along the way. And so many of these great ideas are repeated in some way or another, because great ideas can come to many people, especially when they are fundamental truths about the human experience.

        And yet… on the other hand, our tradition has very strong feelings about the origin of ideas. There are rules in our tradition about the proper citing of sources. And by that, it doesn’t mean simply to ensure that you know the difference between Shakespeare and Proverbs, it means that we are supposed to teach in the name of the person who taught us.

        “Whoever repeats a statement in the name of the one who said it,” so says R’ Yehoshua ben Levi in Pirkei Avot 6:6, “מֵבִיא גְאֻלָּה לָעוֹלָם - brings redemption to the world.” 

        How do we know this? Because it is embedded in Megillat Ester. Mordechai hears Bigtan and Teresh plotting to kill the king, and he tells Queen Esther, and Queen Esther tells the king about this in Mordechai’s name. As a reminder, Esther at this point in the story is trying to distance herself from her Jewish identity. She’s hidden. But she still points out her own secret family member when passing on that information, and later in the story, the fact that the king knows who Mordechai is changes the story entirely. Esther using Mordechai’s name, giving the information b’shem omro, brings redemption.

        But I think there’s something here that doesn’t require the coincidences and twists and turns of the Esther story to prove its point. 

        I want to talk about three ways that I think teaching b’shem omro brings redemption. But first, I want to be clear about why this is on my mind. First, I worry about plagiarism constantly. I might not always remember where I learned something or who I learned it from, and I’m anxious about accidentally presenting something as an idea originating in my mind when it’s actually from somewhere else or inspired by something else. If you’ll excuse the meta note on my teaching, you’ll often hear me use phrases like “there’s an idea” or “I’ve heard it taught” in an attempt to avoid this. I probably don’t always get that right and I’m sorry for it. 

        And plagiarism is also in vogue at the moment, both as a subject of conversation and as an actual act. There are ongoing dramas on social media platforms, especially those that monetise content such as YouTube, where users will directly plagiarise in order to make money. And of course, there’s now AI to contend with, too. There are people using AI to do their work for them - including, I’m aware, writing sermons. (Don’t worry. No AI was used in the writing of this or any of my sermons.) And, more insidiously, AI is sometimes being trained on stolen material in the first place. And that’s not even touching the issues of creative minds being replaced with the AI that was trained on such stolen material. 

        So. Teaching b’shem omro (in the name of the one who said it) leads to redemption.

        I’m preparing, at the moment, for teaching on Feminine Theology at the end of January. I’m focusing on what women seemed to practice and believe when religious leadership was so dominated by men. And it’s impossible to do that research alongside writing this sermon without being painfully aware that the people whose work is stolen are usually the people least able to defend themselves from it. The people who are least likely to be recognised for their work in the first place. That’s women, of course, but it’s also those who are poorer or otherwise marginalised in society. 

        Plagiarism often upholds power imbalances. What does it mean, then, for our tradition to say that teaching b’shem omro leads to redemption? Perhaps it means that properly attributing ideas helps to untangle those imbalances of power. Shakespeare probably won’t suffer from us not being sure who said “how poor are they that have no patience”. But when the people whose ideas are most likely to be repeated without any care for recalling who said them are those least likely to be honoured in the first place, it all seems a little worrying. 

        That’s my first thought on redemption: teaching b’shem omro actually makes the world a better place. 

        The second thought requires me to cite a source. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin - yes, the Rabbi Joseph Telushkin of Jewish Literacy, the book we gift our B’nei Mitzvah - commented on the concept of quoting b’shem omro in his work on Jewish values. He noted that when we repeat ideas, there are two potential motivations: we might be trying to help deepen the discussion, or we might be trying to impress one another with how clever we are. He writes that the point of not pretending we came up with the idea ourselves is to ensure that we are always doing the former; that we share ideas for the sake of the search for meaning, and not for the sake of our egos. That, Rabbi Telushkin argues, is the link with redemption. 

        To take it a step further: I think redemption is a collaborative act. When our tradition speaks of redemption, we tend to speak about it in a community manner, or even a universal manner. When it is about individuals, such as redeeming the first-born or (and this is hard to say right now) redeeming captives, it is still about community, because it is about our responsibility for redemption. We are not an individualised tradition. We seek meaning together, we seek redemption together, we seek God together. Ego gets in the way of this. By taking someone else’s idea and using it to puff up my sense of self-esteem, I’m withdrawing from the communal search for meaning. But raising up other members of the community by recognising their contributions does the opposite. 

        “Whoever repeats a statement in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world.”

        Here’s my third shot at redemption: the reason it’s on my mind this week of all weeks. Because of Joseph, and eleven other named brothers, and… אֵ֨לֶּה שְׁמ֧וֹת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הַבָּאִ֥ים מִצְרַ֖יְמָה, “these are the names of the Children of Israel who came to Egypt”, which Stephen read for us a few minutes ago. 

        Let’s start with Joseph. Joseph is recognised as an Egyptian leader. He’s recognised by Pharaoh for his ideas and his dream interpretations. But not by his brothers. They turn up and look him in the face and they don’t really see him. My heart is always a little wrenched by the part of our story where he hides himself and cries, but it’s followed so quickly by Joseph revealing himself and embracing his brothers. There is something here, something soul-deep in human nature, that knows the importance of being seen and recognised and accepted for who we truly are. 

        And it’s followed quite quickly by a long period of naming individuals who came to Egypt with Jacob, on his way to reunite with all of his children. Many of these names would otherwise be long-forgotten to history, but here we are, every year, remembering that they existed and their part of the story was important. And while there are a great number of people missing from the list - wives and daughters often conspicuously absent - our tradition does also read into those white spaces where their names should be. 

        It is about, I think, recognition of the significance of people. Ideas are important. But that should not render the people unimportant. Anything that does not begin with the assumption that people are of inherent worth should be automatically considered suspicious. We hold ourselves to the standards of respecting our brothers and sisters specifically by caring where ideas came from. 

        We are not always going to get that right. I don’t mean to say that we need to step on eggshells whenever we use an idiom (see what I did there). But the rabbis were deeply concerned with how interpersonal interactions have an impact on the world. And I think we all have much to learn from that wisdom. 


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