Naomi Ragen Plagiarism Verdict: Not About “Free Speech”


by William Kolbrener

An alert reader, who goes by the moniker “S.” in the comments, pointed out this article, which appeared on the personal blog of Professor William Kolbrener, of the Department of English at Bar-Ilan University. We thank Prof. Kolbrener for his permission to republish.

Three days ago, on December 11, Judge Joseph Shapira of the Jerusalem District Court ruled, after a four-year legal drama, that Naomi Ragen in her novel Sotah knowingly copied from the work of the author Sarah Shapiro, Growing with My Children.

Though not publicized, I was the literary expert for Sarah Shapiro, the plaintiff, and I provided extensive written testimony which was then subject to cross-examination by Ragen’s lawyers in the Jerusalem court.

In the now widely-publicized decision of ninety-two pages, Justice Shapira wrote according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “that the plagiarism was ‘tantamount to a premeditated act,’ saying that Ragen acted knowingly and copied work created by the plaintiff.”

In an article yesterday in the Jerusalem Post, Ragen, who is a columnist for the paper, accuses Sarah Shapiro of “working out of a desire to silence my criticism of the Haredi [ultra-orthodox] community’s treatment of women, which I have done for years.” Whatever her presumed motives, the decision rendered did not reflect an attempt to silence Ragen’s views, nor does the verdict, as some imply in the ultra-orthodox world, represent a triumph for the so-called “vibrancy” of an orthodox Jewish life style. Justice Shapira did not render judgement in a culture war, but on a legal case in a court of law.

In the detailed decision, Justice Shapira adds “in a personal note,” that he “delved into what he calls ‘the two masterpieces’ in order to properly adjudicate the case.” Within the painstakingly-argued decision, he writes, according to the story in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz, that he “adopted the testimony of Professor Kolbrener which determined, that Regan copied portions of Shapiro’s work, appropriating them for herself, and that the similarities between the two works are so essential that any explanation other than plagiarism is untenable.”

In the Jerusalem Post article, Ragen, citing what she calls a “distortion of justice,” claims that “this is a sad day for Israeli society and Israeli authors in particular, who will have to deal with the language of abrasive lawsuits from people looking to suppress freedom of expression and creativity in Israel.”

But, of course, the legal decision was not an attempt to limit free expression, nor was it based upon the presumed religious beliefs or worldviews of the experts who provided testimony in the case. As literary expert for Sarah Shapiro, my own published views on religious life in Israel both in my book, Open Minded Torah, as well as my “Letters from Israel” for the Washington Post are, I would imagine, probably closer to Ragen’s than standard ultra-orthodox views. But none of that is relevant since Judge Shapira’s decision was based on testimony and evidence.

So not a sad day for “creativity,” but simply one in which a judge in Israel rendered his decision, establishing the facts.

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Charlie Hall
3 years 9 months ago

Not being familiar with the facts of Shapiro vs. Ragen, I have nothing to say about it. But I would suggest that all who are engaging in court-bashing might want to read Alexander Hamilton’s essays in the Federalist Papers on the importance of an independent judiciary and its ability to overrule other parts of the government to a free and lawful society. Courts are our protection against runaway legislatures and executives.

Our own tradition also mandates independent courts! The writings of Chazal are full of demands on judges, who must maintain independence and avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest.

And I would also suggest a review of the history of ancient Greece and Rome, neither of which had independent judiciaries and both of which on occasion would terminate the civil rights of individuals by a democratic vote. In the case of Greece, the punishment was usually exile; in the case of Rome, the punishment was often death. Chas v’shalom we lose our independent courts which are our best protection against arbitrary government.

Lawrence Kaplan
3 years 9 months ago

I am far from Haredi, but I feel that Naomi Ragen has much to learn from Sarah Shapiro’s restrained response. Ragen’s rant only buries her into a deeper hole. She should learn that less is more. It seems to me that justice was done.

Menachem Lipkin
3 years 9 months ago


Good point. Shkoyach.

Though, there is a sense of a witch hunt going on around here, and one has to wonder what the reaction would have been had the verdict gone the other way.

sarah shapiro
3 years 9 months ago

An editor here has called the above letter from Naomi Ragen to my attention.

With its factual inaccuracies and absurd innuendos, the letter strikes a familiar chord. In style and substance, it is consistent with Mrs. Ragen’s approach during four years of court proceedings.

Since I am unsure of the legal and moral ramifications of responding–or not responding–in this forum, or the necessity of doing so, for now I’ll refrain.

Sarah Shapiro

Tal Benschar
3 years 9 months ago

“Funny how strongly some folks at Cross Currents support the Israeli justice system when they agree with the verdict. Just sayin’…”

I support any justice system that does its job — adjudicating disputes between parties based on the law and the evidence before it. That’s what the judge did here, whether he was right or wrong.

What I reject is the use of the power of the judiciary to force political opinions not in the law onto the public — whether those opinions are of the left or right, of the “enlightened” or the frum.

The latter is not unique to Israel. (What one district judge did in California to orchestrate a circus of a trial, discover a Constitutional right to same sex marriage, and overturn the will of the California electorate is no less a travesty than many Israeli Supreme Court cases.) But one cannot deny that the Israeli Supreme Court views itself as a power base to promote what it perceives as the “enlightened” view on public policy. That this self-delegated power is exercised in the name of “democracy” makes it all the more farcical.

As for Mr. Ragen’s crying about free expression, I have commented on that elsewhere.