Rabbi Daniel Nevins

Rabbi Daniel Nevins is the Dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Division of Religious Leadership, supervising its rabbinical and cantorial schools, as well as the Center for Pastoral Education. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and has written responsa on many topics of contemporary Jewish law.

Rabbi Daniel NevinsThe great power and appeal of the Internet is that it provides instant access to information. This is also its greatest danger—there is no delay between seeking and receiving and practically no effort involved in requisitioning words, images, and sounds that were created by another author. Among the many ethical pitfalls of such easy access are plagiarism, defamation, and the perpetuation of misinformation. The American right of free expression is legally necessary in civil terms but not always ethically supported or moral from a Jewish perspective. One may, for example, have a legal right to insult another person, but that does not make such words ethical. The most prominent Jewish prayer, the Amidah, concludes with a petition that God “guard my tongue from evil.” Judaism even teaches us not to praise other people excessively since this may elicit negative comments from others.

Regarding the artistic rendering of images of others, there are two primary concerns. One is a matter of ownership, and the other regards embarrassment of others. Do we really own our image or the images of objects we have made? I am skeptical of such claims. We freely distribute images of our face every time that we step into a public space or before a camera. However, this does not make it ethical to take pictures of other people without their consent and put them to use for our own purposes. Objectifying another person reduces his or her sense of agency, dignity, and worth as a human being. We therefore have an ethical (if not a legal) duty to treat images of other people with great restrain and respect, seeking their consent before putting them to our own use.

As we navigate the world, it is of course unavoidable that the images, sounds, and words that enter our minds will be recombined into new expressions of our own creativity. If we are honest about the matter, we know that even the greatest of art is derivative on some level. Moreover, it is often impossible to demarcate the point of transition from when an object is the “product” of one person to when it becomes something new that can be “owned” by another creator. Still, when we acknowledge sources that have affected us and explain how and why we altered them into a new creation, then we honor our influences, explain ourselves, and inform our viewers. Just as the ancient rabbis took great care to announce the chain of tradition leading to their own utterances, even when they were adding insights not previously articulated, so too in our day should creators of objects, music, and words acknowledge their debt to those who came before.

What are the ethical concerns for artists who appropriate images from the Internet? To what extent should artists consider privacy, the personal safety of their subjects, and First Amendment rights?

Posted in: Art