On Friday it was revealed that Rabbi Dr. Michael Broyde -- according to Haaretz, “arguably the single most prominent young Orthodox rabbi in America” -- had created an electronic “sock-puppet” known as Rabbi Herschel Goldwasser. Goldwasser (a persona initially shared with a friend whose identity Rabbi Broyde does not wish to divulge) had written pieces, commented on other's’ pieces, and at times offered praise for Rabbi Broyde. He had even joined the forum of a rival rabbinical organization.
Rabbi Broyde has expressed regret for the clandestine forum membership but doesn’t see what’s wrong with “writing under a pseudonym”. According to the interview in Haaretz
[R. Broyde] defended the practice of adopting a false name under which to publish articles or books, citing examples as varied as Orthodox rabbis, Lewis Carroll and Stephen King.
“Presenting an idea independent of the author is not a deep problem. Sometimes you want people to examine ideas independent of the person who said them,” Broyde said. “It’s not unethical to use a different name.”
Asked if he considered it lying, Broyde said, “I don’t view writing under the name Hershel Goldwasser as lying. It’s a technical untruth, so I guess you can call it lying. But it’s a well-accepted social convention.”
Rabbi Broyde is not guilty of lying; but he is guilty of geneivat da’at/ deception, which is not a “well-accepted social convention.” “Hershel Goldwasser” is not really a nom de plume because nobody could know that it was a nom de plume. Compare this with Samuel Clemens and Asher Ginzberg, who never concealed the fact that they wrote as Mark Twain and Ahad-Haam, respectively. They wrote under a pen name, but they made it clear that it was a pen name. That’s the social convention
Had Rabbi Broyde chosen a user name like “Rabbi Akiva” or “Moshe Rabbenu” or “Moses Isserles,” the other readers would know that there is something afoot. And so he deceived the readers with a sock puppet. Even though some of the deception may have have been harmless and merely puerile or in poor taste, it hardly becomes a prominent cleric.
Had Rabbi Broyde said, “Only under a pen name can I articulate positions that would seem heretical in my community,” I would be a bit more understanding. But he has given those of us who write under bona fide pen names an undeserved bad name.
Since my first post on the Magnes Zionist blog six years ago, I have written as “Jerry Haber” (without the quotation marks), and now I am publishing in print under that name. If you want to understand why I publish under a pen name, just read my profile. I never concealed that “Jeremiah Haber” was a pen name, and while some people had problems figuring out the real guy behind the invented persona (much to my astonishment), at least they knew that Jerry was invented. Until recently, you had to click to find out the real guy; now he has his picture and name up there.
There are good and bad reasons for writing under a nom de plume, but it’s only deception when nobody knows that it’s a nom de plume. Rabbi Broyde should have called a spade a spade: he wrote under an invented alias to throw his readers off the scent.