Friday, August 11, 2006

I Love ArtScroll, So Shoot Me

ArtScroll is a publishing house that is part of the Ultra Orthodox (UO) renaissance. It is a smashing success. Translations of prayer books and classics of pietistic literature, and its crowning achievement the Schottenstein Talmud, a new, exceptionally good translation and commentary, are widely distributed. They also put out biographies of rabbinical leaders, (gedolim), that are very controversial. These books have become a fault line in the ongoing kulturkampf between Modern Orthodox (MO) and UO.

A comment by Steve Brizel in the blog Crosscurrent (3/27/06) states the issue succinctly: “I think that it is fair to note that ArtScroll's hashkafic (ideological) slant leans towards the Charedi world and rarely has something praiseworthy to say about the Religious Zionists/Modern Orthodox world. Its view of the Holocaust is that despite the fact that 6,000,000 Kedoshim (holy martyrs) died, the yeshivos survived. It has not come to grips with the fact that there is a sovereign State of Israel. In at least one volume, a picture that included RYBS (Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik) has been doctored to remove RYBS, despite the fact that RYBS raised funds for Lakewood (the famous yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J.) and Chinuch Atzmai (the Ultra Orthodox school system in Israel). This trend is also present in a recently produced hagiography of Rabbi Aaron Kotler z’’l as well. One sees nothing positive about Religious Zionism, Modern Orthodoxy or Yeshiva University/RIETS. In my opinion that is revisionism of history on a grand scale ... the hagiographies are a long boring drone…the subject was a child prodigy who held from every conceivable chumrah(stringency) and who never told a word of Lashon Harah(gossip). One sees zero about the obstacles within their families or society that the Gedolim(the famous rabbinical leaders and scholars) overcame to become Gedolim."

I am proud to say I am a HUGE fan of hagiographic biographies, including most of the ArtScroll volumes. I enjoyed the biographies of R. Moshe, Rabbi Pam, the Chofetz Chaim. In fact, I can’t remember an ArtScroll hagiography I did not enjoy and I have read many. There is no contradiction between enjoying, learning from and being inspired by such books, and recognizing that these books fail to meet the standards of acceptable historical accuracy. There is undoubtedly a need for critical biographies. The absence of such books doesn’t take away from the value of hagiography. These are two separate genres each with different standards and purposes.

The way these hagiographies are to be evaluated is against other such books within this genre. Using this latter standard, the American ArtScroll type adulatory tomes are inferior to earlier specimens, such as Zevin’s Ishim V’Shitot and Maimon’s Sarei Hameah. I would say Mizrachi writers are far better than Agudah people, and Israelis better than Americans. Three other non critical works that are nevertheless really valuable are Tenuat Hamusar, the multi-volume biography of the Chazon Ish and Rabbi Karlinsky’s biography of the Bais Halevy. And of course in the last few years Rabbi Nathan Kaminetzky’s very important and much discussed The Making of a Gadol. None of the books just mentioned count as critical biographies. They are all hagiography. The main difference between these good “lives of saints” and the more inferior versions is the breadth of information and the assembling of interesting and important details. In some instances a serious attempt is made that the details are established using accepted rules of evidence. All the material, even the most laudatory puff piece in Der Yiddisher Vort, which by the way is a terrific magazine, will be of great value to future historians. Proof: Are historians better or worse off with the hagiographies the Shivchei haBesht, and the Shivchei haAri? The answer is obvious.

A life devoted to Talmudic study requires concentration, an ability to tolerate a fair amount of boredom and a willingness to sit for hours and days on end with a feeling of not knowing where you are or how to proceed. Imagine you are stuck in the middle of some obsessive and strange tractate say Yevamoth or Menachoth, without a clue. Someone who needs instant gratification and external approval gives up…maybe becomes a pulpit rabbi or proceeds to the next page (sugya). A Talmudist stays put, doesn’t panic and tries to work through the sugya, however long it takes. One really has no feel for the Talmud until one has been through the entire work 4-5 times; the first 30 years are tough going. A hagiographic book devoted to a Talmudic master becomes a beacon of light to a struggling Talmudist. These books show that it is possible, that one can be immersed in the sea of the Talmud and arrive victorious and safe on the distant shore.


At 12:01 PM, Blogger Baalabus said...

You promised contrarian and you delivered. I have never encountered an educated intelligent individual who praised Artscroll biographies. Plently of my Haredi friends loathe Artscroll. Nathan Kaminestky, a bona fide Haredi, wrote his book largely as a reaction to the excesses of Artscroll.

You exclusively stress the utility of being inspired by hagiography. Whatever floats your boat.

But what of the distortions and half-truths, and outright lies? Do these inspire you too? Artscroll is trying to do much more than inspire; they are trying (perhaps not always consicously) to portray past Jewish life as monolithically Haredi, thus robbing dissenting viewpoints (e.g. Modern Orthodox, Hirsch's Torah Im Derech Eretz, Mizrachi) of their historical legitimacy. I would think that someone who advocates yiddishkiet with many many shades of gray (cf. your post Black and Blacker) would be outraged at efforts to make things all Black.

Perhaps you think that it doesn't matter, because you are intelligent to know the difference between opinion and fact. Well, I rely on your ability to discern but not on that of the average Artscoll reader, who'd be better served with a nuanced, challenging book.

My gut feeling is that you really don't believe what you wrote.

At 2:17 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Baalabus...yes I rely on my ability to discern as well as on the ability of everyone else. You dislike Art Scroll because you fear for the average reader.Why do you assume the charedi world lacks the sophistication to form their own judgements? And if they or I end up believing a story that isn't true, is this really the end of civilization as we know it? The condescension and paternalism seems a bit misplaced. Art Scroll is not like don't die from a bubba maaseh.

Yes Art Scroll is terribly unfair to Mizrachi question. And so...are the mizrachi ideologues preemies?Are they incapable of writing books and competing in the marketplace? I say if they can create magical enchanting myths in this day and age that strenthens their community more power to them. The solution is not to constantly carp about their failures, but for each stripe of Judaism to get off their butt and create comparable and equally effective narratives of their own.

I will try to justify my view next week when I talk about the responsibility of the laity vis-a-vis the gedolim.

I am sincere in saying I am an avid reader of books about gedolim from childhood until today. I have no problem with books that contain partial truths. No one interested in the history of religion or classics can afford to require the books to be 100% true.

At 2:25 PM, Anonymous MF said...

Yes, but the truth is ALWAYS ugly. Therefore, you can't inspire without exaggeration; therefore, you're forced to make a fundamental trade-off: what would you rather have, the truth (and little inspiration) or an exaggerated/distorted form of the truth (and a lot of inspiration).

This is actually an interesting question, and I'm a bit surprised that the Evanston Jew is choosing the later, not the former. I mean, I choose the later too, so he and I are in agreement on it, I just didn't expect us to agree and I thought he would value truth over inspiration. I predicted incorrectly. In fact, when I read his, "I am proud to say I am a HUGE fan of hagiographic biographies" I almost fell out of my seat! I mean, I completely love self-help but I didn't think that EJ did (and "I'm a huge fan of hagiobraphic biographies", I take that sentence to mean, "I love inspirational biographies and that types of self-help books!").

Let's reduce it to the two extreme cases (Kant-style): Would you want to live in a world in which we were surrounded by the ugliness of everything every moment, with no inspiration or inspiring forces at all? Or would you want to live in a world where you and everyone dreams and fights to reach for the stars and tries as hard as they can to be the best they can be, even if, say, some facts, or even most fundamental beliefs, used to support this world view don't hold up to scrutiny at all? (Yes, these are the two extremes, I know, ther'es a middle ground.)

The funny thing about me is that, in practice I choose one of these but in theory I chose the other ;) Haha, and I think most people I know choose one in theory and the other in practice -- but the reverse of the ones I do! Haha

(PS: I find this issue very very interesting, and I'm making a meta comment because I've never heard of Art Scroll and know zero about the issues involved, so instead I have to jump right to the *structure* of what's being discussed, and this structure I find fascinating. This is also why, I'm accepting your point that they publish falsehoods, etc. I'm also accepting that, out of the spirit of good conversation!)


At 2:57 PM, Blogger Baalabus said...

Why do you assume the charedi world lacks the sophistication to form their own judgements?

The premise of this question reveals what I feel is a gross unfamilarity with the Haredi world, no offense.

Which faction of Orthodoxy has fashioned and upheld the notion of Daas Torah? So yes, absolutely, I do assume that the average - or better said, target - Artscroll reader indeed lacks the sophistication to form his own judgement. He either lacks said ability, or more to the point, he dutifully SUSPENDS it. Been there and seen it.

Does your experience differ?

At 4:56 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

baalabus...I am embarrassed to admit I am working on a piece defending a limited version of 'daas torah'.I am sooo out of the loop...Plenty of time to talk about this....I plan on devoting all next week to these issues.

We do differ on a crucial empirical point. Differentiating for a moment between strict orthodox and ultra charedi orthodox, if you know your Heilman, I do not find strict orthodox any less sophisticated than modern orthodox, maybe more.Any European Jew who lived through the Hitler period or grew up in an European home that experienced the Hitler era is generally not naive, even if he is strict orthodox. They think of Americanized MO as naive...


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