Thursday, 15 August 2013

The Evolution of Artscroll

Over at the Seforim Blog , Eliezer Miller recently posted a scathing review of Artscroll's new edition of Sefer Yishiyahu, the book of Isaiah.  In competition with Judaica Press' extant and complete Nach series Artscroll has slowly been rolling out a version of its own.  This set is different from the books in its older Tanach series.  Whereas those were exhaustively researched works formatted with a few lines of the Hebrew text and translation at the top of the page and tons of commentary at the bottom, these new books are formatted to look like they could replace the old Mikraos Gedolos volumes.  The text on the Hebrew side is clear and in an eye-catching format.  The communtary, while not as long as the Tanach series counterpart, is quite detailed.  For all the ideological differences one might have with Artscroll there is no denying they put a lot of effort into making their seforim look fabulous.  So what trouble might Eliezer Miller have had with this new edition of Isaiah?
Going through that post Miller raises points that should be completely obvious.  Artscroll isn't in the business of putting out comprehensive commentaries that include secular information.  Miller notes a lack of interest in archeological and anthropological information that might have enhanced the commentary but that's not the crowd Artscroll is selling to.  They're looking right at the yeshivish crowd and those BT's who want to fit in with that group.  The commentary is meant for people who know nothing of Nach and want to get some basics.  This would explain most of Miller's objection.
But after reading Miller's review I think I can explain most of the problems he has in another way.
Remember that within the Chareidi community the study of Nach is very problematic.  Some yeshivos ban it outright.  Others let you study the weekly hafataros but not much else.  The idea that someone would sit down with a set of Bible books and a good commentary to understand them is incomprehensible in their worldview.  Why would a good bochur want to do that when he could be learning Gemara and halacha?  From this perspective Artscroll is actually being quite daring in wading into this area.
Knowing this Rav Nosson Sherman, the chief editor, is simply doing what he is expected to do for his books to be accepted and get the right haskamos.  Were he to include an essay showing the differences between our text of Isaiah and the one on display in the Israel museum he'd face a tarring and feathering.  You mean there's different texts?!  Were he to try and explain all those times in Nach when major figures in our history commit acts that are apparently against halacha without simply retreating into a "Chazal knew best" shelter he'd be forced to pull the line off the shelves.
When it comes to their Talmud Artscroll is a huge resource.  The time and intelligence they've invested in that series makes those books masterpieces.  When it comes to their other books, however, the overarching agenda - the Agudah version of this is the only legitimate version, etc. - tends to show through.  Their infamous translation of Shir HaShirim is a travesty to any thinking person but then, Artscroll doesn't want you to think when you're learning Shir HaShirim, just to know what you should be thinking.  Similarly their digests of famous commentators (the Pirkei Avos of the Maharal and the Sfar Emes series come to mind) aren't so much presentations of the original work but rather the Artscroll author's version so you won't reach the "wrong" conclusion you might have if you had actually seen a decent translation of the original.
For those who are paying really careful attention you'll also notice that the Satmar philosophy of anti-Zionism infects their works in the relevant places.  Consider Artscroll's commentary on the Three Oaths at the end of the Kesobus or the couple of places in their translation of the Kinnos where they brazenly insert Satmar principles (no forcing the end!  no ascending like a wall!) even when there's absolutely no Hebrew lines on the other side to stick them to.
Their Nach series is therefore simply more of the same.  The average person, it seems, can't be trusted to think about what he's read in Nach so Artscroll saves you the trouble.  Eliezer Miller wonders what's wrong with Artscroll but really there's nothing wrong.  They are the publishing arm of the Agudah and the Agudah has an agenda.  Enough said.

9 comments:

Micha Berger said...

They aren't "the publishing arm of the Agudah", as they aren't part of Agudah. They are a private firm whose owners believe the same ideology Agudah supports. Which is why they're willing to quote people who push other O ideologies when the primary donor is the Stone family.

Also, I do not see how "can't be trusted to think about what he's read in Nach" is different than any of their other works, including the gemara you laud. The entire project (except for the subset of the book which is a literal translation) is based on the absurdity that the point of learning Torah is to know rather than think. This is actually most absurd when it comes to gemara, as gemara is entirely about process (lehavin davar mitokh davar -- Hil' Talmud Torah 1:11). There is less value to knowing gemara without working at it yourself than knowing Tanakh that way.

I think most people's criticism of ArtScroll is misplaced. I think someone who truly believes something who puts out a publishing house that becomes a mouthpiece for that belief did the right thing. The people you should be yelling at are the MO potential publishers who aren't holding up their side of the bargain. Or perhaps the MO community for not buying enough sefarim to make them as viable of a market.

Anonymous said...

from an audioroundup:

http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/796383/_Eli_Weber/_The_Great_Tanach_Debate_Part_I_History_of_Tanach_Study#
Eli Weber -The Great Tanach Debate Part I History of Tanach Study

Interesting introduction to the “modern” study of Navi which may be defined as intense (similar to the way Talmud is studied) and using literary (and archeological, etc.) tools (this is the controversial part to some).
In Talmudic times Tanach was clearly well studied, but in the times of the Gaonim there was a dispute as to whether to continue extensive study due to the theological battles with the Karaites – are you better off studying the simple text with medrash to battle them or just de-emphasize the study of text so people won’t be bothered by questions? (the latter won)
Rashi began a revitalization of textual study and a number of commentaries were written due to the battles with non-bnai brit. The same type of retreat occurred when biblical criticism became in vogue and again with the return to Zion (being led by non-religious Jews quoting Tanach).
When the ‘67 war resulted in the feeling of miraculous deliverance of where Tanach actually happened, there was a groundswell for Tanach study in the Dati Leumi community.

KT
Joel Rich

Anonymous said...

The not learning Nach phenomenon was most probably a result of the popularity of nach with the haskala. The right wing dislike of Artscroll is a result of their suggestion that it can replace amalus in Torah - see first Rashi in in Bchukosi - with an app.

Chaim B. said...

I agree with Micha. Besides, everyone has an agenda. The difference here is that you happen to not like the agenda. You don't think, for example, the new Koren siddur (the R' Sacks one) reflects an agenda? You think simchat bat ceremonies or the tefilah l'shlom hamedina are universally accepted? Of course they aren't. But they are included because the siddur is designed to appeal to a certain community. Same here.

Also, forget about translation -- can you point me to a commentary or edition of Yishayahu that does cover all the material you mention? Even the Da'at Mikra would fail to be complete enough for your taste.

Micha Berger said...

On agendas, furthering RCB's point... For Elul I picked up the Nehalalel siddur. It's of the same style the Nevarech bencher, where select lines from the text are emphasized with background photos. I tend to overthink davening to the point that it becomes a cold cerebral excercize, and I'm hoping this siddur will help. See their sample, Qabbalas Shabbos, here.

I'm about as much of a Zionist as someone who has no real plans of aliyah in this Nefesh BNefesh era can claim to be. But I still find the amount of reference to the founding of the State and the contrast between the Holocaust and Israeli Independence to be a bit heavy-handed.

Micha Berger said...

As for when we Ashkenazi males started focusing on gemara to the exclusion of other things, even ones as central as Nakh, that's WAY before the Haskalah.

Tosafos on Qiddushin 30a "lo tzerikhah leyomi" discusses how to divide up the time in thirds (days of the week or cover 3 each day like in Shacharis), and concludes:
ור"ת פי' שאנו סומכין אהא דאמרינן בסנהדרין (דף כד.) בבל בלולה במקרא במשנה ובגמרא דגמרת בבל בלול מכולם:

... and Rabbeinu Tam explains that we rely on that which it says in Sanhedrin (pg 24a) "'bavel' -- soaked through in scripture, in established law, and in legal process ["miqra", "mishnah" and "talmud" as the terms were used before the mishnah and talmud texts were compiled -micha]. [Similarly,] the gemara of Bavel is soaked with all of them.

So back in the 12th century, Rabbeinu Tam already felt a need to justify the practice of neglecting Nakh (and mishnah). I wouldn't take this to mean he advocated this prioritization, but he at least thought this focus was justifiable enough not to warrant a campaign to correct it.

Ben Waxman said...

Miller notes a lack of interest in archeological and anthropological information that might have enhanced the commentary but that's not the crowd Artscroll is selling to.

Contrast this to Rav Yoel Bin Nun's and Rav Benyamin Lau's books, which dafka, i mean DAFKA, make a point of bringing in this information to help understand Nach.

But as has been pointed out - different crowd.

YJS said...

FYI - Maggid Books, part of Koren Publishers, is about to release the Maggid Studies in Tanakh. The series will cover nevi'im rishonim. It will be interesting to see if this series offers what it sounds like you're seeking - something that mixes modern scholarship along with commentary based on Chazal (and a more accurate translation). The first book is out on Sefer Yirmiyahu by Rav Binyamin Lau - see here: http://www.korenpub.com/EN/products/maggid/maggid/9781592641949

O G said...

"Remember that within the Chareidi community the study of Nach is very problematic. Some yeshivos ban it outright. "
Whaaaat?! I've never seen or heard of this, as someone who is still learning in one of those institutions, and one of the "frummest" yeshivish ones, at that (no, not BMG).