Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Truth of History

A question was asked of me by someone who identifies as Mordechai. It was in response to something I said in passing about ArtScroll. I accused them of being revisionists. What follows is his unedited verbatim response to me:

Harry, while I agree with many of the things you say, your broadside of Artscroll was uncalled for. To accuse them of historical revisionism is very inflammatory, implying that they knowingly lie! Artscroll has done yeoman's work in bringing our brethren back to Torah, and enabling Jews to discover their heritage. Yes, they are a chareidi company. So what? What you have done is character assassination and unless you can immediately back up your comments, you will have been guilty of motzie shem ra.

I have written about ArtScroll before. But it bears repeating. I believe that it is important to have a clear understanding of ArtScroll’s publishing philosophy and their attitude about the truth of history.

I agree that ArtScroll has provided a valuable service to the English speaking public. I have said so many times. I have the entire Artscroll Shas and a great many other of their publications - including their ‘Hebrew only’ publication of Rav Schwab's 'Me'ain Beis HaShoeva' on the Parshas HaShavua. I even have some of their biographical and historical books.

I agree that they put much time, effort, and money into everything they publish. But despite their major and huge achievement - it comes at a very steep price.

The truth is they do lie.

They do not of course publish deliberate lies. I do not God forbid accuse them of this. They lie by process of omission. They do not publish anything that is in any way unflattering (in their view) in the biographies of great religious historical figures.

Lying by omission is a serious error in my view and gives the reader a distorted picture of history. ArtScroll freely admit doing this. Of course they don't call it lying. ArtScroll founder and publisher, Rabbi Nosson Scherman, was asked about it in an interview a few years ago.

He said it is because ArtScroll isn't interested in giving a full historical account of a person's life. They are only interested in reporting that part of a person’s life that portrays him (or her) in ways that will inspire the reader.

How, he asks asks, does saying something (Charedim consider) negative do that? Besides - exposing something (they consider) negative might hurt the surviving family. He said there is absolutely no benefit in knowing unflattering truths of history anyway... What is gained by it?

This is why Rav Nosson Kaminetsky's Making of a Gadol got banned. He told the truth. Some of it was not flattering (in the view of Charedim). They apparently hold that you're not allowed to say the things he said about Gedolim of the past even if they are true.

Obviously most of us with a decent secular education who seek Emes - myself included - insist in knowing the truth of history. We feel very differently than Rabbi Scherman and the Charedi world does.

First - we don't consider many of the things they say are flaws – as flaws. For example a Gadol having a university degree or having read classic secular literature is a plus. Not a flaw.

And even those things which might be negative have a value in being reported. It shows that those Gedolim were indeed human beings and not living gods. In some cases it also shows how they overcame personal challenges to become the great Torah figures they were.

The book of Genesis is full of exactly that about our patriarchs - the Avos. Is ArtScroll holier than the Torah? Are the Gedolim they write about holier than the Avos? How does being born in complete perfection -holy from the womb - inspire people who are not born holy? As are the rest of us?

This is the problem with ArtScroll. And it is a dangerous problem because of their wide spread distribution in all segments of Jewry – especially in the entirety of the Orthodox world. ArtScroll is blowing away most of the competition. Wide distribution assures that it will become the accepted version of history to great numbers of people. Especially in Charedi circles where many avoid reading material that does not have rabbinic approbation.

Omitting important historical facts because you don’t like them is revisionist and dangerous. It unfairly indoctrinates the reader to a specific Hashkafa in subtle ways that are imperceptible to him. For example if their Hashkafa frowns on reading secular literature, they may omit the fact that a Gadol did so in his biography thus perpetuating a myth that their Gedolim have always been opposed to it.

What is taught and what is learned - is a lie. One that may ultimately come back to haunt them - if their readers ever become aware of the missing pieces of truth.