Sunday, April 24, 2011

ArtScroll’s Shir HaShirim - Good Intentions Gone Awry

One of the great tragedies of the Yeshiva system is a result of one of its greatest achievements. We are witnessing today an unprecedented number of people studying the Talmud in great depth. Yeshivos in both the United States and Israel are bursting at the seams. Kollelim are opening up in record numbers.

But this great success comes at a very steep price. I have discussed those costs many times. Just to cite some of them:the financial toll on Kollel families; Shalom Bias issues; OTD problems with children; the lack of secular knowledge; the lack of career preparation; and the financial burden on the larger society.

But there is another cost that is a bit more subtle and one which many of us who have gone through the system suffer from. The lack of being formally educated in any other religious studies on anything but a superficial level – if that.

There is little if any study of Neviim and Kesuvim. These are the Holy Scriptures that go beyond the Chumash – the Five Books of Moses. Those of us who have any knowledge at all of these portions of the Bible have generally gotten it on our own. Unfortunately I am not one of those. I too am a victim of a typical Yeshiva education. Although a bit more broad than most - I did study Jewish history and philosophy with some of the best Jewish minds in the country - Neviim and Kesuvim were virtually ignored.

Which brings me to one of the five Megilos, Shir HaShirim – the Song of Songs composed by Shlomo HaMelech. This is the portion the bible that many Shuls read on Shabbos Chol HaMoed of Pesach - which was yesterday. I admit being for the most part ignorant of all but the basics of that portion of the Biblical canon. To this day I struggle with understanding many of its passages. So I resort to English translations like ArtScroll’s in their Stone Chumash edition (pictured). This Chumash is commonly found in virtually every Orthodox Shul.

Shir HaShirim is a love song. It is told in romantic and sensual terms. Its language is among the most beautiful in all of the Bible. The great Tanna, R’ Akiva thought so much of Shir HaShirim that he said the following about it: If the Torah is holy, then Shir HaShirim is the holy of holies (Megilla 7a)!

It might seem strange that of all things a love story written by Shlomo HaMelech is included in the biblical canon. In fact it was a matter of debate whether it should be disincludedby the sages of the 2nd century. It was because the love story is not to be taken literally but as an allegory about God’s love of His people Israel that it remained in the canon. It is part of Tanach - our Bible.

The fact that it is an allegory should not take away from the beautiful narrative. The narrative was written like that on purpose by Shlomo HaMelech. It is the holy of holies and understood by R’ Akiva as written that way in order to best convey God’s love of His people. Which is why the ArtScroll translation of Shir HaShrim is an abomination!

Just to be clear (and as I have said many times in the past) I am a fan of ArtScroll. Their contributions to increased knowledge among our people of Jewish subjects is enormous. Their translation (elucidation?) of the entire Talmud Bavli into English is an accomplishment that puts ArtScroll into a class all by itself - worthy of all the praise it gets. But even their other publications are meritorious although they do only represent the Charedi point of view. It is however true that ArtScroll ‘biographies’ are the most problematic of their publications. But that is not my issue here.

Shir HaShiurim is an instance where I believe the Charedi obsession with Tznius has lead them astray. Because of it they manage to completely ignore the actual words of Shir HaShirim in transtaltion. Although they are upfront about it and say that it is not meant to be literal and that it is based on Rashi’s allegorical intepreration - I believe it undermines the author’s intent which is to convey God’s love of his people in an allegorically human way.

It is one thing to say that Shir HaShirim is an allegory. It is. But to ignore the beauty of Shomo HaMelech’s actual narrative in my view completely misunderstands why R’ Akiva thought this book is the holy of holies - and why it remained in the canon. Nowhere does it say that we are to distort the translation to fit the allegorical interpretation. And yet this is exactly what ArtScroll did.

Just to cite one example - there is the phrase ‘Oh fairest of women’ (HaYaffa B’Nashim) (I:8). The Yalkut Gershuni, Rabbi Gershon Stern, an early 19th century Gadol, has an interpretation of the Yaffa B’ Nashim which tries to explain it in terms of how he saw the spiritual beauty of women in that they are the ones responsible for their children’s religious education. But if one reads only ArtScroll one would never see the phrase ‘fairest of women’. They would see ‘fairest of nations’. Thus making Rabbi Stern’s interpretation impossible.

Nations?! They claim their allegorical translation follows Rashi. The problem is that Rashi does not deal with this phrase at all! In their zeal to avoid a literal reading of Shir HaShirim they have distorted its very beauty. Why are they more afraid of it that than R’ Akiva or Rabbi Stern?

I think it speaks volumes about their attitude toward issues of human love. They are so averse to any romantic alliteration that they will distort the words of the bible to avoid it. As a result they miss the boat entirely on Shir HaShirim sacrificing accuracy for a false morality. This is what an over-emphasis on Tznius gets you.

My message to ArtScroll is: Get a clue. Nashim are women, not nations. R’ Akiva knew that. So did the Yalkut Gershuni. The kind of love expressed in Shir HaShirim is meant to be read the way it was written and understood in allegorical terms. Mistranslating it in a misguided attempt to avoid even thinking about the actual words of Shlomo HaMelech does not enhance it. In my view it actually denigrates the ‘holiest of holy’ portion of the bible.