Sunday, June 10, 2007

Rabbi Nosson Scherman

When the history books are written about this era, surely one name that will be included amongst those having made a major impact on Torah Judaism will be that of Rabbi Nosson Scherman. He is the co-founder and publisher, along with Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz of the mega powerhouse of Jewish publishing, Mesorah Publications better known as ArtScroll.

Let me first reiterate my oft stated view that the Torah world owes these two men a tremendous debt of gratitude. They have done for Jewish book publishing what Mordechai Ben David has done for Jewish music. Just as MBD’s innovations in Jewish music is in large part responsible for the popularity of Jewish music today, so too ArtScroll. There has been a massive increase in learning Torah in the English speaking world in large part because of these two men. They have made it easier for Baalei Battim to learn. But all is not so rosy in Mesorahville.

Rabbi Scherman was interviewed in the most recent issue of Jewish Press and discussed the history... and what he believes to be purpose, and legacy of ArtScroll. During the course of the interview he was also asked about the oft heard criticisms of ArtScroll’s biography series. Rabbi Scherman’s response was very disappointing, but unfortunately not unexpected. From the article:

How do you respond to critics who accuse ArtScroll biographies of whitewashing history by characterizing great rabbis as saints without faults?

Our goal is to increase Torah learning and yiras shamayim. If somebody can be inspired by a gadol b’yisrael, then let him be inspired. Is it necessary to say that he had shortcomings? Does that help you become a better person? What about lashon hara? You know in today’s world, lashon hara is a mitzvah. Character assassination sells papers. That’s not what Klal Yisrael is all about.

Isn’t it a form of sheker (falsehood), though, to write a biography and knowingly exclude material?

Why is it sheker to omit lashon hara? It’s not. People say, "Well, why don’t you say that this or that gadol had certain serious character flaws?" So you’re not saying it. Is that sheker? It’s not sheker. Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky once said in a "shmuess" that if you go over to somebody and say, "You know you have a long ugly nose," that doesn’t make you an ish emes [man of truth]That makes you a rasha [wicked person].

Lahson Hara? Character assassinations? Long ugly noses? These responses might as well have come from those who were instrumental in banning Rav Nosson Kaminetsky’s “The Making of a Gadol”. Rabbi Kaminetsky was accused of besmirching Gedolim of yesteryear, by telling the truth about them.

I’ll say it again here as I said it about “The Making of a Gadol”. Telling us about the humanity of a Gadol is a plus, not a minus. Rabbi Scherman aks, “If somebody can be inspired by a gadol b’yisrael, then let him be inspired. Is it necessary to say that he had shortcomings?”

The answer is clearly, Yes! Telling us that a Gadol was a human being who may have had some shortcomings that he overcame is exactly the inspiration! Doesn’t Rabbi Scherman realize that? To Rav Kaminetsky puts it... that a Gadol was “Kodesh Merechem” ...born holy... isn’t inspiring. But that is how ArtScroll biographies are written. Rabbi Scherman justifies it by saying that it is Lashan Hara to say otherwise. I have yet to read an ArtScroll biography that paints their subjects as anything less than perfect humans...saints... from their birth, until to their death.

And what qualifies as Lashan Hara in ArtScroll’s eyes? To the best of my knowledge, it is any fact about a rabbinic figure that does not follow the current politically correct right wing ‘party line’.

How many people know, for example, that Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky studied Shakespeare? And that he was surprised that students in his own yeshiva did not know lines he had quoted to them from one of Shakespeare’s plays? Not too many, I’ll bet. And if Artscroll has anything to say about it, no one ever will.

I wonder how Rabbi Scherman’s biography will be written, .Will he too be portrayed as born holy? Is that how he wants his life portrayed? I doubt it.

Too bad, really. With all the resources at their disposal, ArtScroll could have been a great historical treasure trove of inspirational biographies. As they are now ...not so great!