Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Challenging the Status Quo

I am a big fan of ArtScroll. They have made one of the biggest contributions to Judaism in my lifetime. Mesorah Publications which is the official publishing name of ArtScroll came out of nowhere in the mid seventies to become the most powerful publisher of Judaic literature in the world. They cover almost every category and topic in Judaism.

While there are older publishers like Feldheim that competes with them - I think it is safe to say that ArtScroll has achieved dominance in Orthodox Jewish publishing.

One might argue that Kehot, the publishing arm of Lubavitch has published more in its long lifetime than ArtScroll has. That may be true. But Kehot’s primary audience is limited mostly to members and followers of Lubavitch. ArtScroll is so widespread one can find their publications even in many Conservative synagogues and Reform temples as well as (obviously) the most Charedi of institutions. And although one can find Kehot publications in non Lubavitch insitutions too - ArtScroll has by far surpassed them.

Mesorah Publications magnum opus is the ArtScroll Shas. They have translated into English the entire Babylonian Talmud with copious notes elucidating its subject matter. These Gemarahs too - can be found everywhere. From the halls of the most right wing Yeshivos to the libraries of Reform Temples. I wouldn’t be surprised to find them in the homes of some non Jewish scholars as well. That achievement alone assures them a lofty place in history.

But all this publishing has a price. I have written about it before. That price is most recognizable in their biographies of great rabbinic figures. Out of respect for the biographical subject - they never report things which might seem unflattering to them. That denies the truth of history to their reading public. Their biographies are therefore really no more than hagiographies - flattering but ultimately untruthful representation of historical fact. Untruthful by omission.

But it doesn’t stop there. The biggest problem with Artscroll is that they represent the very specific Hashkafa of Charedism. They never explicitly say so but they clearly write in ways that reflect that Hashkafa. And that is a problem. One of the biggest complaints in that department is the virtual omission of any of the Torah teachings of Rav Soloveitchik. It can be found sparingly - but that is usually in cases where sponsorship requested it – as in the Stone Chumash. There is also an omission of Jewish thought by other religious figures that are not mainstream Charedi.

Their excuse for these omissions has always been that they are not in the business of promoting every opinion on every subject they write about. They just want to get to the deeper meaning and cite sources that do that. But that is a lame excuse for ignoring perhaps the finest Torah mind of the 20th century. He was omitted because he was not ‘one of them’.

So as great as ArtScroll’s contributions are, they are tainted. And they are in part responsible for the State of Judaism today. They impart the message of Charedism as mainstream without ever using the word – or even admitting that they do that.

Thus far they have not been challenged. In fact when the OU wanted to publish the thoughts of Rav Solveitchik in Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur Machzorim, they went to ArtScroll who permitted them to use their own Machzor translation and format. And when the RCA wanted to replace its disastrous - although well intended - de Sola Pool Siddur it went to ArtScroll too. The RCA just added their own introductory commentary and inserted the Birchat HaMedinah into the text.

That is how dominant they are and – admittedly - how good their Siddur is. The ArtScroll Siddur is the most widely published ArtScroll book in both Hebrew only and Hebrew with English translation.

ArtScroll is therefore a mixed blessing. The good they did far outweighs the Hashkafic price we pay. But the price we pay is still steep. Orthodox Judasim is moving to the right in part because of ArtScroll. That seems clear. The question is can anyone challenge their dominance and change the way the Jewish world sees Judaism? That is an important question to those of us who see an unstoppable move to the right.

The answer is I’m not sure. They are just too big right now. And they are strong as well. They have built up a lot of power in their over 30 years of publishing Judaic works.

But now someone is trying to do just that by coming out with what will hopefully be a great Sidur. It is the Koren Sidur. From JTA:

In May, Koren Publishers Jerusalem will release the first English edition of its popular Hebrew siddur featuring a commentary and translation by the chief rabbi of England, Sir Jonathan Sacks. And the Orthodox Union has launched a new publishing arm, which its backers describe as filling a “niche” in the Orthodox world, principally through the publication of the writings of the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the leading thinker of Modern Orthodoxy.

It remains to be seen if this will just be another flash in the pan. Great thinkers like Rabbi Sacks do not guarantee great success in book sales. It all depends on whether the consumer will buy the product. I’m sure that there will be some Modern Orthodox Synogouges that will automatically do so. But I’m not sure that it will replace what’s out there now in the vast majority of all Orthodox synagogues. And that is of course the ArtScroll Siddur.

However it does seem to be a threat in the eyes of ArtScroll:

The company has taken ads in various Jewish media offering steep discounts in exchange for the worn covers of Hebrew-English siddurs “from any publisher,” an offer one Koren spokesperson described as a “bizarre pre-emptive strike.” ArtScroll also has approached the O.U. about publishing a forthcoming siddur based on Soloveitchik's writings, according to O.U. officials.

Is ArtScroll worried? Perhaps. That is a good indicator that the Siddur has probably been reviewed by their publishers and was deemed good enough to be a threat. That ArtScroll now wants to publish a Siddur based on the teachings of the Rav after virtually ignoring him for its entire existence is – I think - a cynical attempt to prevent a new competitor with a good product from succeeding. That is a good sign. Thank you Rabbi Sacks.