Sunday, September 19, 2010

ArtScroll, Community Kollellim, and Jewish Education

I have had ambivalence about the ArtScroll phenomenon from the very beginning. ArtScroll - for those who have just come back from the planet Mars - is the name used by Mesorah publications for the books they publish. Founded by Rabbis Nosson Sherman and Meir Zlotowitz in 1976, they are currently the largest publisher and distributor of English language books dealing with all manner of Judaica.

Just about anything you want to know about Judaism can be found in their pages. Their magnum opus is the ArtScroll Talmud Bavli. They have done a magnificent job translating and explaining every single page of it in 72 volumes.

When ArtScroll started gaining popularity there was an article by a scholarly Orthodox Academic criticizing it in Tradition Magazine (if I recall correctly). The claim was that ArtScroll presented itself as scholarly but was in fact far from it.

Perhaps. But I never thought of it as scholarly. It was just well written and designed for the educated masses of Orthodox Jews. The need for well written English works is slowly diminishing in certain circles because of their current de-emphasis on secular subjects. But that’s another discussion. The moderate majority of even right wing Yeshiva educated Jews do have the requisite education to appreciate well written literature.

I have read many of their publications including their biography series - which I have always read with a grain of salt. The reason for the ‘salt’ is the reason I have ambivalence. They make no apologies about the flattering way they write them. They omit anything that is not politically correct about their subjects. And their politics are decidedly right wing.

For example the fact that the fact that Rav Aharon Kotler had read secular literature in his lifetime would be completely missing in an ArtScroll biography. One is therefore only getting a partial picture –portraying them as saints instead of as the human beings they were. One needs to go outside of ArtScroll to get a truer picture of their biographical subjects.

And their Halacha and Hashkafa books are decidedly right wing without labeling them that way. Even their Talmud elucidations presents right wing establishment elucidations of various passages – without labeling it as such or suggesting there are other interpretations.

This is the primary problem with ArtScroll. And even though the good far outweighs the bad - the bad has far greater negative impact than its readership might realize. An article in the Forward reviewing another book makes this point:

Last year, Martin Lockshin, Canadian scholar of medieval Jewish bible studies and Modern Orthodox rabbi, delivered a paper on ArtScroll to a Los Angeles gathering of the Association for Jewish Studies. He said the publisher was responsible for the “growing fundamentalist leanings of the Modern Orthodox… the weakening of Modern Orthodoxy in North America… [and] a general shift of the Yeshiva University/Rabbinical Council of America world to positions that are now closer to those of the Haredi world.”

I think that’s right. I wouldn’t say ArtScroll was entirely responsible for the rightward shift. They are however a key factor.

Their books are read by all segments of Orthodox Jewry and even some non Orthodox Jews as well. They do not market themselves as right wing. To the uninitiated they appear as the generic Orthodox view on Halacha. Clearly they are not. Their Orthodoxy is right wing and not generic. They consult with their right wing rabbinic leadership in all they publish and never write anything that would not be approved by them. Of course they never say that in any of their introductions or overviews.

As I said I would not say they are entirely responsible for the rightward shift. But they are the literary component. The advent and proliferation of the community Kollel is as important.

The Chicago Community Kollel is one of the many Lakewood has established all over the country and provides the social component. I am completely supportive of community Kollelim. They do in-reach. They cater to the religious world in an effort to raise the level of Torah learning. In Chicago they have single handedly done that. There are more Orthodox lay people learning Torah in Chicago on a regular basis because of them than at any time in history.

That’s because they are open to all and non judgmental. You want to learn? They will accommodate you. It doesn’t matter what kind of Kipa you wear – or how ‘modern’ you are. They have Shiurim that cater to any backround. Their impact has been so great that other Kollelim and Shiurim have sprouted up all over the city over the years because of them. I don’t think the YU Kollel here in Chicago could have acheived the success they have had without the influence the Chicago Community Kollel has had on Orthodox Jewry.

But what many Orthodox Jews may not realize is that their influence is not only on Torah learning but on Hashkafos.By virtue of their warm and embracing ways they have subliminally influenced the entire Chaicgo community to move to the right. For example - without preaching one word about it - their influence has contributed strongly to virtually eliminating mixed seating at weddings among those who might have otherwise had them. People have simply followed their example. So with all the good they have done - it has come with a price.

But neither ArtScroll nor the Kollel are alone - or together - entirely responsible for the move to the right. It is the way our educational system has evolved post Holocaust. The majority of survivors who came to America were Chasidim. They brought their Chasidic standards with them. Their children populated the schools and caused an explosion of day schools and yeshiva high schools to be establish all over the country. Their standards have perforce been integrated into the system.

When I first came to Chicago in the early sixties - mixed seating at weddings was very common. Banquets were never separate seating. Even Telshe Yeshiva had mixed seating at their banquets. But I was told by an insider that the leadership in Telshe decided to make their banquets separate because the separate seating banquets of the new right wing day school founded by the Veitznier Reof bbe - Rav Tzvi Hirsh Meisels who was a Satmar Chasid (And major Posek).

Many right wing non Chasidic parents sent their children there. I was told by an ‘insider’ that Telshe switched from mixed seating to separate seating because they they were not going to allow Telshe to be perceived as less Frum. Now any institution that has mixed seating affair is treated as ‘Nisht Fun Unzera’ – not one of ‘our own’.

And the right wing yeshiva world provides the majority of Mechanchim to all day schools. Their Hashkafa is now de-rigueur.

This is where we are today. We have moved to the right by three components: Post Holocaust religious education, ArtScroll, and community Kollelim.

As I said, I support all three enterprises. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems with all of them to one extent or another.

I am a big fan of the Tanna R’ Meir. When asked about why he hangs out with an Apikores like Elisha Ben Avuyah he answered with a parable. ‘It is like the date or pomegranate’. ‘I eat the inside and discard the shell’.

I think that is good advice about everything we encounter in life. It is important for us to realize that and while we continue to greatly benefit from these three elements of the Orthodox world - we should to the best of our ability be aware of what is in concert with our own Hashkafos and what is not. And to reject the rightward pull.