Friday, November 11, 2011

Memo to ArtScroll

There has been much criticism over the years about the way ArtScroll treats the biographies of great men. ArtScroll founder and general editor, Rabbi Nosson Scherman, was once asked why those biographies did not include the full complement of information about those individuals.

He answered that he did not feel any obligation to historic accuracy when such information was negative (as defined by Charedi Hashkafos). There was no purpose to it other than to diminish their greatness in the eyes of the reader. The purpose of the ArtScroll biographies was to inspire the reader. Not to be a historical document.

Using this as a guide - of what value, therefore would it be to report that a Gadol like Rav Aharon Kotler read classic Russian literature as a young man or that he wrote letters to his Kalla while a student in the Yeshiva? It would be to the detriment of the goals of this great rabbinic figure to mention it as that would imply that it is OK for his Talmidim to do the same kinds of things. Things which are considered a complete waste of time at best - and Assur at worst. So they leave out information like that.

One need not have even asked Rabbi Scherman this question. His answer is obvious from Rav Elyashiv’s ban of Rav Nosson Kametsky’s book, ‘Making of a Gadol’ that told stories like this about great rabbinic figures. Rav Nosson’s book humanized his subjects by reporting the truth about them. He treated them as human beings rather than as ‘ministering angels’. He thus enhanced their greatness and made them even more inspirational.

But this kind of truth does not fly in Charedi circles. Hence the ban and Rav Scherman’s attitude.

I’m sure that before too long we will have a biography written about Rav Nosson Zvi Finkel. In my recent eulogy for this great man, I wrote about a truth that I wasn’t sure would ever be written by an ArtScroll type publication. They would either leave out – or at best give short shrift to his normal yet Orthodox American life through high school.

They may say something like, ‘He had humble beginnings growing up in Chicago’ and then go right into his achievements as the Rosh HaYeshiva of the Mir. But in article after article I have been reading about him over the past few days, the truth has been told. It is all over the internet – including that picture from the Academy yearbook.

It is a truth he did not hide from. It was a truth he was happy to share with others. A truth that flies in the face of conventional Charedi wisdom on the subject. There are numerous anecdotes about this man that completely humanizes him – anecdotes that occurred well after his becoming the Rosh HaYeshiva of Mir - perhaps the largest Yeshiva in the world. The following story was published in the Ida Crown Jewish Academy (ICJA) weekly news bulletin. The inspiration speaks for itself.

Rabbi Steven Burg, managing director of the OU, wrote in a recent newsletter another incident, which demonstrates how he was always connected to his roots in Chicago. A number of years ago, Rav Finkel addressed the NCSY Summer Kollel, asking, "Who here is from Chicago?" A number of participants raised their hands. The Rav then asked, "Who goes to Ida Crown?" Again, a show of hands. Finally, the gadol asked, "Who's on the basketball team?" As would be expected, a few hands shot up. Rav Finkel then surprised the room with his response, "So was I."

When a Gadol’s biography is sanitized, an anecdote like this will never see the light of day. And the kind of inspiration illustrated by the following would never happen.

Speaking to the students upon the Rav's death, (ICJA principal) Rabbi Matanky said, "Rav Finkel was always proud of his Chicago connection and gave special attention to our alumni whenever he ran into them. Further, knowing what he attained is an inspirational opportunity for us to rise to his illustrious example. It is a loss to all of klal yisrael."

Students were profoundly inspired by what they learned this week about Rav Finkel zt"l. Freshman Adam Gornstein said, "It is amazing to have had such an amazing person graduate from our school!"

Anna Shkolnikov said with tears in her eyes, " He was such a great rav and its a loss to the Jewish people. The death of a Tzadik means we should strive to improve ourselves." Eitan Redlich said, "I am aware of the great loss to klal yisroel, and Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel will be a model for me to learn Torah."

Why wouldn’t ArtScroll want to publish this story? It takes place in an organization that invites high school kids to mixed functions many times during the year. This is anathema to Charedim. A Charedi Gadol – especially an Israeli one – would never attend a social group like that.

Nor would they consider it flattering that this Gadol once played basketball – let alone that he played competitively in a high school league with non Jewish teams. If I am not mistaken Israeli rabbinic leaders have banned their students from playing any soccer at all… or at least they strongly frown upon it. Substitute basketball for soccer and imagine telling them that one of the Gedolei HaDor not only did that in a coed high school, but bragged about it to a group of modern Orthodox kids!

Here is my memo to ArtScroll. Please do not hide these truths from your reading public. Rav Nosson Zvi didn’t and neither should you. It would be a major injustice to his memory if his biography is whitewashed. It will just be another hagiography in a long list of ArtScroll hagiographies that tells of yet another Gadol who was born holy from the womb. Leaving out information like the above anecdote is nothing less than lying about him!

One may ask, why would I care what ArtScroll does? Let others who do care about the truth of history write their own biography of this great man. Yes, that could - and may actually happen. But it is important that the readership ArtScroll know the truth as well. Many if not most of them do not generally read books that do not have the approval of their Gedolim. It is important for them to know how one of the biggest Roshei Yeshiva in the Charedi world acted, and that he did not denigrate his background. In fact he was quite ready to share it with others. So should ArtScroll.