Friday, November 05, 2021

Is ArtScroll Great? Or Terrible?

Screenshot from the Mishpacha interview
Unlike many critics of ArtScroll, I am a fan. Their Magnum Opus translation (elucidation) of Shas – the entirety of the Talmud - is the greatest advancement in Torah study in my lifetime. Perhaps even since the advent of the modern day Yeshiva about 200 years ago. 

ArtScroll has made Talmud study accessible to the English speaking masses that otherwise (in the vast majority of cases) made it a closed book. It has since been translated into other languages including Hebrew. Those of us that have been educated to study the Talmud in it’s original Aramaic, have also found it to be a useful aid on occasion. I even recall seeing a photo of Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, ZTL looking into a Hebrew edition of ArtScroll. 

ArtScroll is primarily (although not exclusively) responsible for the massive increase in Torah study  There has been an unprecedented explosion of Daf Yomi Shiurim all over the world in our day. Both online and via in-person Shiurim.  When I was in high school and many years beyond, Daf Yomi Shiurim were few and far between. Today there are many dozens of Daf Yomi Shiurim in Chicago alone. And you will find most participants using an ArtScroll Gemara.

The influence of ArtScroll cannot be overstated. In my view those who disparage such study are nothing more than self important fools. As are those who disparage the ArtScroll  Gemara itself. Sure, one can find things to criticize. But the good so greatly outweighs the bad - it makes the bad almost invisible by comparison. I don’t think this is arguable. 

But there is one area in which I agree with ArtScroll’s critics. It is in their biographies of Gedolim. This is not news. It is a old charge that retains its legitimacy. And it is due to what I believe are distorted Hashkafos about the truths of history. 

Rabbi Gedaliah Zlotowitz is the son of ArtScroll co-founder, the late Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz. He is currently President of ArtScroll’s parent company, Mesorah Publications. He was interviewed in the latest online edition of Mishpacha Magazine. In the course of that interview, he was asked about ArtScroll’s policy of never publishing anything but the positive aspects of a Gadol in their biographies. Never mentioning their struggles or any other facts about them that the current Charedi Hashkafos would consider inappropriate.  Even if they were true. Those facts are omitted. 

Rabbi Zlotowitz explained that the reason they do this is because those bios are meant to inspire – not to teach an accurate account of that Gadol’s life. Information the Charedi world considers negative is omitted. 

The end product of almost every bio is that the given Gadol was born holy in the womb, was an unparalled genius, the greatest Baal Chesed of their time, and never wasted a minute. 

His response to this charge was the same predictable one his father and co-founder, Rabbi Nosson Scherman gave. They claim they omit unflatering information because it does not serve their purpose of inspiring their readers. 

I understand the desire to not besmirch the reputation of the great rabbinic personalities of the past. But to omit things they consider unflattering - may not be unflattering to others. And may even be inspirational. Things that they now consider negative - which those Gedolim might have done were not necessarily considered negative in the past. And is not necessarily considered negative by everyone even today. 

Just to take one small example. One of their early biographies was about the Netziv (Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin- Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin). He was by all accounts a certifiable Gadol of his time. His nephew, Rav Boruch HaLevi Epstien, knew him well and published the Mekor Baruch - his recollections about him. He did not omit anything. The ArtScroll bio, My Uncle the Netziv, by the late Rabbi Moshe Dombey was an abridged English version of that. 

One of the many facts the Charedi world objected to in that bio was that the Netziv used to read secular newspapers. (Even on Shabbos - if I recall correctly). That did not sit well with the Charedi world. They frown (if no outright forbid) reading the news in anything other than Charedi approved newspapers like Hamodia and the Yated. To say that the Netziv did that would contradict that view. So the original version of that bio was pulled and rewritten without that fact - as well as many other facts they didn't like. Thus the Netziv was incorrectly depicted following the current Charedi Hashkafos to the letter. 

ArtScroll also omitted any personal struggles they might have overcome. I guess anything seen by ArtScroll as less than perfection is seen as uninspiring. 

Lest anyone think this is only a Modern Orthodox issue - think again. Rav Nosson Kamenetsky published a book called Making of a Gadol that contained the truth about various past Gedolim - as told to him by his father, Rav Yaakov -.a Gadol in his own right. However the things he wrote about those Gedolim did not fit the ‘party line’ which requires only flattering things to be reported. As a result, Charedi activists got that book banned by Rav Elyashiv. 

So as important as ArtScroll has been to the advancement of Torah study, the opposite can be said about their biographies. They are filled with ‘lies of omission’. It is tragic that so many people have relied only on ArtScroll bios as their source about what  those Gedolim were really like. 

Adding to this tragedy is the mockery of saying virtually the same thing about every Gadol. They were all born holy from the womb and led perfect lives. There is nothing inspirational about being born holy. In order for something to be inspirational it must include struggles that were overcome. So at the end of the day, ArtScroll’s mission of inspiring biographies fails.

Which is really too bad. Because a lot of research goes into those bios. So I don’t boycott them. I read them. But knowing that there is a lot missing that shouldn't be.