Monday, June 11, 2007

Examining the Artscroll phenomenon (on diversity, illusion of).

At What's Bothering Artscroll? I posted the full text of the interesting Jewish Press interview with R.*Nosson Scherman. I posted it mainly for posterity, since I don't know if the Jewish Press archives will always hold it. I didn't have the chance to highlight excerpts which I found interesting and worth comment; besides, R. Maryles already got to some of it.

So I thought it might be interesting to discuss another angle of the Artscroll question, namely that its critics maintain that it presents a particular Jewish hashkafah using selections from a wide (but somewhat resticted) range of classic Jewish sources without giving a true picture of the views of these sources (save, perhaps in works dedicated to one specific person, e.g., their multi-volume translation of Ramban's commentary to the Torah) and subsequently without revealing for the uninitiated that the corporate hashkafah may or may not be shared in part or in whole by the sources it quotes--certainly allowing for the impression that it does. What I mean by that, is that one may form the impression that sources ranging from R. Avraham Ibn Ezra to R. Wolf Heidenheim essentially share the general Artscroll hashkafah given that the only comments cited by these figures are of the sort that form the potpourri of views.

Here is the question and answer:

Some people claim that ArtScroll does not quote rabbis from certain camps in their works. For instance, I’ve heard complaints in Chabad circles that the Lubavitcher Rebbeisn’t quoted. The same could probably be said about Rav Kook. How do you respond?

"Authors will quote, first of all, classic sources, which almost by definition excludes almost anybody in the 20th century. My commentary on Chumash relies mostly on classic sources, and some moderns. Rav Soloveitchik is quoted there, as are Rav Kotler, Rav Feinstein and Rav Schorr. But if it’s my commentary, then I’m going to write it according to what I learned and my style of learning and how I understand it, and I’ll quote my teachers.

"There are a lot of great men who are not quoted. Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski was the gadol hador and I don’t think he’s quoted anywhere in the Chumash or Tanach. Neither is the Satmar Rav. The idea is that the person who’s learning it should understand the content. It’s not a question of trying to include as many names as you can for the sake of popularity. It’s a matter of trying to clarify the material."

The text I put in red is the most cogent answer I could possibly think of. Indeed, Artscroll's weltanschauung is that of their writers and contributers. Why on earth should it be anyone else's?

But this begs two questions.

One, certainly Nosson Scherman should be expected to present his teachers and his style of learning and not other's teachers and other styles of learning. But if Artscroll respects the legitimacy of other teachers and styles of learning, why isn't its oeuvre more diverse by the simple method of hiring a more diverse team of writers? In other words, I could understand if its team of mainstream sort-of-centrist yeshivishe writers would output mainstream sort-of-centrist yeshivishe product. But why should all of their writers have that background when there are other legitimate teachers and other legitimate styles to be taught?

The second is that the rest of the comment seems to negate this contention. Why then is R. Soloveitchik cited? Was he a forerunner and teacher of Nosson Scherman as were R. Kotler and R. Kamenetsky and R. Shorr? How could one escape the conclusion that R. Soloveitchik was included for some sort of cultural or political reason, and if so, why ought one not conclude that a R. Kook or a Lubavitcher Rebbe were excluded for the same reason?

edit: in relation to this question:

Some companies are $10 million companies, others, $100 million. Is there a number one can pin on ArtScroll?

No, I can’t give you a number on that. But I can say that people think that ArtScroll is a gold mine. It’s not. We have to go out and raise money. It’s very very far from a gold mine. Some books sell very well, but the profits from those books subsidize the other books.

Primarily, though, major works like the Talmud, Ramban, Divrei HaYamim etc. cannot be funded by the market.

It’s no different than a yeshiva, or, l’havdil, Harvard or a symphony orchestra that has to raise money in addition to tuition and ticket sales.

there is an interesting link.

*Now that R. Marcus Lehman is "Lehman," TRFKA R. Scherman may as well be Nosson Scherman.

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