'Our Goal Is To Increase Torah Learning' By: Elliot Resnick, Jewish Press Staff Reporter Wednesday, June 6, 2007
An Interview With ArtScroll's Rabbi Nosson Scherman
ArtScroll, an imprint of Mesorah Publications, is a phenomenal success story. In almost every Jewish home and synagogue one can find ArtScroll’s biographies, Jewish law books, and translations and elucidations of Jewish classics.
According to Rabbi Nosson Scherman, ArtScroll’s general editor alongside Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, ArtScroll has published more than 800,000 siddurim, 400,000 chumashim, and 2,000,000 volumes of Talmud.
In 2004, ArtScroll completed its 73-volume translation and elucidation of the Babylonian Talmud – a project that cost an estimated $21 million.
The Jewish Press recently spoke with Rabbi Scherman about ArtScroll’s accomplishments and some of the criticisms that trail almost every successful endeavor.
The Jewish Press: How do you explain ArtScroll’s success?
Rabbi Scherman: Since the end of World War II, you have had a couple of generations of men and women who went through yeshivas and Bais Yaakovs. They are people who want to learn (as well as many baalei teshuvah who are interested in Yiddishkeit), but English is their first language. Even if they can open a sefer and learn it, it’s an effort. They can’t curl up with it and read it easily.
But here you have something in their own language with a pleasant style and attractive graphics. A lot of serious, curious and sincere people have felt that here finally is a way that enables them to learn.
ArtScroll recently began translating and elucidating Talmud Yerushalmi (the Jerusalem Talmud), which used to be a closed book to most people. What made you decide to undertake the project?
Yerushalmi is very hard to learn. But Yerushalmi is also one of the classics of Torah Yiddishkeit. To say that it’s important is an understatement.
Since we had people talented enough, we felt it was our responsibility to do it. The work is difficult mainly because there’s no Rashi, who is the key to everything. Anyone who worked on the ArtScroll Talmud Bavli will tell you that they went away from it with a much greater appreciation of Rashi than they ever had before.
The first ArtScroll Yerushalmi volume in Hebrew, Maseches Shevi’is [next year is a shmittah year], has recently been published. This is very important because the Yerushalmi Shevi’is is the basis for the laws of shmittah. There is no Talmud Bavli on Maseches Shevi’is.
Does ArtScroll commission projects or do people simply submit manuscripts unsolicited?
Both. When people come to us with a manuscript, if we feel it has merit and will serve the public, then we’ll accept it.
There are books that we did because we felt they were important and we were counseled by gedolim to do them. Divrei HaYamim is probably the best example. We were urged by Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky and Rav Mordechai Gifter, zt"l, to do it because there’s no really good commentary on Divrei HaYamim in any language that discusses the differences between the accounts in Divrei HaYamim and Shmuel and Melachim. And there are many variations.
How did ArtScroll begin?
ArtScroll began in late 1975, when a young man
in his 30’s, a rebbe [teacher] in Toras Emes, Rabbi Mair Fogel, passed away in his sleep. Rabbi Zlotowitz was a close friend of his and wanted to do something in his memory. Since Purim was just a couple of months away, he decided to do a translation and commentary on Megillas Esther and finish it at the shloshim. I was a yeshiva principal – at Yeshiva Karlin Stolin Boro Park – at the time; he asked me if I would edit the work and write an introduction. (We had become acquainted over the years when I helped him with copy for brochures and journals.)
It was supposed to be a one-shot thing, a one volume tribute, period, because Rabbi Zlotowitz had a business and I was a yeshiva principal. But that Megillas Esther turned out to be amazingly popular. I think over 20,000 copies were sold in just a couple of months, from the time of publication until Purim.
And then, roshei yeshiva urged us to continue. So we both continued part time. And then we started doing it full time, and then time and a half.
Where did the name ArtScroll come from?
From Rabbi Zlotowitz’s business, his studio – ArtScroll studios – which did brochures, scrolls used for awards and invitations. "ArtScroll" – because they were artistic scrolls, very beautiful, colorful, with calligraphy. The name stuck.
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.
How do you respond to critics who accuse ArtScroll biographies of whitewashing history by characterizing great rabbis as saints without faults?
Our goal is to increase Torah learning and yiras shamayim. If somebody can be inspired by a gadol b’yisrael, then let him be inspired. Is it necessary to say that he had shortcomings? Does that help you become a better person? What about lashon hara? You know in today’s world, lashon hara is a mitzvah. Character assassination sells papers. That’s not what Klal Yisrael is all about.
Isn’t it a form of sheker (falsehood), though,
to write a biography and knowingly exclude material?
Why is it sheker to omit lashon hara? It’s not. People say, "Well, why don’t you say that this or that gadol had certain serious character flaws?" So you’re not saying it. Is that sheker? It’s not sheker. Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky once said in a "shmuess" that if you go over to somebody and say, "You know you have a long ugly nose," that doesn’t make you an ish emes [man of truth]. That makes you a rasha [wicked person].
How do you respond to the claim that ArtScroll gemaras make learning too easy?
Well, history answers that. There are thousands upon thousands of people who, if not for ArtScroll, would not have opened a gemara in years. That’s number one.
Number two, there are countless people that come over and tell me they started out using the English side and they ended up learning the Hebrew side.
Now another thing – the notes on the English side refer people to other sources. Rav Elyashiv, shlita, has gone through the notes in several of the Hebrew volumes and he says he finds them invaluable. If somebody is serious about learning, then it’s not going to take away from his effort. It will increase his effort. It will enable him to focus his efforts better and go on to explore the sources we offer for further research.
Rabbi Dr. Marcus Lehman’s books [first published in Germany in the 19th century] are saturated with Jewish themes and values. Some of ArtScroll’s books, on the other hand, sometimes seem almost accidentally Jewish. The characters, names and some other details might be Jewish, but otherwise the story seems largely secular. Can you comment?
There’s a shortage of writers. The Orthodox Jewish public is not that big, the well-educated people are not that many and of the ones who are, how many of them are interested in writing books? Lehman was an exception to the rule. He did marvelous things, but how many Marcus Lehmans were there?
That being said, many of our novels have a real solid Jewish content. What you say is true. Some of them are really good yarns, good stories that have Jewish characters, but, by and large, I think most of them have Jewish themes and Jewish values.
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.