Wednesday, March 20, 2013

"ArtScroll and Sephardic Judaism" by David Shasha


Outside the Orthodox Jewish community, the role of the religious publisher Mesorah Publications, better known as ArtScroll, is not well-known. Those Jews who would not consider themselves Ultra-Orthodox utilize prayer books, Bibles and rabbinic works published under the ArtScroll imprint barely understanding the ideological and socio-cultural provenance of the publisher and its polemical aims.

Without getting into the minute details of the lengthy history and evolution of ArtScroll, it would behoove us to understand its place in the modern Jewish world and how that place has been circumscribed by the contemporary role of the Ultra-Orthodox Lithuanian-style Yeshivah world in this culture.

Many Jews would be surprised to learn that the great European Yeshivahs were endangered in America.  It was by no means a secure fact of the re-emergence of this religious culture.  The giants of the old world Yeshivahs such as Mir, Telz and others were transplanted in the US during the post-War period as fledgling institutions; a far cry from their robust posture in pre-War Europe.  A heroic effort took place among the Orthodox refugees and their heirs here in America to recreate these institutions in a new and often inhospitable home.
As we know, American Jewry split off into new and acrimonious factions along the denominational lines that emerged in the Ashkenazi community in Europe.  The first stirrings of Reform and of new secular identities in Europe gave birth to the new denominations here in America. 

Orthodoxy was seen as late the 1950s as just one of many Jewish denominations and not the one that was thought to have the best chance of regeneration here in the States.  In point of fact, the burgeoning Conservative movement, which prided itself on Halakhic adaptation to the mores of the new country, was seen as the Jewish denomination most likely to capture the majority of American Jews.

The Orthodox lived in a world outside the highly mobile American Jewish mainstream.  Successful in placing its beloved rabbis at the apex of its emerging Yeshivah system, American Orthodoxy was itself split into two factions: There was the traditional world of the Ultra-Orthodox Yeshivot and there was a splinter movement, led by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, which proclaimed itself “Modern” Orthodox.  There has been a tremendous amount of friction between these Orthodox groups that has a good deal of bearing on any discussion of the ArtScroll phenomenon.

Modern Orthodoxy began to play a major role in the larger Jewish world while the Yeshivah world of Ultra-Orthodoxy moved to the periphery.  As we can see today, Modern Orthodoxy was in a no-win position vis-à-vis the larger Jewish community.  Bound by the rigidity of Ashkenazi Orthodoxy, its “modern” variant was constantly wavering between the “secular” world which had little use for the tenets of Jewish Orthodoxy and the strictly “frum” world of Orthodox Judaism.

The Ultra-Orthodox did not suffer from such schizophrenia.  In fact, one of the primary beliefs of the Ultra-Orthodox was that the outside world was both alien and hostile.  No attempts were made to make Judaism compatible with the modern world.  The Modern Orthodox were forced to compete with non-Orthodox movements which were Halakhically and philosophically flexible and with the rigid nature of Orthodoxy which rejected science and the humanities as being an alien accretion within the Jewish world as it was understood and taught in the Yeshivah world.

The Modern Orthodox movement did not produce a figure who could match the authority of Rabbi Soloveitchik.  The influence of the “Rav” – as he is affectionately known in the Modern Orthodox world – is immense and cannot be overstated.  In his singularity he is to be contrasted with the many Ultra-Orthodox authorities who embodied a vigorous Ultra-Orthodox “pluralism” that does not imply a plurality of opinions, but a numerical plurality of its many Sages.

On matters of doctrine and ritual observance – matters that now went hand in hand for the Orthodox adept – the rabbis of this hermetic world began to create an American-style consensus where norms were established and clear rules codified.  In America, the Ultra-Orthodox established something like a political party that had its own rules and its own partisan interests that it held fast to.

And over the course of a few decades, with many prestigious seats in New York City, Lakewood, New Jersey, Philadelphia and Baltimore to name the most important, this Yeshivah world had coalesced into a strongly unified phenomenon.  In this period, as I have said, norms were laid down and new communities grew up within a standardized set of behaviors and lifestyle patterns.  Yeshivah-style Judaism was a clearly perceptible phenomenon in spite of the fact that in the two largest centers of Jewish life in the world – America and Israel – it had little demographic impact.  Then, as now, the vast majority of American and Israeli Jews were not Orthodox and had no interest in becoming Orthodox.

Here is where the significance of ArtScroll as an extension of Jewish Orthodoxy comes in.  The publishing house was the first and most successful English-language vehicle to promote and articulate the values of the Yeshivah world.  Many of its publications were devoted to the furthering of a Jewish pedagogy that was now highly contested territory.  After having done a quietly impressive job in the 1950s and 60s to enter the ranks of teachers in Jewish Day Schools – jobs that were low-paying, but seen by the Ultra-Orthodox as a necessary means to achieve the end of bringing American Jews to its brand of Orthodoxy – the Yeshivah graduates began to look at the role of print culture in the American Jewish world.

Until this point, the primary national organization entrusted to publish Jewish books was the Jewish Publication Society of America.  This organization, like many others, was founded in Philadelphia in a resolutely Sephardic environment.  Many of the founding members and editors of the JPS were students or followers of the great Rabbi Sabato Morais and used their power to promote his agenda of Sephardic Rabbinic Humanism.  So in looking at the JPS catalog from the beginning of its ministry at the dawn of the 20th century we see an especial emphasis on the literary classics of the Sephardim.  Of course, it would be superfluous to state that the JPS gave birth to the most accurate English translation of the Hebrew Bible, but its reliance on the Sephardi classics made it a central part of the older tradition of scholarship in the Anglo-Jewish world.

ArtScroll was in no way an attempt to compete with the JPS.  In fact, the very founding of the institution displays a complexity that mirrors the changes in the Ashkenazi Orthodox world.  In the early stages of the project, ArtScroll attempted to solidify its ties with the Modern Orthodox world.  But once people like Rabbi Norman Lamm of Yeshiva University rebuffed the union, it resolutely rejected the scholarly principles of the JPS editorial model and moved Right-ward.  The purpose of the ArtScroll book was to provide in clear and articulate English the ideology of the Yeshivahs and of Ultra-Orthodoxy. 

In its Bible commentaries and translations, the ArtScroll approach was to define the literal meaning of the text as completely in harmony with the rabbinic approach.  But not only this: As the rabbinic canon was deeply multilayered and complex, the ArtScroll approach was one of a forced harmonization. 

The most notable example of this is in the ArtScroll edition of the Song of Songs.  

A notoriously problematic book of the Hebrew Bible, the Song was parsed in many different ways in the rabbinic tradition.  As a book of profane erotic poetry, the Song was re-read in rabbinic circles as a mystic conversation between God and man.  In the ArtScroll version of the Song of Songs, the original text is completely recalibrated to reflect this reading – even in the translation, the terms used are those of the non-literal, or Midrashic reading.

This is a point that is well-known in Orthodox circles, but not so clear to the Jewish community and the world at large.

ArtScroll is synonymous with a style of reading that affirms a univocal interpretation imposed on the text out of the panoply of rabbinic commentary.

Over and above this, perhaps the greatest achievement of ArtScroll has been its massive edition of the Babylonian Talmud.  Relying on the Ashkenazi Pilpul tradition, ArtScroll’s Talmud is an attempt to codify the view of Rashi and Tosafot into the gargantuan textual construct that is the Talmud.  Hitherto understood as massive and difficult set of documents that could only be parsed by the greatest of Jewish scholars, the Talmud was now brought into the hands of the Orthodox masses.

Just to keep this in perspective, with the exception of the Soncino Talmud – an edition that is not based on critical readings of manuscripts, but is a simply reprint and translation (again, often based on the readings of Rashi) of the standard editions of the Talmud that are widely circulated – there has not been a critical edition of the Talmud produced by the modern academy.  In addition, with all the scholarship that has been done on Jewish texts from the Bible onwards, it must be noted that there is not a complete scholarly edition of the Talmud in English.  And like the Soncino edition, the Hebrew translation and commentary of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is conspicuously a product of Orthodoxy. 

Having completely rejected any form of  Jewish Orthodoxy that is not in line with the uniformly accepted standards of the Yeshivah world, ArtScroll found itself supremely capable of delivering a new edition of the Talmud that would find favor with the Ultra-Orthodox consensus and which would validate its vision of Judaism in contemporary America – and the rest of the world.

Having devoted so much of its attention and energies to the production of the many dozens of volumes that would be needed to complete the project of the Talmud in English translation, ArtScroll also developed many side-projects that would in effect speak to the wider masses of Orthodox Jews.  Beyond primary texts such as the Siddur, the Bible and the rabbinic canon, ArtScroll developed a series of hagiographical titles that spoke to moral matters, the history of the Jewish people and to the articulation of the mindset of the Yeshivah world in a simple and palatable manner.

Moving into our discussion of the book Aleppo: City of Scholars by Rabbi David Sutton which forms the basis of the analysis of Zvi Zohar’s article in this special edition of the newsletter, we should also note a number of other things as well:

The Sephardic world, as I have repeated many times, began to abandon its religious and literary heritage in the post-War period.  The Sephardic community in America never established a single rabbinical seminary in its sojourn here.  After the death of Rabbi Sabato Morais who, along with Henry Pereira-Mendes, established the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York as a non-denominational seminary for the training of rabbis, there was no other Sephardic figure who even attempted to establish such a training ground for the promulgation of Sephardic rabbis.

Though institutions such as Porat Yosef existed in Israel and a few others in the Arab world prior to 1948, in the United States there is not a single rabbinical seminary devoted to training Sephardi rabbis in the classical Sephardic tradition.

The rabbis of the Sephardic community were either imported from Israel, or went to one or another of the Ashkenazi Orthodox institutions.  And while the flagship seminary of the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Isaac Elhanan Seminary at Yeshiva University, served as the training ground for a number of rabbis in the New York area Sephardic community, it was the Ultra-Orthodox Yeshivahs that have increasingly served as the ones from which Sephardic rabbis have received their ordination.

Aleppo: City of Scholars is the first substantial product of the marriage of Sephardic culture with that of the Ultra-Orthodox.  Rabbi David Sutton would appear uniquely well-positioned for this role as he married the daughter of Rabbi Nosson Sherman, the head of the Arstcroll publishing house.  Having already produced a voluminous coffee-table size edition of the Passover Haggadah a few years ago, Rabbi Sutton has clearly shown his affinity to the Yeshivah style and views it as completely compatible with the Syrian-Sephardic tradition.

Zvi Zohar’s supremely expert analysis of Aleppo: City of Scholars shows us the often complex and counterintuitive ways in which this shidduch has been accomplished.  Taking as its primary source the Hebrew work – well known to cognoscenti of the Syrian rabbinic tradition – Likdoshim Asher Ba-Aretz, Rabbi Sutton produces a “translation” of the work along the standard lines of the ArtScroll model.  Underlying the book is a pronounced adherence to the values and codes of the Ashkenazi world of Ultra-Orthodoxy.

This adherence is almost militant in nature.  It serves, as Zohar correctly argues, to transform the facts of the older tradition and put in its place a new amalgam of religious and socio-cultural values that mark Aleppo as a variant of the shtetls of Eastern Europe that serve as the model of Ultra-Orthodoxy.

Reading Zvi Zohar’s comprehensive and nuanced article we learn that the Ultra-Orthodox model is one that is foreign to the Syrian-Sephardic tradition whose beliefs and tenets reflect a very different model of Jewish self-understanding. 

By citing numerous examples from the literary texts of the Middle Eastern rabbis themselves – a matter that Zohar has carefully studied and written about extensively in his many books and articles on the subject – he is able to show us how the ArtScroll-ization of Aleppo works.  He shows us the scholarly means by which Aleppo: City of Scholars serves to transform an ancient tradition and how it forces that tradition to comport with the values and mores of contemporary Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodoxy as it has been articulated in the American Yeshivot and by ArtScroll.

The article teaches us that there is a battle going on for the authenticity of past rabbinical traditions.  The battleground of this fight is strewn with contested discussions of historical texts and legal rulings that have been parsed and re-parsed within the walls of the Yeshivah – a place that has been ruled by Ashkenazi interests.  This means that Sephardi rabbis trained at Yeshiva University will be uniquely incapable of arguing the point with Rabbi Sutton – and so has been the current situation here in Brooklyn.

The rabbis of the Syrian-Sephardic community in the New York area have been publicly silent regarding the publication of Aleppo: City of Scholars because they have not been trained in the texts of the Syrian-Sephardic rabbinical tradition.   This silence is exacerbated by the general lack of interest and often of sheer disdain for the Sephardic heritage displayed by the Modern Orthodox rabbis of the community.  Though these same rabbis are often quite hostile to Ultra-Orthodoxy and to ArtScroll, when it comes to the subject matter of Rabbi David Sutton’s book they provide their Synagogues and students with a blank.

In the Syrian community – believe it or not – there is an almost complete ignorance and obliviousness on the question of the rabbinical giants of the past.

So when Aleppo: City of Scholars was first published, I went out and had a copy of the book sent to Zvi Zohar who has worked with me at the Center for Sephardic Heritage on creating some consciousness of the Sephardic tradition in our community.  That a person outside the community had to be drafted in order to provide a “traditional” response to the book is something that speaks to the corrupt nature of the community and its relinquishing of its personal responsibility for preserving its very own traditions.

Having said this, I believe that Professor Zohar’s article will serve not only the Syrian-Sephardic community as a primary resource in trying to understand the problems posed by ArtScroll, but will also assist Jews more generally to better understand the place that ArtScroll has carved out for itself in contemporary Jewish life.

Having seen the ongoing Haredization of the Jewish world – here in the US as well as in Europe and especially in Israel – Zvi Zohar’s article will serve the Jewish reader as a vital resource in coming to terms with the ways in which rabbinical tradition is parsed and understood in our Synagogues and schools of learning.


David Shasha 

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