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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

ArtScroll's Assault on Truth

Mesorah's ArtScroll publications tend to elicit strong and diverse reactions.  Their multiple imprints encompass a vast range of translations and original works by numerous authors, so the content and writing quality naturally varies considerably.  More fundamentally, however, ArtScroll's substance and tone often reflect a particular religious outlook which will either attract or irritate, depending on the reader.  

But anyone who values truth and integrity -- regardless of any other consideration, including communal affiliation and religious ideology -- must protest ArtScroll's latest transgression in a now-familiar pattern of editorial dishonesty. 

First, there was the misrepresentation of Rashi's commentary on Song of Songs.  Rashi takes a hybrid approach to Shir Ha-Shirim, interpreting the text both literally and allegorically.  But ArtScroll truncated Rashi's introduction to his commentary, in which he clearly outlines this methodology, and ignored entirely his 
commentary's literal layer.  Anyone who uses the Stone Chumash for an English translation and commentary on the Song of Songs is a victim of ArtScroll's distortion of Rashi.

Then came the blatant censorship of R. Shlomo Yosef Zevin's Ha-Moadim Ba-Halakhah. Rabbi Zevin made an offhand remark expressing gratitude for the State of Israel.  The line was excised from ArtScroll's translation.

Most recently, in a shameless act of textual fraud and an insult to the intelligence and integrity of bnei Torah (and to Rashbam himself), ArtScroll has released a censored version of Rashbam's commentary on the Torah within their new punctuated edition of Mikraot Gedolot.  As Marc B. Shapiro has shown, ArtScroll concluded that parts of the commentary are unworthy of publication, no doubt for ideological reasons.  For example, they censored sections of the commentary to Gen. 1:4-5, in which Rashbam argues that night follows day in the plain reading of the verses.  No explanation was provided for the omissions.  

In the financial world, fraud results in regulatory fines, bans from the industry, and sometimes imprisonment.  Should we hold those who publish fraudulent versions of religious texts to a lower ethical standard?

Please contact ArtScroll to request an explanation and to demand that this fraud be corrected in the next printing.


ArtScroll responded to what must have been several complaints.  Here is Marc Shapiro's analysis of the response.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Past Imperfect

For traditional communities, the past is normative. The past, rather than the present, provides the best model for daily life. As the standard-bearer of the past, the traditionalist may even question the legitimacy of the present: Leaving aside technological advances, what moral or spiritual value can modernity offer compared to the timeless legacy of the past?

Religious traditions especially, which are by nature highly conservative, judge new trends by their conformance to time-honored ways of life. Intellectual innovation, to be sure, may be encouraged, as long as it remains within the boundaries of tradition. In our own society, for example, a hallmark of Talmud scholarship has long been the ability to formulate a novel legal analysis, whose implications are normally theoretical. But in practical matters, custom rules (there are notable exceptions among halakhists of great stature; the Vilna Gaon, for example, often ruled against common practice based on Talmudic sources).

Still, we can observe the evolution of attitudes toward religious tradition, and changes to the tradition itself, within a single lifetime. In the last few decades, accompanied by a trend toward stricter observance, Orthodox society has increasingly turned to texts, rather than prevailing custom, for religious guidance. This trend has been meticulously defined and interpreted by Haym Soloveitchik in his 1994 essay, “Rupture and Reconstruction.” Soloveitchik contrasts the culture of pre-war European Jewry -- a “mimetic” society where behavior was transmitted by example and imitation -- with the modern text-based culture. Where previous generations absorbed the rules of Jewish observance in the home, street, or synagogue, much of Orthodox society has come to rely on books, thought to be more authoritative sources of Halakhah. Among other factors, this trend represents a desire to restore the more religiously authentic world of Europe before the Holocaust, based on a reconstituted image -- supposedly captured in halakhic texts -- of what it was really like.

It would seem that tradition should view this phenomenon favorably. After all, we are describing an ostensibly deeper commitment to tradition. What could be truer to the traditionalist than a religious life restored to its original state, to a period of history unweakened by dislocation and acculturation? The old-world traditions of our great-grandparents and grandparents would appear to be superior to those of our parents, which may have been -- indeed, have been in some cases -- diluted by compromise.

But some of these assumptions do not hold up under scrutiny. What many perceive as restoration -- a more rigorous observance derived from the past -- may be, in fact, religious innovation.

In “Minhagei Lita: Customs of Lithuanian Jewry,” the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel (Manuel) Poliakoff of Baltimore sets out to correct misconceptions about the yeshiva culture of pre-war Lithuania. Rabbi Poliakoff, a participant in that culture, studied at the Telshe Yeshiva during the 1930’s. He cites several modern religious practices wrongly assumed to have been followed in the great Lithuanian yeshivot and in their surrounding communities. For example, the wide adoption of the Upsherren custom (allowing a boy’s hair to grow uncut until the age of three) and the “glatt kosher” standard (based on a kosher meat stricture), he says, are recent innovations -- unknown in Europe or confined to particular communities -- that gained currency only after World War II. He also points to rulings of R. Israel Meir Kagan in the “Mishnah Berurah” -- today considered the most authoritative code -- which were never followed in Lithuania, or even in the author’s hometown, despite his great prestige.

If certain customs which appear restorative are actually innovative, we are also witnessing in broad segments of Orthodox society the acceptance of practices which are undeniably new. Bat Mitzvah and Simhat Bat celebrations, for example, were unknown in Ashkenazic Orthodoxy a generation ago (Simhat Bat has some precedent among Sephardim). These innovations are drawn primarily from the present; they are the product of egalitarian notions of gender and greater public visibility of women -- both modern phenomena -- and regarded as consistent, if not continuous, with tradition.

Under the right conditions, tradition can successfully assimilate the best modern values. That is one way to leave our children a more perfect past.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Clouds of glory, clouds of honor

That future generations may know that I made the children of Israel live in booths (sukkot) when I brought them out of the land of Egypt  -- Leviticus 23:43.

‘Booths’ --  clouds of honor (ananei kavod) -- Rashi.

Every year on the first night of Sukkot, I was taught from a young age that the Sukkah -- especially the sekhakh, the Sukkah's ceiling -- represents something otherworldly. The structure in which our family dined was meant to evoke the divine clouds that sheltered the Israelites in the desert.

But, in fact, the definition of “booths” was the subject of debate by the Tannaitic Sages. One opinion took them to be real huts, erected for shelter from the sun; the other, in a metaphorical reading of the verse from Leviticus, identified the booths with the biblical “cloud-pillar” -- also known in the Talmud and Midrash as “clouds of honor” -- that guided and protected the Jews throughout the exodus.

It may seem far-fetched to read “booths” as divine clouds. “Clouds” and “booths” are hardly synonymous. One could also argue, on the other hand, that the literal interpretation is undermined by the fact that this reference in Leviticus is the only explicit record of booth-dwelling by the Israelites. The heavenly cloud-pillar, in contrast, appears repeatedly in the Torah from Exodus onward.

In fact, the link between sukkot and ananei kavod is supported by two separate streams of textual evidence. First, there are several instances where the Bible uses the word sukkah -- literally, a covering or canopy -- in poetic references to God’s presence, hidden behind a screen of clouds. Furthermore, the phrase “when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” suggests some connection between the sukkot in this verse and events which took place during the early history of the Exodus. Sukkot, as it happens, is also a place name. As recorded in Exodus (13:20-22) and noted there by the Jerusalem Targum, Sukkot -- the Israelites’ first station outside of Egypt -- was where the divine clouds first appeared. So, in a non-literal but strongly suggested reading of Leviticus, the sukkot in which God sheltered the Israelites were none other than the divine clouds which first accompanied them at Sukkot.

If we dwell in booths on Sukkot to recall the divine clouds of the desert, the question becomes why this holiday is the appropriate time for such a commemoration.

Throughout the Bible, clouds are a common manifestation of God’s presence. At the revelation on Sinai, Moses disappears into a cloud on the mountain. In the desert, the cloud-pillar guides the Israelites and descends regularly either to speak with Moses or to mark the next station. God’s glory (kavod) appears in a cloud at the dedication of the Tabernacle and again at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, in each case preventing entry into the sanctuary. This cloud is not an ethereal mist; it is a tangible presence that can be overwhelming.

But the word kavod has a dual meaning in the Bible; it is alternatively translated -- at least in the King James Version -- as “glory” or “honor,” depending on the context. Generally, “glory” is used to describe the divine presence, whereas “honor” denotes respect shown to humans. This is best illustrated in the KJV's rendering of a single verse in which kavod is used twice, in both senses: "It is the glory (kavod) of God to conceal a thing, but the honor (kavod) of kings is to search out a matter" (Proverbs 25:2).

The divine clouds of Sukkot -- identified by Rashi with the ananei kavod of the Sages -- are of a different nature than the clouds of glory. The Sages understood that there was not only one cloud-pillar, but seven -- six in each direction to shield the camp and one to lead the way forward. A midrash compares the clouds with a bridal canopy prepared by the groom, and goes so far as to associate them with imagery from Song of Songs (2:6) -- “His left hand was under my head, his right arm embraced me.” These clouds are intimate and nurturing; they envelop and protect as would a parent or a lover. The clouds of Sukkot are clouds of honor, rather than clouds of glory.

Sukkot is celebrated in the wake of the Days of Awe, a season of encountering divine glory. On Rosh Hashanah, we acknowledge God’s majesty over creation and His role in history. The shofar invokes the clouds of Mt. Sinai, where God’s glory was most clearly manifest; the shofarot prayer begins, “You revealed yourself in your cloud of glory on your holy mountain.” And on Yom Kippur, we confront the finitude of human life and contrast our physical and moral flimsiness with an infinite, glorious God.

When Sukkot arrives, our relationship with the divine is transformed. While we remain awestruck and thankful for the fruit harvest, yet another sign of divine glory, we are primarily preoccupied with immediate and distinctly human anxieties related to the imminent rainy season and the coming onset of the cold, dark winter. On Sukkot, we beg for human honor and human dignity -- not to be overpowered by divine glory, but to be sheltered under divine wings.  Under the Sukkah’s canopy, God honors man.