Follow by Email

Saturday, February 14, 2015

An Inconvenient Text

Imagine discovering that someone you trust -- a colleague, mentor, close friend or relative -- has been less than honest with you. Even if it was a minor deception, you would feel hurt and angry. Imagine further that you gather up the courage to confront the person. But when pressed to explain, he offers a patronizing and somewhat sanctimonious defense: “My actions were completely justified. I had my reasons. Yes, I could have been more transparent, but why wouldn't you trust me? If you must have an explanation, here it is . . .”

The explanation is lawyerly and contrived. Still, you hold out hope that this was a lapse in judgment by someone generally trustworthy. But as you examine this individual's past behavior, a pattern emerges of deliberate omissions and half-truths.

This scenario may sound familiar to followers of an unfolding chapter in the world of Jewish books.

ArtScroll Publications is releasing an updated version of “Mikraot Gedolot” (the Pentateuch with commentaries). The new edition features vowelized and punctuated versions of the most important medieval commentaries, such as Rashi, Abraham Ibn Ezra, and Nahmanides, making them more accessible to general readers.

In at least one instance, however, ArtScroll’s editorial reach extended beyond formatting. As Marc B. Shapiro recently revealed on the Seforim Blog, the publisher deleted comments by Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam) -- without alerting its readers -- and later defended the move.

Rashbam was a grandson of Rashi. Like Rashi, Rashbam belonged to the eleventh and twelfth-century school of exegesis centered in Northern France, which was inclined toward “peshat” or simple reading of Scripture, and de-emphasized the deeper but less contextual midrashic style (“derash”). But while Rashi tends to present peshat alongside derash, Rashbam was dedicated exclusively and almost fanatically to peshat, often criticizing his grandfather for veering too far from the plain sense of the verse.

The lines missing from the ArtScroll edition are from Rashbam’s commentary to Genesis 1:4-5, on the phrase “and there was an evening, and there was a morning, one day.” The Talmud cites these words to support the halakhic view that the day begins at sundown. But Rashbam reads the peshat as follows: “There was an evening (at the conclusion of daytime) and a morning (at the end of night), one day”; that is, the day begins in the morning and lasts until the next daybreak.

It goes without saying that Rashbam did not intend to undermine Jewish practice (he was a leading Talmudist and known for his extreme piety). Still, Ibn Ezra -- a contemporary of Rashbam -- wrote a scathing critique of this exegesis, motivated largely by sectarians who actually began the Sabbath in the morning.

In a written reply to inquiries about the apparent censorship (see Seforim Blog), ArtScroll claims that what they removed was inauthentic. They offer some unconvincing technical reasons for this conclusion, but the thrust of the argument is ideological: If Ibn Ezra considered the interpretation heresy, how could Rashbam have authored it?

As Shapiro shows, no serious scholar questions the authenticity of the deleted passages. In fact, several great Jewish thinkers -- the Lubavitcher Rebbe among them -- grappled with this Rashbam without dismissing it as a forgery.

(On the subject of heresy, note that Ibn Ezra himself was roundly condemned for his non-Talmudic interpretations and accused of providing fodder for heretics; he was Spinoza’s favorite exegete.)

ArtScroll’s erasure of Rashbam’s words can only be described as ideologically motivated censorship.

For all its great accomplishments, it turns out that ArtScroll has a history of blatant censorship and subtle misrepresentation.

Several years ago, Artscroll published a translation of Ha-Moadim Ba-Halakhah, Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin’s popular work on the festivals. At one point in the book, the author made an offhand remark expressing gratitude for the State of Israel. ArtScroll excised this line from the translation and, when challenged, publicized a bizarre statement claiming that Rabbi Zevin ultimately changed his opinion about the state (the evidence shows otherwise).

In its translation and commentary on Song of Songs, ArtScroll misrepresents Rashi. Rashi reads the Song allegorically, in traditional fashion. But in the introduction to his commentary, Rashi explicitly promotes a two-tiered approach to the book which first addresses the plain-sense, contextual peshat – an approach he implements in his commentary. Drawing support for their unusual translation – said to be "allegorical, based on Rashi's commentary" -- ArtScroll quotes nearly all of Rashi’s introduction, but omits the most critical section, about the peshat underlying the Song’s allegory. Reading ArtScroll’s rendition of the Song, you would never know about the peshat layer in Rashi’s commentary.

By taking such editorial liberties, ArtScroll undermines its own credibility and underestimates its readership. I am confident that most of its readers prefer to judge primary texts for themselves before they end up on the cutting room floor.

There is much more at stake here than the integrity of Rashbam's commentary. Weighing the truth against its own perception of piety, ArtScroll chose the latter. It now asks its readers to do the same. But no religious person should ever be put in that position. The dichotomy between religion and reality is a false one, and the idea that one must choose between truth and piety violates both.

None of this minimizes ArtScroll’s major contributions to the Jewish community. But it can do better. ArtScroll’s readers deserve better. We can handle the truth.