Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What is wrong with Artscroll?

What is wrong with Artscroll?

by Eliezer Miller

A better question would be is what is right?

The latest work produced by Artscroll in the Milstein Series is Isaiah[1]. Written by Rabbi Nosson Scherman, the general editor of Artsrtscroll himself, it is the inaugural volume of the interpretation of the Later Prophets.

Firstly, one must praise Artscroll for a completely new typesetting of the Rashi, Radak, Metzuadas David and Metzudas Zion. But to what purpose?  If was to give us a clear text, has not a clearly superior work of this kind has been done by Keter? They, at least, addition, edited these works using ancient manuscripts.  If, then, they are printed in this series is to help us with the translation and commentary – is that not the very purpose of Artscroll’s English translation and commentary? Perhaps, then, they are included to keep the tradition of Mikraos Gedolos?  If so why are many other parts of Mikraos Gedolos commentators like Gr’a and Toldos Aharon missing?  The space taken by these commentaries could have surely been used for a lengthier, more comprehensive, English commentary.

Secondly, one can understand why the editors ignored the extensive archeological work that has been done in the past few years. Archeology in the City of David and Samaria shed much light on the realia that is part of the prophecy[2].

The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls has changed the whole of the study of Isaiah.  The Isaiah scrolls are the only complete text of a sefer in Tanach from that time. They have revealed multiple variants and commentaries. 

However, to include these studies in the sefer would have negated the principles on which “Mesorah” publication stands, that of strict adherence to the received tradition.

Similarly, the incredible amount that has been learnt from etymological studies by Semitic language scholars is hard to ignore. Because non-traditional scholars do this work, they are ignored by Rabbi Scherman - to his, and to his readers, loss.

Thirdly, one could also understand the “bowlderisation”[3] involved in the translation.  The great poetic masterpiece that was achieved by the Revised Authorized Version has inspired myriads of readers; the majestic language gave, at least faint echoes of Isaiah’s monumental use of his imagery and metaphors.  That translation surely has Christological inferences and counter-Halachic tendencies.[4] Their exclusion is understandable.

On the other hand, Artscroll’s awkward phraseology, mistranslations, and incorrect insertions make one, literally, cringe.  Their translation has managed to change one the worlds greatest literary work into a children’s eighth-grade reader, unworthy of the text.

Lastly, one must feel that Rabbi Scherman is forced to ignore the obvious parallels to the rebuilding of Zion in our days. The Return to Israel, the re-establishment of the State of Israel and the foretold “footsteps of the Messiah” are apparent to any reader of the prophecy. This omission is so enormous, that it is difficult for the modern reader to swallow.  Has the orthodox world been so influenced by the rejectionist in the Satmar- Neture Karta – Brisk axis, that they have accepted the absurd notion that that the State of Israel has no theological significance?

Given all the above critiques, and understanding the reasons, the real problem is internal. The real problem of this work is that it contradicts the very basis of the credo of Mesorah Publications. 

There are a number of examples as how Mesorah publications has disregarded their mandate. 

1) The Prophecy of Isaiah was a focal point in the Talmud and Midrash.  There is hardly a Pasuk that is not quoted and explicated in the classical sources.  One would venture to say, that percentage wise, in the Talmud and Medrash, many more pasukim from Isaiah are mentioned than pasukim from Chumash[5].  Indeed works that cite these sources are widely available.[6] Yet these citations are few and far between in the commentary[7].  When they are cited, the accompanying commentaries by the Rishonim are rarely mentioned.

This lacuna is distressing.  Did Rabbi Scherman not make an effort to use them, or was he oblivious to their existence?

A few random examples:

i) 42:5 ….Who gives a soul to the people upon it, and a spirit to those who walk upon it
 Artscroll pg.  323:     He gives a soul equally to all the people on earth (Radak)
A spirit of sanctity (or prophecy- Abarbanel) to those who walk in his ways.

Yerushalmi[8]:            Rashbal in the name of Bar Kapra:  The land on which I placed life first, will be the first for the coming of the Messiah.  What is the reason “He gives a soul to the people upon it.   Thus the Rabbis of Babylon have lost.  Rabbi Simai said:  The Almighty makes the land slippery in front of them and thus they slide like bottles.  When they reach the land of Israel their souls are with them….

ii) 27:13 ….It shall be on that day a great shofar will be blown…
Artscroll pg. 209:            On that great day of ingathering, all the exiles will be gathered together (as if –Radak) by the blast of a great shofar Abarbanel, R’ Hirsch
Talmud[9]:  The ten tribes have no place in the world to come… these are the words of Rabbi Akiva.  …Rabbi Simon said: if their actions are (still) like today, they will not return.  If not, they will return.  Rebbi said: They will come to the world to come as it said “On that day a great shofar will be sounded”.

(One feels that these random examples, among many, are teaching fundamentals of Jewish thought. Why were they not mentioned?  In their place Artscroll quotes two Chassidic Vortlach!)

2) There are comparatively few extant works by the Rishonim on Isaiah.  One would suppose that the Christian censors either cut them severely[10] or discouraged their publication. However, a few such works have been found and published.[11]  In these sefarim are important ideas that have not found their way into Artscroll, once again to its, and our loss.

A few random examples;
i) On that day (people) will sing about (Israel), “A vineyard of fine wine”. I am Hashem who guards it: I water it frequently, lest it be held account against it, night and day I will guard it.

Artscroll pg.203: From the cup of punishment I shall pour on them only a little at a time, because if I were to deliver the full of retribution all at once, they would not survive it. (Rashi)

Ibn Ganach:  It comes to tell us that Israel will not be included in the punishment, that is to say; I will revisit their sins on the nations, but I will not revisit (Israel’s) sin

ii) 52:2 Formerly he grew like a sapling ….

Artscroll (pg. 401): Before the redemption raises Israel to its new eminence, the nations will regard it with contempt…

Rambam: The quality of the ascent (of the Messiah) is that not that we will know at all before his ascent whether he is or not the Messiah, even if it is said of him that he is the son of so-and-so from so-and-so’s family.   Rather an unknown man shall rise before his identity is revealed, with signs and miracles, which we will see that it is he that performs them.  This will prove the truth of his claims and the truth of his patrimony.

(Again One feels that these are basic to our beliefs, and are puzzled by their omission)

3) The truth that even a casual reader will note that there are at least two different styles of commentaries of Isaiah in this work.  The first 40 or so chapters were written in one style, and the last chapters by a different commentator.  (Perhaps the same author wrote them at different times of his life.) 

The first Chapters are basically a summary of the classical commentators.  These summaries are widely available[12], albeit in Hebrew[13]. If he wished to improve on these works, one wonders why Rabbi Scherman ignored Rav Eliezer MiBalgantzi, Rabbi Yishaya Mitrani, Ibn Kaspi and Ayin Hamesorah (published from manuscripts in Keter).

Remarkably, the style of commentaries in the second part of the Sefer are completely different.  No longer only the classical commentaries are mentioned. Mari K’ra, Orchos Chaim, Shem Shmuel, Artscroll’s own edition of Rav Schwab, and many other commentaries suddenly make an appearance.  Rabinowitz masterful Daas Sofrim[14] and Hirsch’s Essays are mentioned.

One, however, wonders how Rabbi Scherman chose whom to exclude.  Rav Schwab’s, somewhat idiocentric ideas are often quoted while Sorotzkin’s Rinat Yitchak[15], Rav Dovid Cohen’s many works [16]are ignored.  One understands (but does not condone) the omission of Mossad Harav Kook’s Daas Mikra[17] because of its “modern” leaning, but what could be wrong with Hatorah Hatemimah[18]? Emek Hanetziv is Kosher (pg. 385) but the G’ra does not make the cut[19]!  Additionally there are many commentaries of the Haftorahs, which are similarly ignored

A few random examples:

i) 41:2 Who inspired (the one) from the East, at whose  (every) footstep righteousness attended….

Artscroll pg.311: This is a reference to Abraham, who came from Aram, which is east of Eretz Israel…

Rinat Yitzchak[20] explains this verse as the dispute between Rashi and the Gr’a.  In Shabbat 156a uses this verse to prove that there is no Mazal (Astrology) for Israel. Rashi explains that prayer and repentance can change the mazal.  The G’ra explains that Mazal only applies to the nations, whereas Israel is above the stars and independent of Mazal.

ii) 28:7 …the kohen and the (false) prophet have erred because of liquor and corrupted by wine, they have strayed because of liquor, erred in vision.

Artscroll pg. 211: Rather than refer to the drunkenness and hedonism of the people, Isaiah refers to the drunkenness and the hedonism of the leadership, the Kohen and the prophet.

Rabinowiz[21]: To claim that this refers to the kohanim in the beis hamikdash and to the prophets, contradicts all accepted opinions.  …. Nowhere does Isaiah mention false prophets, for no one would dare to call himself a prophet in the days of Isaiah…. It is unlikely that Isaiah would refer to the priests of Baal as Kohanim.  It is certain that Isaiah was referring to himself.  He was not able to communicate with people that were immersed in wealth and success, indulging in feasts and parties.  It is unlikely that he speaks of gross drunkenness.

4) Perhaps the most important criticism is that, as in many of Artscrolls biblical works, there is the tendency to trivialize Judaism.  In the Schottensten Talmud, (especially the Jerusalem Talmud) Artscroll has shown that they are able to do extensive research, and to explicate almost all fundamentals[22].
Not so in the Artscroll Tanach series. There is little attempt to explain the fundamental concepts of Judaism.  Instead we are fed homilies, “Vortlach”, Hassidic Meiselach and childish moralisms.  We miss the scholarly discussions, the Machlokes and textual variations that are so beautifully presented in the Schottenstein Talmud.

Yishayahu speaks to the generations.  To portray him as a medieval sermonizer is, to sat the least, disrespectful and trite.  The Milstein Series could, and must, do a better job.  They owe this to modern reader.

Artscroll’s job is to sell books.  Apparently, in their eyes, the public is not interested in serious scholarship, nor keen to hear Isaiah’s biting criticism of the hypocrisies of institutions. They perhaps feel that to try to sell a sefer that practically tells the buyer that Hashem does not support these institutions would make no sense.  One hopes that this is not true.

But at least let Rabbi Sherman fulfill his mandate by presenting us with a traditional comprehensive commentary equal to the Schottensten scholarly commentaries on the Talmuds.

[1] The Later Prophets: Isaiah, Mesorah Publications 2013
[2] We can see the upper pool and the lower pool, etc.
[3] To modify by abridging, simplifying, or distorting in style or content
[4] “Unto us a child is given.”Etc.
[5] In an unscientific count in Ayn Hamesorah, about 30% of Chumash pasukim are cited compared to 98% of Isaiah’s pasukim.
[6] Stern, Menachem: Torah SheB’al Peh, Jerusalem 2001. Neusner, Jacob: Isaiah in The Babylonian Talmud and Medrash, , NY 2007.
[7] A cursory reading counts only a few dozen citations.
[8] Kesubos 12:3
[9] San: 110b 
[10] See Neubauer’s edition of the  ‘hine yaskil avdi”
[11] Kovetz Perushim Lesefer Yishayahu, Jerusalem 5731.  Tafsir Saadia Gaon, S. Ratzabi Bnei Brak 2004
[12] Laniado Shlomo: Keli Paz, , 1637, Reprinted Jerusalem 5731
[13] An adequate work by Rosenberg, A. J.: Mikraos Gedolos, The Judaica Press, 1992 has long been available
[14] Rabinowitz, Chaim Dov, Daas Sofrim, Jerusalem 1980
[15] Rinat Yitzchak, Yitzchak Sorotzkin, Wikliff 1998
[16] Cohen, David: Ohel David,  1998 -
[17] Chacham, Amos: Daat Mikra, Jerusalem 1988
[18] Stern, Yechiel Michal: Hatorah Hatemimah, Jerusalem 5732
[19] Katzenelenbogen, S.:Biur Hagr’a Neviim, Jerusalem 2002
[20] ibid pg. 144
[21] Ibid
[22] See however: Our Torah, your Torah and their Torah: An evaluation of the Artscroll phenomenon by B. Barry Levy and Tradition 19(1)(Spring 1981): 89-95 and an exchange of letters in Tradition 1982;20:370-375.

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