Friday, June 26, 2015

An Honest Account of a Contemporary Jewish Publishing Odyssey

In Your Anger, Please Mercifully Publish My Work:
An Honest Account of a Contemporary Jewish Publishing Odyssey
by Dovid Bashevkin[1]

My recently published sefer, “Berogez Racheim Tizkor” (trans: “In your anger, you shall remember to have mercy”), whose title is based on the verse in Habbakuk 3:2 and traditionally recited each morning during Tahanun, really began as a tweet. In March 2014, I tweeted, “Considering writing a sefer entitled “Aveiros K’Hilchisa.”

The tweet was originally intended as a satire of the many seforim that have been published as halakhic digests of obscure practical issues in Judaism.  If there could be an Ittush be-Halakhah (trans: “Sneezing in Jewish Law,” - an actual pamphlet shown to me by my dear friend and devoted consigliere Reb Menachem Butler), why not an “Aveiros K’Hilchisa”?[2]

However, as often happens, what began as satire became a very real project.  Following the passing of my Zaide, Mr. William Bashevkin, and last living grandparent, I thought it would be a fitting tribute to their memory to publish a work of Torah.  Additionally, coupling sorrow with joy, my marriage this past year to Tova (née Flancbaum) gave me the inspiration to begin my relationship with a project of Torah scholarship.  The sefer, which is a small collection of essays discussing halakhic issues related to sin and the path towards teshuva, is based upon shiurim I have had the opportunity to deliver periodically at the Young Israel of Lawrence Cedarhurst.  With special appreciation to Mr. Joel Mael, who originally invited me and has been a continual source of guidance and counsel, the chevra who have participated in the shiurim are really my partners in this effort - without them, none of this would have been possible.

Nonetheless, publishing a sefer has historically, and remains, an exercise marked with rabbinic ambivalence. As I note in the pesicha many great rabbinic figures looked suspiciously at the growing trend of publication. The Chatam Sofer in his Responsa Orach Chaim #208 famously considered those who publish works for their own self-promotion to be in violation of the prohibition of writing down Torah sh’Baal Peh, which, in his view, was only permissible if the work was truly written with pure intention.[3] Indeed, in a different response (vol. 6, #61), The Chatam Sofer laments the overwhelming increase in seforim being published.

Why, then, publish a sefer?

This question, I believe, has added import in contemporary society when the inclination for self-promotion and aggrandizement has seemingly never been stronger. So, then, is the publication of a sefer just an exercise in intellectual, albeit spiritual, vanity? This question has been addressed by many, including on the pages on the Seforim blog, most notably by Yaakov Rosenes in his post “Publish and Perish or Digital Death” (link). What follows are my experiences and brief thoughts on the issue of seforim publication.

Firstly, as Rabbi Yaakov Levitz, a noted seforim distributor in Brooklyn, mentioned to me, the only thing that sells is “Soloveitchik, stories and pictures.”[4] No one should publish a sefer as a venture to make money. Aside from the questionable motive, it just won’t work. The only works that have a faint chance are those that will be purchased for Bar Mitzvah gifts. Other works that deal with more scholarly or intricate Talmudic issues will have a hard time even recouping the cost of publication.[5]

Financial investments aside, I published this work for three reasons:

Firstly, as I mentioned earlier, the sefer is dedicated to the memory of my grandparents and in honor of my marriage. Admittedly, these reasons are rather self-centered. I do, however, think they are relatively justifiable. While I grant that there are certainly less narcissistic ways of memorializing or honoring loved ones, I do think that sharing Torah, when possible, is appropriate. As Rabbi Hershel Schachter notes in the generous michtav bracha that he wrote to my sefer, the greatest honor one can accord their ancestors is sharing Torah. While the quality of the Torah may be questionable, I hope the honor it brings to their memory is just the same.

Secondly, throughout the sefer, the works of Reb Zadok of Lublin, who I had the opportunity to study under Professor Yaakov Elman at Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, and those of Rav Yitzchok Hutner both feature prominently.[6]  I was first introduced to the works of Reb Zadok of Lublin by Rabbi Dr. Ari Bergmann of Lawrence, NY, and the door to Rav Yitzchok Hutner was kindly opened to me by Rabbi Ari Waxman of Yeshivat Shaalvim. Those familiar with these thinkers understand their relevance to the modern reader. Unfortunately, particularly Reb Zadok and the larger school of his rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Leiner of Izbica, are often misunderstood and frequently misinterpreted.[7] My hope was to develop my own creative ideas within their school of thought, while still remaining loyal to the type of avodas hashem I think they hoped to engender. I don’t know if I was successful, but I hope the sefer continues to bring the much needed attention these thinkers deserve in contemporary times.

Lastly, the Kotzker Rebbe famously remarked, “All that is thought should not be said, all that is said should not be written, all that is written should not be published, and all that is published should not be read.”[8] Undoubtedly, not everything in this work, or nearly any work, should have been published. In some ways I am comforted by the saying of Reb Chaim Brisker that even one valuable chiddush within an otherwise subpar work, can redeem an entire sefer, as Rav Hershel Schachter observes in Nefesh Harav (1994), page 334. Parenthetically, in Rabbi Schachter’s introduction to his later work, Ginat Egoz (2006), he shared a wonderful anecdote that after mentioning the aforementioned saying of Reb Chaim during a shiur at Yeshivat Shaalvim, the Rosh Yeshiva approached him and (jokingly?) said that his entire shiur was worth hearing just because of that one story from Reb Chaim.

No one will like, enjoy, or appreciate everything in a sefer, but I think the one insight that illuminates, explains or inspires another makes the entire work worth it. And, as often happens in the course of writing, the one who is inspired is the author himself. Rav Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, The Steipler Gaon, often advised writing personal Torah ideas as a means of cultivating a stronger relationship with Torah (for example, see his collected letters, Karyana de-Igarta #41). In fact, Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin had a special seder at the end of the day (at 10PM following a half-hour seder set to review the Rif) for students to write and develop their own chiddushei Torah.[9] We are willing to take risks in the pursuit of so many other goals, why not jeopardize our precision and flawlessness by sharing more published Torah? While I admire the Brisker allegiance to publishing perfection, I think many students have missed the opportunity to kindle an excitement for Torah in others and themselves by dwelling too much on their unworthiness in the endeavor. It only takes one chiddush or one idea to make it worthwhile.

I knowingly may sound a bit too optimistic and/or forgiving when it comes to seforim publication and am glad to be guilty of such. In fact, it is the theme of my sefer. As I mentioned the title, Berogez Racheim Tizkor is said during Tachanun. In Tachanun this line is followed by the verse in Tehillim 123:3 which begins “Ki Hu Yada Yitzreinu.” Together these verses form a meaningful plea - that though we invoke God’s anger, we request his mercy for God knows our inner nature. Much of the work elaborates on that request. Namely, how the limitations of our free-will relate to our shortfalls and failures. The work discusses the halakhic and theological implications of sin and the often inevitability of failure. The underlying message, I hope, is one of comfort and optimism.

Here are some of the topics discussed in the sefer:
The status of apostates in Jewish law and thought;
Do we always have the free will to avoid sin? And, assuming they do exist, is repentance required for such sins?;
What should you wear to a sin?;[10]
If spiritual struggle is redemptive, is it permissible to seek out situations of spiritual challenge?;
The desultory appearances of the mysterious personality “Geniva” in Tractate Gittin;
A contextual analysis of the Talmudic statement “A man doesn't stand on words of Torah unless he fails in them,” (Gittin 43a);
The halakhic import of granting someone forgiveness verbally, while internally still harboring internal resentment;
An analysis of issues surrounding the concept of Averah Lishmah in contemporary times;
Additionally, the sefer is book-ended by two essays related to Torah study in general, respectively considering the relationship between Blessings on the Study of Torah HaTorah and the Blessing of the Kohanim, and the role of Converts and Kohanim in the development of the Oral Law. Copies of Berogez Racheim Tizkor are available for purchase at Biegeleisen in Boro Park, and is currently available online here.
I hope Berogez Racheim Tizkor is read with the same measure of mercy which, especially nowadays, is required of any sefer to be written.

[1] David Bashevkin is the Director of Education at NCSY. He studied at Yeshivat Shaalvim, the Ner Israel Rabbinical College and at Yeshiva University, where he completed a Master’s degree in Polish Hassidut, focusing on the thought of Reb Zadok ha-Kohen of Lublin, under the guidance of Professor Yaakov Elman. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in Public Policy at the Milano School of International Affairs.
[2] Ittush be-Halakhah has previously been reviewed by David Assaf, “On Sneezing in Jewish Law,” Oneg Shabbes (1 July 2012), available here; and a mention in the infamous thirteenth footnote to Marc B. Shapiro, “Concerning the Zohar and Other Matters,” the Seforim blog (29 August 2012), available here.
[3] As I also note, this is in accordance with the more restrictive view of his Rebbe, R. Nathan Adler who understood that the prohibition of writing down the Oral Law was not completely abrogated and, in certain instances, remains in place even in contemporary time; see Sdei Chemed, ma’arechet 4, no. 22, for a longer halakhic discussion of his views. For an interesting parallel, see Ignaz Goldziher, “The Writing Down of the Hadith,” in Muslim Studies, vol. 2 (London: George Allen, 1971), 181-187.
[4] Rabbi Levitz’ most (in)famous sefer that he distributed was, of course, Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky’s quite-celebrated and much-talked-about Making of a Godol in 2002. Though an improved edition of this work was published in 2004 -- with its “List of Improvements” detailed in volume two, pages 1427-1429 -- Rabbi Levitz was not the distributor for the second volume.
[5] In terms of the cost of publication there are two major expenditures: editing and printing. Editing costs vary. For some is just gentle linguistic touch-ups and proofing, for others the editor functions more as a ghost writer. I had the opportunity to work with a brilliant editor, Rabbi Avshalom Gershi, who has worked on some of the recent seforim of Rav Soloveitchik, most recently the first volume of his chiddushim on Gittin. Aside from his fair price, actually writing the sefer yourself is a major cost-cutting initiative I would urge thrifty authors to take. In terms of printing the price varies in terms of the amount of copies published, the length of the work, and the quality of the page and cover. Since my sefer is quite small and short and I eschewed editing that even bordered on ghostwriting my costs were well under five thousand dollars. For others who have larger works and print more than the industry minimum of five hundred copies, the costs can rise into the tens of thousands. Hence, the rapid rise in dedication pages.
[6] For Professor Elman’s articles on Reb Zadok ha-Kohen of Lublin written over the past three decades, see Yaakov Elman, “R. Zadok Hakohen on the History of Halakah,” Tradition 21:4 (Fall 1985): 1-26; Yaakov Elman, “Reb Zadok Hakohen of Lublin on Prophecy in the Halakhic Process,” Jewish Law Association Studies 1 (1985): 1-16; Yaakov Elman, “The History of Gentile Wisdom According to R. Zadok ha-Kohen of Lublin,” Journal of Jewish Thought & Philosophy 3:1 (1993): 153-187; Yaakov Elman, “Progressive Derash and Retrospective Peshat: Nonhalakhic Considerations in Talmud Torah,” in Shalom Carmy, ed., Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996), 227-87; and Yaakov Elman, “The Rebirth of Omnisignificant Biblical Exegesis in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” Jewish Studies Internet Journal 2 (2003): 199-249; and Yaakov Elman, “Autonomy and its Discontents: A Meditation on Pahad Yitshak,” Tradition 47:2 (Summer 2014): 7-40. For recent latest scholarship Rav Yitzchok Hutner, see Shlomo Kasirer, “Repentance in the Thought of R. Isaac Hutner,” (PhD dissertation, Bar-Ilan University, 2009; Hebrew).
On the occasion of the 110th yahrzeit of Reb Zadok ha-Kohen of Lublin zy”a five years ago, I published a 5,000 word essay in Dovid Bashevkin, “Perpetual Prophecy: An Intellectual Tribute to Reb Zadok ha-Kohen of Lublin on his 110th Yahrzeit,” (with an appendix entitled: “The World as a Book: Religious Polemic, Hasidei Ashkenaz, and the Thought of Reb Zadok,”), the Seforim blog (18 August 2010), available here.
[7] I will be elaborating on this theme in a forthcoming essay.
[8] On The Kotzker Rebbe’s proverbs, see Yaakov Levinger, “The Authentic Sayings of Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk,” Tarbiz 56:1 (1986): 109-135 (Hebrew); and Yaakov Levinger, “The Teachings of the Kotzker Rebbe According to his Grandson R. Samuel Bernstein of Sochotchow,” Tarbiz 55:4 (1986): 413-431 (Hebrew).
[9] See Dovid Abraham Mandelbaum, ed., Iggerot ve-Toledot Rabbeinu Maharam Shapira mi-Lublin (Bnei Brak, 2010), 125 (Hebrew), which reproduces in full the daily schedule from Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin. For an earlier scholarly essay, see Hillel Seidman, “Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin,” in Samuel K. Mirsky, ed., Mosedot Torah be-Europa: Jewish Institutions of Higher Learning in Europe (New York, 1956), 393-413 (Hebrew).
[10] This chapter is an expanded Hebrew version of Dovid Bashevkin, “What to Wear to a Sin,” Torah Musings (21 July 2013), available here.


Anonymous said...

I remember seeing the quote attributed to the Kotzker, (excepting,possibly, the last line) in one of the Chofetz Chaim's works in the name of Rav Refoel Hamburger.

Anonymous said...

Seforim blog generally arrives in my inbox accompanied by advertisements - recently they have been rather indecent pictures of both male and female underwear. Is this connected to your recent post mentioning 'what to wear to a sin?'

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