Vive la Revolution!: ArtScroll and the Bourgeois Revolution of American Orthodoxy

  • Email
  • Print
  • Share
July 22, 2010

A Review of Jeremy Stolow’s Orthodox by Design: Judaism, Print Politics, and the ArtScroll Revolution

Many segments of the Jewish population in America will be interested in Orthodox by Design (uncommon for a scholarly book published by a university press). This is because ArtScroll Publishing is a phenomenon that has seeped into almost every segment of American Jewry, even though they may not even recognize the Artscroll brand.

ArtScroll Books, also known as Mesorah Publications, was founded by Rabbis Meir Zlotowitz and Nosson Sherman in 1976. Zlotowitz and Sherman had ties to rabbis Aaron Kotler (1891-1962) and his son Shneur Kotler (1918-1982), the renowned roshei yeshiva of Lakewood Yeshiva in Lakewood New Jersey. Both also have spiritual ties to the famous Mussar authority Rabbi Noson Zvi Finkel of Slobodka (1849-1927). ArtScroll began with an extensive translation project, translating the entire TANAKH (Hebrew Bible) in separate volumes beginning with The Megillah: The Book of Esther in 1976 and culminating with the complete ArtScroll TANAKH in 1996. It later published its Complete ArtScroll Siddur (prayer book) arguably its most widely-used product, now in over thirty distinct editions to conform to different liturgical customs and languages. There are uni- and bi-lingual editions, linear translations, and large print editions for synagogue use. There is even a Braille edition.

ArtScroll undertook an annotated translation of the entire Mishna (the early corpus of rabbinic writing) in separate volumes and then, in 2005 completed its most monumental work, a translation of the Babylonia Talmud with notes and commentary known as The Schottenstein Talmud. The publication of this work merited a dedication ceremony at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Recently ArtScroll came out with its Stone Chumash, a Hebrew Bible with traditional commentaries in translation including the editors’ own annotations, for both synagogue and home use. This edition has all but replaced older Chumashim used in traditional synagogues across the English-speaking world. It also publishes self-help books, including multiple volumes on addiction, therapy, dating, marriage, and business ethics; history books, halakhic manuals, and fiction and adventure literature for children and adults who want to remain within the theater of traditional Jewish values. It also has an extensive biography series of Torah sages and at present eight cookbooks.

While its books are omnipresent in American Jewish life, Artscroll is viewed contemptuously by both the progressive Jewish intelligentsia and the ultra-Orthodox, albeit for very different reasons. The key debates around ArtScroll focus on its extensive translation project, arguably its most well-known product. The intelligentsia (traditional and progressive) view ArtScroll’s translations as hopelessly apologetic, ideological, and unwilling to confront the realities of modern scholarship. Many in the ultra-Orthodox community, on the other hand, view ArtScroll’s publications as watered-down and overly simplistic. They credit Artscroll with enabling the continued downward spiral of “modern” Orthodoxy and American Jewry more generally through their translations.

The debate over “lernen” with the aid of translation into a non-Jewish vernacular is not new. It’s a debate that has a long history in Judaism, arguably going back to the Mishna’s depiction of the Hebrew Bible’s translation into Greek, known as the Septuagint, as a “tragedy.” And yet translation has gone on in Judaism almost unabated for two millennia. ArtScroll’s translation series is just the latest and by far the most successful contemporary instantiation of this phenomenon. Its ultra-Orthodox critics claim that ArtScroll’s translation project has created a crutch for many who can, and should, be able to engage in talmud torah without it. They also claim it has largely transformed lernen, (traditionally done by breaking one’s teeth on the arcane, oblique, and allusive Hebrew in partnership with another student) into “reading.” There is a debate in the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel as to whether it is even “permissible” to use ArtScroll Schottenstein Talmud!

Progressives claim that Artscroll infuses its translations and commentaries with a one-sided view of tradition. Meanwhile, progressives paid ArtScroll its greatest compliment by copying its format, particularly but not exclusively its siddur and the Stone Chumash, and marketing techniques without matching its success.

In-between these constituencies lies the remainder of American Jewry, many of whom have ArtScroll books lining their shelves or at least the shelves in the synagogues where they pray and study. Many use the translations and perhaps just as many read the self-help books, the best-selling Kosher by Design cookbook, and many other manuals for rituals and festivals.

What Orthodox by Design is, and isn’t, About

As soon as Stolow’s book appeared, chatter in Orthodox circles leveled critical and even cynical assessments of Stolow’s project. Critical commentators mentioned errors about the details of Orthodox custom, claims that the author does not know Hebrew (whether this is true or not I do not know), and arguments that the book is hopelessly flawed because the author is not an “insider.” Stolow, however, is an anthropologist. He does not want to write as an insider, but as a “participant observer.” Moreover, his field-work is not with the Orthodox community that produces or consumes ArtScroll, but the production and dissemination of the texts themselves. Stolow is writing a book about “ArtScroll as an assembly of material artifacts; more specifically, of industrial print commodities.” (146). For Stolow, the ArtScroll phenomenon says something about how American Jews produce and consume their religion and about the ways its readership are affected by its representation of Judaism.

Orthodox by Design is not about the accuracy of Artscroll’s translations or even about its ideological program. It is not even about “Artscroll Orthodoxy” per se. Jeremy Stolow is a scholar of media studies. He is not a scholar of Judaica, neither its textual tradition nor its social milieu. For Stolow, ArtScroll is a case-study for an examination of media and marketing in the “late capitalism” that marks America’s cultural productivity in the past thirty years. This media studies scholar sees ArtScroll as an instance of what Pierre Bourdieu termed “cultural production”; his interest is to “trace how [religious authority] is exercised and how it is transformed through the multilayered tissues of affect, technology, and institutionally coordinated actions that are redefining the place of media in the world today. “(29). What ArtScroll is doing, according to Stolow, is marketing a particular kind of “Judaism.” And Judaism, in Stolow’s book, is neither a religion, a body of texts, nor a lifestyle. It is a commodity.

One of the key questions Stolow asks is why consumers of Jewish religion “switch” to ArtScroll (particularly the siddur or the Chumash) from other religious publishers (75-80). In many cases, consumers’ choices have little to do with ArtScroll’s ideology or even translation (many translations are available and the uninformed consumer cares little about the translation quibbles that bother progressive scholars or traditional adepts). Many mention its reader-friendly format (especially the siddur), its aesthetic look, its authentic feel, its warm presentation, its easy-to-understand prose.

In addition, much of ArtScroll’s success has to do with the globalization of the English language and the proliferation of highly-educated but Jewishly illiterate Jews both in America and world-wide (94). That is, ArtScroll didn’t create its audience; it responded to an existing cultural phenomenon in a language (English) that has replaced Yiddish as the Ashkenazi Jewish vernacular. By translating classical Jewish literature into English for the purposes of popular consumption and not scholarly accuracy, ArtScroll has made English a new Jewish vernacular for a large swath of American Jews. More precisely, it has finalized the process of the vernaculariztion of English for a more traditional audience. Perhaps this is the first time a foreign language has become a Jewish vernacular since Greek served that purpose in late antiquity. We should recall that Philo Judeaus of Alexandria, the great Jewish exegete in the first century BCE did not know much Hebrew and the biblical citations in his work were all from the Greek translation. As important, ArtScroll has enabled Jews without the requisite skills to enter under the umbrella of authenticity (real or imagined) without abandoning their affluent lifestyle or becoming fluent in Jewish languages.

ArtScroll has achieved this impact not only by translating religious texts, but by its anthology of sources that bring the texts to life. This is why ArtScroll’s Stone Chumash is more popular than the New JPS TANAKH or even Aryeh Kaplan’s Living Torah. Indeed, the new Conservative Etz Hayyim is arguably a response to the Stone Chumash the way the Beach Boys “Pet Sounds”(1966) was a response to the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” (1965). The reasons for the Stone Chumah’s success are not the accuracy of its translation or its haredi ideology, but its format (including its aesthetics, size, shape, and faux leather cover [167-170]), its presentation, and a combination of its accessibility and authoritative voice. It has the feel of a sefer and the look of an authentic Judaica artifact, just the right combination for ArtScroll’s newly-bourgeois Orthodox Jewish constituency living in multicultural America. It is accessible and it looks good on the shelf.

That sense of authority was essential to ArtScroll’s success. ArtScroll did not only fill a lack in American Jewish culture, an absence of language and knowledge. ArtScroll, Stolow argues, also provided a need. Following the line Haym Solovetichik took in his two seminal essays on the rise of text culture as a substitute for oral authority, Stolow views ArtScroll as taking full advantage of that cultural shift (57-59). Riding the wave of “scripturalism” as authority and the rising affluence of traditional American Judaism, ArtScroll answered both needs: an authoritative text for the uninitiated and an authentic-looking artifact for the living room. Stolow argues that ArtScroll created an intermediary between the consumer of Jewish religion and the rabbinic authority that had previously held sway. Authority is now mediated by the “book”–in the case of ArtScroll, the pleasing “bourgeois book”–that enables those outside the authority structure of contemporary haredism to gaze in the window of Torah-true Judaism without having to change their lifestyle to do so.

What Exactly is the Revolution?

There is an irony here. ArtScroll is a response phenomenon, inspired by an emerging haredi American Judaism that has decided to take on the print markets of non-Orthodox, modern Orthodox, and “Jewish Studies” Judaism. Their expressed goal is to counter the assimilatory (read: heretical) presentation of Judaism with an “authentic” message which really amounts to a Judaism founded on a combination of the Eastern European Mussar tradition of Rabbi Nosson Zvi Finkel of Slobodka and the Lithuanian Yeshiva world that coalesced around Rabbi Aaron Kotler of the Lakewood Yeshiva. Yet, Stolow suggests that ArtScroll’s war against assimilationist Judaism in fact produces an accomodationalist Judaism that has absorbed far more of American culture than it admits.

Nowhere is accomodationalism more evident than in ArtScroll’s self-help series (with over 300 titles in print!), their biography series, and their cookbook Kosher by Design. Regarding the self-help series Stolow remarks, “Over the course of the past century, religious authorities have found themselves increasingly obliged to accept (if not explicitly reproduce) the more technically precise analytical vocabulary of professional psychology, and especially the latter’s accounts of the dynamics of repression and denial, of unconscious motivation, and of the maintenance of psychological equilibrium.” (137). While the notion of psychological self-development goes back to the Mussar tradition that serves as ArtScroll’s spiritual foundation, their books about the cultivation of the self sometimes appear closer to certain New Age self-help publications than those of Rabbis Yisrael Salanter or Nosson Zvi Finkel. To cite one example, the language of “recovery” as a form of teshuva in one such book is more than mere rhetorical flourish–it points instead to a kind of accommodation that has its own assimilatory valence (143). Writing for an acculturated society “the more it wishes to uphold tradition, the more intensely it must engage with bodies of knowledge, forms of political power, lifestyles, and cultural products that lie beyond the designated boundaries of authentic Jewish society, in the dense interactions and circulations that constitute global modernity.” (103).

The biography series is another illustration of this phenomenon, albeit one Stolow chooses not to examine perhaps because he feels this lies beyond his area of expertise. The biography series is a good example of ArtScroll’s accomadationalist Judaism. In this series, Jewish “saints” are transformed into American heroes, closer to Abraham Lincoln than depictions of the Baal Shem Tov. Miracles, so important to Torah-true haredi Judaism in Israel, are almost absent in these books. What replaces them are stories of heroic efforts to save Judaism and exemplary behavior that can be emulated by the interested reader.

Here is one example about the Stiepler Rov, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (d. 1985), a man renowned in Israel as a saint and worker of miracles. In the ArtScroll series, however, readers are actually dissuaded from learning about the Stiepler’s miracles. Instead, this Rov is praised as a hero known for his courage, tenacity and piety:

The modern ear is jarred by the term ‘miracle worker.,’ and the rational mind keeps distance from mofsim (miracles)…For although we revere and marvel at miracle workers and possessors of ruach ha-kodesh (divine inspiration) there is little we can learn from them. If we read the Steipler’s life as page after page of miracles, blessings, insights for beyond our ability to comprehend, much less emulate, then we deprive ourselves of the lessons of his life…To speak of the Steipler primarily in those terms is to miss the point, for his life has much to teach us, every one of us, in most practical terms. Instead of looking for miracles, we should look for the Jew behind the miracle, and the values that made him what he was… (The Torah Profile: A Treasury of Biographical Sketches* pp. 70, 71).

This hardly coheres with depictions of saintly figures in traditional literature or depictions of the Steipler in contemporary Israel.

Accommodationism and the appropriation of “outside” values and practices in ArtScroll comes across strongly in Stolow’s examination of Kosher by Design, a Martha Stewartesque kosher cookbook written by Susie Fishbein. The photos, recipes, décor, and table aesthetics of the cookbook are based on the most fashionable cookbooks on the market. The design suggests that you can be kosher and serve a meal as decorous and as delicious as the most affluent WASP’s on Park Avenue. Where do we draw the line between accommodation and acculturation? Stolow’s subtitle in one section “Hiddur Mitzvah and Designer Living” (120) illustrates the tension between these two value-laden terms. He writes, “However, once religious obligations are recast as opportunities for aesthetic expression, the term of legitimate conduct and ritual observance risk undergoing significant change. Homemakers must now negotiate between competing sources of authority – the guardians of religious customs and law and the experts on refined dining, interior decorating, and party planning – and learn how to accommodate their respective expectations.” (130, 131). Kosher by Design serves as a much needed companion to the gourmet kosher market in America, yet another example of the bourgeois revolution of Orthodoxy. While it is true that there is nothing inherently wrong with a traditional “Designer Judaism,” Stolow shows the way ArtScroll capitalizes on this American phenomenon by entering into the designer market, not only bringing tradition to the home (124) but also bringing the affluent (Jewish) home to tradition.

As I read him, Stolow is “queering” the term “revolution” in the so-called “ArtScroll Revolution.” It is not only that ArtScroll is transforming American Judaism via its haredi ideology of authenticity to counter American Judaism’s assimilatory project. That is standard fare. ArtScroll is also transforming American haredism by accommodating to the upwardly mobile nature of its constituency and, in doing so, promoting (perhaps unwittingly) a project of acculturation all its own. Whether ArtScroll is succeeding more at promoting its bourgeois haredism or whether American consumerism and late capitalism is succeeding more in bringing haredism closer to its materialist and capitalist embrace is anyone’s guess and, in part, depends on whether one is “inside” or “outside” the community in question.

There may be other books to be written about ArtScroll that address it from an “insiders” perspective or from the perspective of the Jewish textual tradition. Stolow’s book is of another sort. It is a book about the use of media, technology, and its production of cultural capital as a way to understand the fluidity of authority in a postmodern world without any discernable hegemony, where communication has become unmoored from any authoritative anchor, and where its constituency is largely middle and upper middle class citizens of a free society who have money to spend and expect their “Judaism” to be as aesthetically pleasing and equitable as their designer furniture and world-class wine. While situating itself as a critique of modern and post-modern culture ArtScroll may in fact be contributing to the formation of an accomadationalist Judaism all its own.

When I was in the throes of dissertation-anxiety in the early 1990’s Professor Isadore Twersky once said to me, “Any work of scholarship that resolves all the questions of its topic only shows that the topic was not worth scholarly inquiry in the first place.” Rather, good scholarship should raise as many, or more, questions than it resolves. According to Twersky’s criteria, Orthodox by Design surely meets the standard of good scholarship. Vive la revolution!

ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by