Focus on Issues Artscroll Series Scrutinized

B. Barry Levy, professor of Jewish studies at McGill University in Montreal, has published a devastating critique of the bestselling popular Artscroll series of commentaries on various Biblical, Talmudic and liturgic texts.

Levy’s essay, “Our Torah, Your Torah, and Their Torah: An Evaluation of the Artscroll Phenomenon,” appears in a new book called “Truth and Compassion: Essays in Memory of Rabbi Dr. Solomon Frank” published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press in Ontario.

In his survey of the widely circulated Artscroll books, published by the Mesorah Press in Brooklyn N.Y. which are offered to the English reader as the first such volumes containing authentic Torah true interpretations, Levy acknowledges that there are many positive dimensions in the series.

He suggests that the inclusion of long-ignored rabbinic commentaries as well as various homiletical and other texts from the post-Biblical literature enhances the whole field of Jewish learning and introduces a new dynamic.

These positive elements, however, are outweighed by the negative factors which Levy identifies in his 52-page essay. The professor makes it clear in his analysis that his critique of the Artscroll series should be seen within the Orthodox tradition and not as the views of someone coming from the “outside.”

CITES SOME SERIOUS FAULTS

In his study, Levy faults the editors of the Artscroll series for impermissible stylistic errors, including the borrowing of quotations from the Encyclopedia Judaica without identifying the sources. Levy indicates that there are also serious errors in the texts concerning the authorship of Targumim (Arabic translations or paraphrases of portions of the Hebrew Bible) in his discussion of the commentary on the Book of Esther.

The McGill professor also cites numerous bibliographical omissions and errors with regard to the identification of medieval Jewish commentators.

“Though born in 1489, Joseph Caro, author of the ‘Shulchan Aruch’, should be seen as a sixteenth century figure, not fifteenth as stated in ‘Eichah’, p.50″ Levy says that there is also confusion in references to English or Hebrew editions of Nachmanides’s commentary on the Torah.

Levy’s critique, which is incredibly detailed, focuses extensively on the Artscroll series’s practice of ignoring one special school of Orthodox Bible commentators, the Italian branch. Neither Luzzatto of Padua or Cassuto, the scion of an illustrious rabbinical family, are mentioned in the series.

Says Levy: “Although they succeeded in resolving the conflict between religion and science of their day, the fact that they were not a part of the yeshiva world has rendered them unfit to serve as contributors to the Orthodox anthologies of the twentieth century,”

Despite the stated aims of the Artscroll editorial board to cite only authorities acceptable to a narrow definition of doctrinal solidity, the series inexplicably refers to the opinions of Josephus in the commentary on Genesis. For Levy, the inclusion of Josephus as a bona fide source for endorsing rabbinic views raises serious questions of consistency within the series’s methodology.

INCONSISTENCY IN HEBREW KNOWLEDGE

Levy also finds much inconsistency in the level of Hebrew knowledge displayed by the translators and editors of the Artscroll books. He accuses the latter of grammatical lapses involving verb tenses, prepositions, idioms and vocalization patterns.

Levy faults the editors with completely ignoring the various Hebrew cognate languages –Phoenician, Akkadian, Ugaritic — thereby losing out on many elucidations which knowledge of these ancient languages can bring to the Biblical text. In his remarks on the Song of Songs edition, Levy is especially critical of the prudish translation of overtly erotic materials.

After approximately 25 pages of detailed criticism of the linguistic and rabbinic scholarship found in the Artscroll series, Levy asks rhetorically how learned rabbis such as David Feinstein and Mordecai Gifter lent their prestigious names to the various “approbations” in English and Hebrew which adom the introductory pages of the Artscroll volumes.

The professor answers his own question by carefully comparing the Hebrew and English texts and showing that “there is much less haskamah (agreement) than meets the eye.” The suggestion that such great rabbis have actually endorsed the Artscroll series “should not be taken too seriously,” he adds.

In his assessment of the Artscroll enterprise, Levy suggests that what is at stake in the publication of so many English translations and commentaries is nothing less than the replacement of the Hertz Humash, the popular one-volume edition of the Pentateuch which Soncino in London has so successfully marketed since the 1930′s.

ESCHEWS CONFRONTATION WITH MODERNITY

Unlike the approach of the late Dr. Joseph Hertz, who was Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, the Artscroll series eschews any confrontation with modern Bible criticism, or for that matter with modernity. Levy points out that one can read the Artscroll commentaries without realizing that Eretz Israel is now under Jewish control or that the Holocaust ever took place.

“This, of course, frees one of all serious confrontations with the problems that the Holocaust poses for modern religious thought,” Levy writes. “The question of the righteous sufferer, so basic to many analyses of the event, has had no impact at all on the naive selection of midrashic passages that have been presented to explain the suffering and problems of various Biblical characters.”

Levy is especially unhappy with the Artscroll’s canonization of the sources it quotes, refusing to accept other ones. For Levy, this is evidence that the Artscroll “has admitted that it cannot effectively cope with the intellectual challenges or even the factual information being made available to the modern reader.”

The management and staff of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency wishes its readers a year of health, a year of happiness and a year of peace.

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