Thursday, July 8, 2010

An Anthropologist Does ArtScroll: A Review of Orthodox by Design

I was really looking forward to reading Jeremy Stolow's Orthodox by Design: Judaism, Print Politics, and the ArtScroll Revolution, about the Haredi ArtScroll publishing company and its influence on Judaism today. Unfortunately, the book is hamstrung, by a dreary anthropological style of writing, a failure to fully engage the material and needless padding in the attempt to create a short book out of what should have been a long article.

Stolow's argument is one that should be familiar to readers of this blog; Haredim, like any self-proclaimed conservative group bent on defending tradition, are trapped by the fact that their very attempt to defend tradition constitutes a change in of itself. ArtScroll is a textbook example of this. Its stated goals are twofold; first to present an "authentic" (i.e. Haredi) version of Judaism and, second, to make this Judaism accessible beyond the narrow enclaves of Haredi yeshiva schools. What the editors of Artscroll, Rabbis Nosson Scherman and Meir Zlotowitz, are not willing to face up to is the fact that such goals are mutually contradictory; the very act of attempting to make Judaism accessible to those raised in Western culture fundamentally changes it. Also of interest was Stolow's proposed attempt to look at ArtScroll as a mode of transporting authority from the Haredi leadership to people with only a tenuous connection to that world. (I have written about networks of authority mainly within the context of Sabbatianism.)

The fact that ArtScroll represents something different was something understood, I think, intuitively by all of us growing up in the yeshiva system. "Rabbi ArtScroll" constituted its own form of Judaism with only a formal connection to the Judaism we were studying. Looking at the issue from the perspective of John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge's God is Back the existence of this ArtScroll Judaism is simply the arrival of the American model of religion to Haredi Judaism. ArtScroll offers a surface traditionalism, supporting traditional doctrines and rejecting academic criticism, while at the same time supporting the latest in comfort living and self-help. This goes a long way to explain the existence of Susie Fishbein's Kosher by Design series and Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, about whom Stolow devotes full chapters.

Unfortunately, this is not a line of inquiry that Stolow bothers to follow. Instead, the author allows himself to get caught up in writing a work of anthropology, trying to apply Clifford Geertz's notions of "scripturalism" to Haredi Judaism and ArtScroll, "treating 'the written word' as a strategically decisive source of knowledge and source of religious authority." (Kindle 731) This issue has already been the subject of Dr. Haym Soloveitchik's stunning essay "Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy." We would have been in Stolow's debt if he would have added depth to Dr. Soloveitchik's narrative. Instead, Stolow seeks to take this issue of "scripturalism" and apply it to the physical process of bookmaking and distribution, leading to the dullest parts of the book.

Part of Stolow's problem is that he is not a historian. He lacks the ability to analyze texts and formulate a narrative from that analysis. He could have written a history of ArtScroll, showing how the story of ArtScroll fits into the larger narrative of the rise of Haredi Orthodoxy in the later part of the twentieth century. This would have required an in-depth knowledge of American Jewish history and the ability to confront texts. For example, one could talk about the reinterpretive process undergone by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, with his underlying asceticism, at the hands of Rabbi Twerski in order to fashion a Path of the Just comprehendible to a modern audience. This would require that one confront both Luzzatto's the Path of the Just and Rabbi Twerski as serious intellectual positions.

Stolow's approach seems designed to avoid engaging actual texts; this goes for traditional Jewish texts in Hebrew and Aramaic as well as the popular English texts of ArtScroll, supposedly his field of study. Instead Stolow comes to the field as an anthropologist; he talks to people, from the editors of ArtScroll down to lay users, looks at books as physical objects, outside of their actual content, and attempts to fit his observations within the general context of some theory, without a narrative or a serious intellectual engagement with the object of his inquiry. This serves to create a study with surface intellectual sophistication but which actively avoids any such thing in practice. Instead of writing a book that was readable and advanced the discussion of modern Jewish, Stolow does neither.


Baruch Pelta said...

A comprehensive study of Artscroll's narrative indeed remains major scholarly desideratum. It is not as simple as some would have it -- the company did print, albeit under a different name (Khal), the Soloveitchik Machzorim; some of the History books also have very positive discussions of figures who interacted with modernity (e.g. The World That Was: Ashkenaz on R' Dovid Zvi Hoffman). OTOH, there's Reb Jonathan Rosenblum and R' Shimon Finkelman.

Garnel Ironheart said...

I think one thing that's never been mentioned is how Artscroll created the semi-ball teshuvah.
Consider their Talmud. Think about it: outside of Israel where the Steinsaltz Gemara served a similar purpose (but has been incomplete for 30 years ending this November) there was no really comprehensible English-Hebrew Gemara that gave you a sense of depth with the text. Soncino, after all, was a straight translation with minimal notes. Nothing else existed.
If someone wanted to become frum, ie engage in a lifestyle that involved learning at a high level, he virtually had to abandon his previous life just to acquire the skills he'd need for poring over a gemara in the original.
Nowadays a person can successfully do Daf Yomi without ever reading a single word in the original Hebrew or Aramaic. He can say "The Rashba says..." by recalling a wel-worded footnote. He can, in short, pretend to be learned without actually being so.
And look at their other books. One can casually quote the Maharal or Sfas Emes having never looked at the original once, without ever having set foot in an actual yeshiva. One can even be a Reformative Jew and do so, someting 30 years ago that would not have happened.
Is this a good thing? On one hand, Artscroll has made available to people texts they would otherwise never have had access to. But the quality of the access is another thing. Artscroll has totally changed the learning experience. Did the book address this?

Izgad said...

The book mentions this a little bit, but hardly does the topic justice. Again, what we have is a work of anthropological theory, not a book about Judaism.

Anonymous said...

"Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, with his underlying aestheticism..."


Izgad said...