Monday, July 2, 2012

Is Artscroll's Assistance Anti-Semitic?

A frequent visitor to my shul in Allentown was wont to label ArtScroll "Anti-Semitic". His claim was straightforward: Siddurim and Chumashim offering copious instructions, simplified translations and Reader’s Digest commentary result in a dumbing-down of the Jewish community.

His comments remind me of my first experience leading a Rosh HaShanah minyan. I was guest-rabbi for an auxiliary minyan in a flagship Centrist Orthodox synagogue, and I was told that my job included announcing page numbers throughout the long chazarat hashatz (repetition of the amidah).

I asked my rebbe whether announcing pages might constitute an interruption in the davening, and he replied that it probably would constitute such an interruption; he felt that most people don’t really need the page number announcements.

Over the years since, though, I've learned that many people like those at that minyan, even with yeshiva education, really have needed page number announcements for parts of Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, and even for parts of the Shabbos davening.

And so I would myself over the years: Should I force them to figure out the page numbers themselves? Am I contributing to the collective dumbing-down by announcing pages for them?

As on so many issues, I think the answer is both Black and White.

It's Black: Some Jews need the page numbers, and won't follow the davening without them. For many under-educated Jews, the alternative to these boosts is to do nothing at all. If they were unable to follow, they would tune out. To take the “shul as a business” analogy I find useful on occasion: The demand for our product is not so great that we can afford to place hurdles before the consumer.

And it's White: For other Jews, this is a dumbing-down that keeps them from learning for themselves. The result of this calculation is that the least common denominator group gets its accessible davening, but the rest, who don’t really need that assistance, are not challenged to exceed themselves. This is not a good thing.

Still, I would suggest that there are other ways to challenge this group of Jews who do not need page numbers announced, who do not need simple translations, etc:
We can encourage them to work on their chesed and their understanding of כל ישראל ערבין זה בזה (the responsibility we have for each other) by finding ways to help their under-educated neighbors.
We can offer them advanced shiurim, dvar torah sheets, etc.
We can challenge them to set up chavrusas, with whom they will learn more than they could ever learn from a shiur (yes, even one of my vaunted shiurim).

I think the page numbers, translations and abridged commentaries must remain. To borrow from Vayyikra 25:25 - “If your brother should become impoverished and sell his inheritance, then his close relative shall come and redeem his brother’s sale.” Our brethren, by unavoidable circumstance or by sale or by incompetence, have lost their inheritance. It is our responsibility to redeem it and return it to them.


  1. i thought the soncino was excellent. i saw people use it and the Jastrow and were successful learners. this was a great first step for people. i even heard from rabbi zilverman in th old city that in aish hatorah there is some guy who started out just reading the whole shas with the soncino.. even though i don't know the guy, but r zilverman told me he is a great talmid chacham and that is a real compliment coming from r zilverman. (this fellow eventually started a kollel in Huston Texas. what can i say. if rav silverman says he can learn, then he can learn.) all i can say is that i was sad to see the soncino eased out of circulation by some poor substitute that distorts the truth for the sake of political correctness.

  2. To present both sides of an argument is to better understand that there are two sides. No, saying the people who need the Artscroll siddur and chumash are undereducated would be incorrect. The same for the announced page numbers. The better choice would have been, perhaps in some cases, "not yet educated in a particular approach to tefillah."

    While daily minyanim may be composed of only fully adult males(and even that is not always the case), Shabbos minyanim clearly are not. And those males may not all be of adult age. There are 6, 8, 10, 11 etc. year-olds who are at minyan--not yet fully educated.(And while on the subject, male yeshivot do a miserable job of teaching tefillah and of teaching chumash, by comparison to the females yeshivot--a few sketchy years of basic instruction to little boys and then off they go to Gemorah, leaving chumash to a perhaps once a week 'let's just read the parshah' mode of chumash instruction.) There are women at minyan, in all age groups. There are those who do not zip through the davening as if it were an Olympic race and who need to know where the minyan as a whole is up to. There are older people whose reading has slowed down who may need these signposts. (Yes, and some younger folks who cannot daven a mile a second and find themselves behind and needing an update.) There are those with hearing or reading difficulties. There are those who daven one nusach and who find themselves in a shul with a different nusach who may need some guidance. There are those davening for the omed whose davening is mumbled/and or unclear, and some mispalallim need some help in figuring out where they are up to. And yes, there are still many kinds of siddurim out there other than the Artscroll and they are not "organized" in the same fashion, meaning having to scroll around to find where certain items are and losing track of where the minyan as a whole is up to. There are many other examples but these should suffice.

    In short, perhaps the attitude should get toned down, and "l'chav z'chus" we should be thankful that a "clear map" is available so that everyone traveling from point A to point B can get there, even if they need an occasional "go right here, go left there" said aloud.

    1. Sounds like my "undereducated" is your "not yet educated in a particular etc". At least, to me.

      One note - I know many male yeshivot which no longer follow that approach to chumash.

  3. I completely agree with you and with ProfK. I would just add that "Anti-Semitic" is over the top rhetoric, even if it was meant by your visitor as a joke. It's the kind of thing that lets genuine antisemites claim that "Oh, Jews just label anything they don't like as antisemitism."

  4. Our first ArtScroll encounter was in 1976 when my future wife and I were looking for an attractive kesubah form that could be filled out for our upcoming wedding. On the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I bought a nicely illustrated one by ArtScroll.

    Later, our family belonged to Sons of Israel in Allentown when the first complete ArtScroll Siddur came out. I believe the first copy I saw was one Dr. Barre Kaufman, my wife's rheumatologist, had brought to Shul in 1984. Compare to the Shul's Birnbaum siddurim, which had a pretty good translation but minimal instructions and commentary, this looked like just what I needed, so I bought my own. The directions, explanations, laws, etc., were all very helpful. If I don't need some of these in a siddur nowadays, so what? No one forces me to use all the aids to the reader. The same goes for ArtScroll's other output. If the digest of commentaries in the Chumash makes an important point, I often check it out in full in the original commentary.

    1. How did you feel about the deSola Poole's that were available for Shabbos?

    2. The de Sola Pool siddur had a sort of poetic, nonliteral in spots translation, adapted from the same translator's set of Sephardic (Spanish-Portuguese) siddurim and machzorim that I had seen earlier. I thought Birnbaum was more direct. The organization of the services in the Pool siddur was a bit different from the norm but easy to follow.

      Recently, I found Rabbi Sack's translation in the Koren siddurim to be very good, among the best.

    3. I meant Sacks'

    4. Bob-
      Yes, quite non-literal in places. I recall Kel Adon being rather interesting, for example.

      I enjoy the R' Sacks translation, too.

  5. >Over the years since, though, I've learned that many people like those at that minyan, even with yeshiva education, really have needed page number announcements for parts of Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, and even for parts of the Shabbos davening.

    What a beautiful example of just how inept rabbeim or roshei yeshiva often are in evaluating the needs of those outside the yeshivos.

  6. Ignoring the issue of whether ArtScroll dumbs down minhag and whether it is the WalMart of Judasim, I think that shuls should announce pages and other instructions.

    I don't for a moment think the objections are halachic since the halachic objections are not insurmountable were there a rabbinic will. I think shuls are loath to be seen as kiruv shuls and don't want to publicly admit not everyone is a talmid chacham.

    But the reality is many people need and appreciate instruction, whether it is which parshah it is, which mussaf to say on shabbat chol hamoed or to remember to start saying vetein tal umatar. Klapping doesn't do it.

    And especially when an error, and we all make errors or forget, can result in not being yotzei the amidah.

    I bet you if you did a survey about how many people remembered a particular change in davening, a significant percentage would have erred, and had there been a clear reminder that percentage would drop.

    We all need instruction even if machers are going to complain that we aren't a kindergarten. So tailor the amount of instruction to the particular audience. But reminding to recite ya'aleh veyavo, or what page K-ah Kei-li is on before ashrei on a chag seems like such a no brainer. People are constantly flipping to find the page for that, and often don't find it till it's over, even if they realize what the sha"tz is doing.

    One additional comment:
    It drives me nuts when the parshah is announced as "Page 856 in the ArtScroll. 917 in the Soncino". It should be "In the ArtScroll it's on page 856 and in the Soncino it's on page 917".

    1. Melech-
      I must admit being shocked at how little is announced in Toronto's Orthodox shuls - but I don't the reason is that they are "loath to be seen as kiruv shuls." That reason seems just... weird.

      Not that I have a better explanation, other than laziness.

  7. During the Yamim Noraim our shul does announce pages fairly frequently, and in the main shul they have easels with the page numbers for Birnbaum and Artscroll that are flipped as davening progresses by the president and vice-president (guess that comes under "other duties as required").

    We used to have children announcing pages during the Shalosh Regalim at the times when an adult can't speak (eg. page 660 for Shacharit Amida for S"R). Wonder why they stopped that.

  8. I would tend to agree with the last post. It would appear that many Orthodox Toronto shuls are largely composed of individuals for whom reading figuring out the the page numbers constitutes little more than marking and following the table of contents (which is usually ordered in terms of when in the davening the tefillos are said). It all comes down to the fact that people are lazy.

    There is truth to what Melech is saying, but often the siddurim are not necessarily used to the degree that they could. Perhaps if shuls were to institute short lectures as to how to follow the short sentences in the tefillos to their associated halachos in the back, the collective Orthodox shuls could instill a sense of discovery in tefillos, revamping our relationships to them, and instilling a thirst for understanding in the mispalelim.

    1. Do you think halachah is the key to that discovery?
      I remember certain siddurim which offered thought-provoking "readings"; I wonder if such readings associated with particular tefillos might be more effective.
      Of course, publishers wouldn't find this cost-effective.

  9. I absolutely agree that page numbers should be announced in all shuls, and that kehillah members should think of those they are responsible to. But I'm not sure how offering advances shiurim, more chavrusas, etc. would solve issues within the davening itself. If the davening does not seem to be meaningful,how would advanced shiurim help? If you want a meaningful davening for all, take out some of the extra tefillot that have been added over the years and spend more time meditating (or training people to meditate) on the davening - quality over quantity. Perhaps more participation at different points of the davening that are all-too-often mumbled to oneself. But more classes won't solve issues with "dumbing down" the davening (though I don't think announcing page numbers really fits that description).
    Re: the general comment on Artscroll, it's a double-edged sword. If we don't have the basics explained, the undeducated will not have a chance to learn. But we should offer classes for the under-educated that could teach them to read Hebrew independently. This would open up a whole new world to them and would elevate the communal discourse on Torah. And the truth is that throughout Jewish history, there was a division between lay literature (Tzena-Rena-type books) and elite books, so this is nothing new in that sense. But we need the programming in place that would educate everyone not just to know the information but to be able to learn independently.

    1. Joseph-
      Thanks for your comments. Two thoughts:
      1. Classes wouldn't add meaning, just knowledge for the motivated;
      2. But when does the use of Tz'ena uR'ena become an excuse for not providing stronger education?

  10. Thanks for responding. My point was simply that we are not the first ones to deal with this. I agree with point #2, which, to clarify, was my next sentence: "But we need the programming in place that would educate everyone not just to know the information but to be able to learn independently." Today, I think we have more opportunity to educate more people.