Artscroll Judge Not a Book by Its Cover

The following is an excerpt from B. Barry Levy’s “Judge Not a Book by its Cover”, Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, Vol. 19(1), Spring 1981, p.89-95

1. Artscroll is not modern. The first volume of the series appeared in 1976, but a recent publication date is no guarantee of being modern. Modern Bible study differs from classical study primarily in its attempts to visualize the characters and messages of Scripture in their ancient contexts rather than in their contemporary ones. It rejects hellenistic descriptions of Moses as a sorcerer, artistic representations of Haman in a three-cornered hat, and rabbinic portrayals of David and others as rabbis, and attempts to correct these misimpressions by reconstructing and correlating the lives of biblical characters and the events of the worlds in which they lived. Modern Bible study takes seriously the roles of critical thinking and scientific discovery, the availability of related, nontraditional materials, and the right of the intelligent, learned reader to make independent judgements about the meanings of biblical passages. With the exception of a systematic attempt to free modern readers from ancient medieval portraits of biblical texts, all of these ideas are well founded values, typical of normative Jewish interpretations of the Bible. Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Nachmanides, Abarbanel, Seforno, Chajes, Hoffman and others all shared these positions, and virtually everyone who wrote on the Bible agreed on the right to make intelligent independent statements.

Artscroll continually presents itself as a “a Chazal’s eye view” of the Bible, and rejects the range of intelligent opinions which are available. It is not the only work to espouse this position, but the idea is far, indeed, from the attitudes of many of the very writers from whose works the Artscroll anthologies have been produced. Artscroll claims that it has not done anything new, but it too has made an independent statement, however one perceives it. Some might call it contemporary, others might prefer reactionary, it surely is not “modern”.
2. Artscroll is not scientific. “Scientific” is a loaded word, but we intend it to include those aspects of human knowledge generally included in the physical sciences and the human sciences. Whether one prefers to approach the creation, the flood or any other biblical event from the perspectives of physics, geology, anthropology, astronomy, comparative religions, or history, we find the Artscroll approach sorely deficient. Not only does it neglect these areas…ir rejects them, and articulates a polemical attitude which demands that religious readers who value these approaches take note. Medieval science, when cited by the earlier authorities may be included. Is it only modern science which is problematic?

The use of manuscripts on the dustjackets points to some value to be derived from the “human sciences” but careful study of the work shows that the manuscripts never made it past the covers. Frequent citations of inaccurate versions of talmudic, targumic and medieval texts make it clear that vulgar texts have been preferred to critical ones. Artscroll has this relied on, popularized and to some extent even sanctified certain errors in its desire to avoid being scientific. Other human science are no better represented. Obviously Artscroll is making the claim that nothing of value for understanding the Bible is to be found outside the sources which it has used.

What were these sources? Much of the anthologized material comes from the Talmud, the midrashim and the best known medieval and modern commentators: Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Ramban, Abarbanel, Malbim, Hirsch,. Additional material is culled from the targumim, the medieval philosophers, the medieval philologists, and more than a few important exegetical works which are relatively unknown and worthy of consideration. A large sampling of mussar and hasidic thought rounds out the selection and has, in many ways, shaped the series.

Conspicuous by their absence are names like J. B. Soloveitchik, A. J. Heschel. M. Buber, N. Leibowitz, U. Cassuto, A. I. Kook, and M. Schneerson. It is clear that no moderns of suspected heterodox tendencies have been cited, but it would have been useful if Artscroll has defined the criteria for exclusion, as other less desirable figures are cited with approval: e.g. Josephus and Yefet ben Ali, the Karaite.

Yefet’s observation on a verse from Jonah was appropriated via Ibn Ezra, but even so, a Karaite is hardly a Torah-source. Josephus, a first century historians, is cited to support the reliability of certain biblical narratives, e.g. pieces of Noah’s ark still exhibited in his day. Josephus’ sources are never discussed by Artscroll but are important, as the comment on the remains of the ark is based on the writings of Nicolas of Damascus and Berosus, a Babylonian priest born around 350 B.C.E., whose historical writings included an adaptation of the Mesopotamian flood legends. Josephus equated the two flood stories. Does Artscroll really mean to suggest that Noah also bore the name Xisouthros? If Berosus’ analysis of the Atra-hasis legend is admissible, why is Cassuto’s work on other Mesopotamian texts ignored?
5. Artscroll is not scholarly. Scholarship is very difficult to define, but proper methods as well as appropriate results must be part of the definition. Artscroll’s editors do not share the assumptions of critical scholars and therefore it may not be fair to evaluate them in contemporary scholarly terms, but given the signals offered by the manuscripts and bibliographies, and various methodological statements by the editors themselves, one might posti Artscroll imitating a scholarly modus operandi.

One of the assumptions of scholarship is that any work must be evaluated in its native historical and intellectual context. Though lip service is rendered to this position, the idea has had no impact on the manner in which any of the primary of secondary texts have been presented. It is difficult to judge how seriously the endorsement of this idea should be taken as representative of Artscroll’s real position. It is clearly a scholarly desideratum which is lacking.

Citation of one’s sources is a scholarly virtue which proudly adapted, and the vast majority of the sources in the commentaries are correctly identified. This procedure should have been followed throughout the books, but when one examines the annotated bibliographies, he is disturbed by the lack of sources for this information. Interestingly, much of this data appears to have been borrowed from the Encyclopaedia Judaica, as a careful comparison of many of the entries will demonstrate. (Artscroll’s use of historical and biographical material from the EJ is not paralleled by a similar use of the encyclopaedia’s many articles on the Bible itself. Inconsistent though it may be, this is understandable, but failure to acknowledge the use of other material is very problematic.)

Many errors exist in this information, though, and we may attribute these to carelessness, to “correcting” of the EJ through the adoption of erroneous interpretations of certain classical statements, and/or to simple ignorance.

6. Artscroll is full of errors.

…what is perhaps most astonishing is the number of plain, old-fashioned mistakes. The translations are frequently accompanied by notes recording the “literal” meanings of words or phrases which have been rendered into idiomatic English. Much of the time these “literal” translations are possible meanings of these words in other contexts or dialects of Hebrew. In their present contexts the literal translations are often misleading, if not totally wrong, and create the impression that the editors would have preferred less accurate translations. Diqduq (grammar) is anathema in many Jewish circles, but the translation and presentation of texts is, to a large extent, a philological activity and must be philologically accurate. Again, the Artscroll effort has not achieved a respectable level. There are dozens of cases where prepositions are misunderstood, where verb tenses are not perceived properly and where grammatical or linguistic terms are used incorrectly. Words are often vocalized incorrectly.

These observations, it should be stressed, are not limited to the Bible text but refer to the talmudic, midrashic, targumic, medieval and modern works as well. Rabbinical passages are torn out of their contexts, presented in fragmentary form to enable distortion of their contents, emended to update their messages even though these new ideas were not expressed in the texts themselves, misvocalized, and mistranslated: i.e. misrepresented.

…How these errors have managed to escape the eyes of the many sages whose approbations adorn the volumes may seem somewhat puzzling, but again, it is the presentation of these letters – the Madison Avenue blitz – which makes these documents what they are . Anyone who reads these “approbations”…will see that the rabbis who wrote the letters did not read the commentaries themselves. These letters are more like personal good wishes, character references and the like than testimonies to the work’s accomplishments.

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