Artscroll is popular, Artscroll is everywhere – but Artscroll is also one of the most controversial line of Jewish books that has come out in the past 30 years.
While they do produce good material, they also have a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) bias. Their editors sift through the vast literature of rabbinic law and midrashim, yet choose only the portion that agrees with their worldview, and relegate the rest to the dustbin of history.
in all of their works, they present midrashic legends as historical fact, and claim that Judaism has always held this to be so. This is a false claim, as the authors of the midrash plainly knew that they were creating textual exegesis, and not writing literal history – many Modern orthodox rabbis themselves state this.
Another problem with Mesorah/Artscroll is their lifting of rabbinical commentary from its context, changing the grammar and meaning slightly, and then making it appear as if their presentation of the subject is the only one possible.
This is not to say that all books by this company are without merit; I own many Artscroll works myself. They are useful, but only if you know their bias is ahead of time. Otherwise a reader ends up with a distorted picture of Judaism.
It may come as a surprise to hear such a criticism; After all, Artscroll presents itself as the authoritative voice of Jewish tradition. Nonetheless, its scholarship creates a misleading – even fantastic – portrait of historic Judaism. This view of Artscroll’s flaws is the consensus of a many rabbis and scholars, including from within the Orthodox community, such Rabbi B. Barry Levy, and Dr. Steven Bayme. For details, please see the following sources:
(1) “Truth and Compassion: Essays on Religion in Judaism” Ed. H. Joseph et al. Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1983; Within is “Our Torah, Your Torah and Their Torah: An Evaluation of the Artscroll phenomenon.” by Rabbi B. Barry Levy.
(2) “Judge Not a Book By Its Cover” B. Barry Levy, “Tradition” Vol. 19(1), Spring 1981, p.89-95
(3) An exchange of letters on this article in the 1982 volume of Tradition, on pages 370-375. Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, Rabbinical Council of America .
(4) An exchange of letters on this subject in the halakhic Judaism forum Mail-Jewish. This exchange deals with the problems of censorship and historical revisionism that can be found in many of Artscroll/Mesorah’s books about the lives of rabbis.
http://www.aishdas.org/avodah/vol03/v03n187.shtml (Historical Revisionism)
http://www.aishdas.org/avodah/vol03/v03n189.shtml#05 (Re: objectivity in history/Artscrollian Translations)
(5) For a non-Orthodox criticism of the Artscroll Siddur, see “The new liturgies” by Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf. “Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought”, Spring 1997 volume 46, n2.
(A) The Artscroll Siddur.
While having many good points, the Artscroll Siddur is marred by the fact that it confuses myth and midrash with historical fact. Perhaps the most infamous such example comes from page 98 of the Artscroll Siddur, in the commentary on the Amidah (Shemoneh Esrah). Expanding on a talmudic comment, the Artscroll siddur presents as historic fact the myth that the three Shemonah Esrah prayers of the day were in fact instituted by the Patriarchs – Abraham, Issac and Jacob.
Another major error is that the Artscroll commentary claims that the exact text of the individual blessings was composed by the men of the Great Assembly at the beginning of the Second Temple period. As is commonly known, this is not possible. At that time, the halakha expressly forbade the writing down of fixed, specific prayers. More to the point, there simply is nothing in Jewish rabbinic writings to suggest that the Great Assembly composed a set, exact text for the prayers of the Amidah. Rather, the Talmud states that the Great Assembly merely mandated that such prayers be said; it is clear that the specific wording and length of each prayer never became standardized until much later. Even well beyond to the middle ages each Jewish community had substantial variations in the length, wording and order of the prayers of the Amidah.
For more information on this topic, see “Kavvana: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer”, HC, Seth Kaddish Pub. by Jason Aronson, 1997.