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Orthodox by Design, a groundbreaking exploration of religion and media, examines ArtScroll, the world's largest Orthodox Jewish publishing house, purveyor of handsomely designed editions of sacred texts and a major cultural force in contemporary Jewish public life. In the first in-depth study of the ArtScroll revolution, Jeremy Stolow traces the ubiquity of ArtScroll books in local retail markets, synagogues, libraries, and the lives of ordinary users. Synthesizing field research conducted in three local Jewish ...
Orthodox by Design, a groundbreaking exploration of religion and media, examines ArtScroll, the world's largest Orthodox Jewish publishing house, purveyor of handsomely designed editions of sacred texts and a major cultural force in contemporary Jewish public life. In the first in-depth study of the ArtScroll revolution, Jeremy Stolow traces the ubiquity of ArtScroll books in local retail markets, synagogues, libraries, and the lives of ordinary users. Synthesizing field research conducted in three local Jewish scenes where ArtScroll books have had an impact-in Toronto, London, and New York-along with close readings of key ArtScroll texts, promotional materials, and selections from the Jewish blogosphere, he shows how the use of these books reflects a broader cultural shift in the authority and public influence of Orthodox Judaism.
Authoritative and Accessible
THE YEAR 2005 WAS a big one for ArtScroll. It marked the completion of the seventy-third and final volume of their Talmud Bavli: The Schottenstein Edition, a massive work of thirty-five thousand pages, involving over eighty rabbinic scholars for more than fifteen years, at a blistering production rate of one volume every nine weeks. No other publication has more definitively signaled ArtScroll's ascent in the publishing world. Several other ArtScroll books have had a dramatic impact on the English-language Jewish public sphere, such as The Complete ArtScroll Siddur (their basic prayer book) and even their best-selling cookbook, Kosher by Design. But ArtScroll's Talmud is unique in terms of the intellectual, symbolic, and financial resources at stake for a project of this magnitude, as well as its impact on the relationship of the publisher with its patrons, customers, critics, and even competing publishers.
Let us recall here the status of the Babylonian Talmud as arguably the central text of Rabbinic Judaism. It consists of the written record of what is known in Jewish tradition as the Torah she be'al peh (the Oral Law), originally transmitted to Moses on Mt. Sinai alongside the Torah she bi khtav (the Written Torah, i.e., the Hebrew Bible), and systematized by a long tradition of authoritative commentators. More than any other text in the Jewish tradition, it symbolizes the shift in ancient Israelite religion from a temple cult organized around sacrificial practices to the religion of a "people of the book," living in diaspora, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem. Over the ensuing centuries, the Talmud has represented the most important source for adjudication within halakhah (Jewish law), while also providing an unparalleled treasure house of legends and anecdotes, philosophical and moral reflections, and historical and scientific observations that mediate the interpretive possibilities of the Torah itself. Mastery over this famously difficult text, written in leshon hakodesh (the "holy tongue," a mixture of Aramaic and Hebrew), and laid out on the page in a complex pattern of intertexts, has also provided a key source of symbolic and social distinction throughout the long history of diaspora Jewish communities, dividing an elite of male scholars who are able to "talk in Talmud" from the "lesser world" of women and the ignorant.
ArtScroll is not the first publisher to have embarked upon a translation of this central work in the Jewish canon. But theirs is distinguished as the most thorough and elaborate edition of the Talmud ever produced in the English language, and it is already the most successful. This success is evident from the impressive readership the Schottenstein Talmud commands, as mea sured in the brisk sales of individual volumes, and in the development of a market for entire seventy-three-volume sets. The Schottenstein Talmud is also the only English edition to have received the approval of prominent scholars and rabbinic authorities from across the entire Orthodox world, who all praise the ArtScroll text as a remarkable feat of scholarly maturity and exegetical clarity. Its completion thus represents a key moment in the history of this publisher within the larger circulations of knowledge, capital, symbolic power, and religious authority that define the Jewish public sphere.
The completion of the Schottenstein Talmud also provides a useful occasion to take stock of a deeper logic that structures ArtScroll's ongoing effort to present simultaneously "authoritative" and "accessible" Jewish books. As I have already suggested in the Introduction, ArtScroll tells a story of how a specific group of intellectuals and cultural producers, embodied in the institutional form of a publishing house, engages in the business of addressing both insiders and outsiders through the medium of books written in the holy tongue and in the vernacular. This effort involves a complex negotiation between the publisher and its imagined public, defined by competing pressures of autonomy and control, custom and innovation, ignorance and erudition, and sacred duty and economic interest. In turn, the ArtScroll story sheds light on the larger intellectual, cultural, and social situation in which Haredi Judaism finds itself today. Located in a public realm defined by increasing diversification of affiliations, cultural patterns, social locations, competencies, and degrees of commitment and interest, Haredim are called upon (and call upon themselves) to posit, and defend, their claim over Jewish tradition. But their efforts invariably transform that tradition, among other things by redesigning the corpus of Jewish texts that most "authentically" communicates its meaning. The aim of this chapter is to show how this paradoxical logic of authority and accessibility informs ArtScroll's project, locating the publisher within the intellectual, cultural, and economic ties between Haredi society and the media-rich public culture of English-speaking Jewry.
The powerful, competing pressures to be both authoritative and accessible permeate the entire ArtScroll enterprise, shaping the terms on which the publisher defines itself and addresses others. We can even find them at work in seemingly minor terminological decisions, such as ArtScroll's description of its edition as an "elucidation" of the Talmud rather than a translation. On the one hand, this choice of terms is clearly meant to appease an audience of Orthodox scholars in an intellectual climate that has traditionally been characterized by suspicion of, if not outright hostility toward, translation of the Talmud into the vernacular. On the other hand, ArtScroll's "elucidation" is designed to reach a much larger constituency of readers, from the novice to the most advanced student. In a refrain that has become familiar for the publisher in its publication of religious texts, Rabbi Scherman suggests that the Talmud "really has been a closed book to the vast majority of English-speaking Jews. The idea [behind the Schottenstein Talmud] was to create a volume that would elucidate it, make it comprehensible." At the same time, the promise of English to expand the Talmud's readership is also a dangerous index of unauthorized use and intellectual corruption—a concern that further underscores the need for proper training and thorough explanation, not mere translation. As Rabbis Scherman and Zlotowitz elaborate in their preface to Tractate Makkos, the very first Talmud volume they published in 1990,
It is not the purpose of this edition of the Talmud to provide a substitute for the original text or a detour around the classic manner of study. Its purpose is to help the student understand the Gemara [Talmud] itself and improve his ability to learn from the original, preferably under the guidance of a rebbe. The Talmud must be learned and not merely read. As clear as we believe the English elucidation to be, thanks to the dedicated work of an exceptional team of Torah scholars, the reader must contribute to the process by himself to think, analyze, and thus to understand.
This cautious description of ArtScroll's Talmud as a "helper" to, but not a substitute for, "real" study (preferably under the watchful eye of a reputable Haredi authority figure) reveals how delicately the publisher is poised in its efforts to promulgate, and to publicly legitimate, new renditions of the Jewish canon in vernacular form. In a press interview around the time of the launching of the final volume of the Schottenstein Talmud, Rabbi Scherman admonished prospective readers: "Using the Schottenstein Edition isn't easy—you still have to think. Anyone who reads it will see there is room for further inquiry and discussion. If you pick up a popular magazine which gives you a ten-to-twelve page overview of a particular topic, would any serious person go away saying they're an expert because they've read ten pages in Reader's Digest?" One might be tempted to respond to Rabbi Scherman that, just as Reader's Digest is a poor substitute for "real" literature, so too might the Schottenstein elucidation serve little purpose other than to comfort a feeble and lazy readership. But that would ignore the actual work performed by such texts: to both vulgarize and enlighten. So designed, they empower readers to negotiate their own paths through the hierarchy of discursive and linguistic registers that demarcate "high" and "low" literary forms. Much like Reader's Digest, the Schottenstein Talmud is caught up within the twin forces of authorization and popularization that shape all pedagogical literatures. To get a sense of the complexity, the fragility, and also the productive capacities of such work, let us consider four moments that marked the conclusion of ArtScroll's Talmud project and its arrival on the public stage.
FOUR SCENES OF ARRIVAL
At the Library of Congress
The first event occurred on February 9, 2005, when the Mesorah Heritage Foundation (the agency responsible for funding and overseeing the Talmud project) held a special dedication ceremony in the foyer of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Among those in attendance were over twenty se nior American politicians, including Senators Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Joe Lieberman (D-CT), Hilary Clinton (D-NY), and Sam Brownback (R-KS), Congress Representatives Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Shelly Berkley (D-NV), Eric Cantor (R-VA), and Ralph Regula (D-OH), and an array of journalists from prominent publications, such as the New York Times. ArtScroll's ability to muster such an audience says a great deal about the extensive networks of influence that provide the American Orthodox Jewish community with ready access to highly placed cultural, political, and administrative elites. Of equal interest here are the symbolic stakes that ArtScroll has managed to mark in the very act of presenting its Talmud edition to the Library of Congress. In his dedication speech before the assembled lawmakers, library patrons, and distinguished guests, Rabbi Scherman underscored this symbolic victory:
My friends, this is the most historic day in the Library of Congress since the year 1800. Now if you think that's presumptuous of me, let me explain what I mean. The library was founded in the year 1800, and the collection was started with a gift of two thousand books by Thomas Jefferson. One of those books was a Latin translation of Tractate Bava Kama in the Babylonian Talmud. It is still here some place in the caverns of the library, and on page 140, you will find the initials "T.J.": Thomas Jefferson. And now, after more than 200 years, that edition, that Latin edition of the Bava Kama, is being joined by a full edition of the Talmud in our language. And it's an American contribution. And it's no exaggeration to say that [in] 350 years of Jews in America, in this blessed country, there has not yet been a literary, religious, cultural publishing effort of this magnitude. It's an astounding effort. Fifteen years of scores of world-class scholars working literally day and night.... And to night we have the great honor to present the complete Schottenstein Talmud, this elucidation of the Babylonian Talmud, to the Library of Congress. This library is one of the great gifts of the United States of America. Our culture, our knowledge, our aspirations for the future, are all housed in these magnificent buildings. And now, the complete Talmud, the Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud, will take its place with Thomas Jefferson's single Latin volume of Tractate Bava Kama.
The recipient of ArtScroll's gift, Dr. James Hadley Billington, the Librarian of Congress, echoed Rabbi Scherman's characterization of the historical significance of this occasion in his own speech:
As a lover of books, and with my special responsibilities for this collection, I'm especially pleased to ... celebrate the completion of this monumental Schottenstein edition of the Talmud, and its donation to the library.... The Schottenstein Talmud is an example of the deeply sympathetic and intensely creative relationship between America in general and its Jewish community in particular. It is sure to become a classic, and it will join other editions of the Talmud in the library's extraordinary Hebrew book collections. Scholars can now consult all the great editions of the Talmud, from Bomberg's groundbreaking edition produced in Venice in the first quarter of the sixteenth century, to the late nineteenth-century Vilna edition, upon which the Schottenstein edition is based. So, with this new edition, scholars will now have a remarkable tool with which to understand the deeper meaning of the text, and their continuous resonance for all who value the life of spirit, the world of learning, and the extraordinary record of the people of the book. And for the gift of these precious books to our collection, I give you the sincere thanks, not only of the Library of Congress, but of all lovers of books, and lovers of the deep values that underlie our entire civilization.
What is the significance of this dedication ceremony? Through the staging of this event, ArtScroll presents itself as a bridge between the inner world of Jewish scholarship and the outer world of American intellectual and political life. This bridge is paved with ArtScroll's monopolistic claims over the entire history of the Jewish presence in America, cast here as a history of intellectual contributions consummating in the production of the Schottenstein Talmud itself. Rabbi Scherman and Dr. Billington concur in their description of the arrival of ArtScroll's Talmud as the "completion" of a collection first begun by the founding father Thomas Jefferson. In turn, the production, circulation, and preservation of books synecdochally references the collaborative and mutually enriching relationships of Jews and non-Jews, dating back to the foundational moment when Jefferson saw fit to add a Talmud volume to his personal library. In this account, ArtScroll is rhetorically sutured into the fabric of national history and, more precisely, into the history of the American republic's self-appointed mission civilisatrice to gather all the world's knowledge and to make it available in the world's most magnificent library. As the dedication speeches make clear, the Schottenstein Talmud has now been positioned as a decisive contribution to "our culture" and "our knowledge." Its gift to the library cements the "deep values that underlie our entire civilization." At stake in this first scene of the Schottenstein Talmud's arrival, then, is ArtScroll's status as a contributor to the very order of the "civilized world." The narrative of divine election, of the capacity of a specifically Haredi form of Jewish scholarship to serve as a "light onto the nations," is enacted here through the idiom of American nationalism, through the authorizing power of the library's acquisition practices, and through the presentation of English as the gateway to a truly universal readership.
At the Siyum haShas
A second noteworthy event occurred a couple weeks later, on March 1, 2005. In close proximity with the release of the final volume of the Schottenstein Talmud, there was a massive public rally of Orthodox Jews: the Siyum haShas (Talmud completion ceremony) that marked the conclusion of the eleventh cycle of Daf Yomi, a popular movement of both religious professionals and laypersons engaged in regular Talmud study. On the night in question, an estimated 120,000 celebrants attended events held simultaneously at Madison Square Gardens in New York City, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, at the Yad Eliyahu Stadium in Tel Aviv, at the Binyanei ha-Umah Convention Center in Jerusalem, and at the Ricoh Centre in Toronto, as well as gatherings at over seventy other cities around the world, in order to watch simulcast presentations via satellite television feeds. One of the most dramatic public events in the history of Orthodox Jewry, the eleventh Siyum haShas epitomized the growing strength and confidence of the Haredi movement, expressed here in terms of its success in fostering new practices of reading and popular study of canonical Jewish texts. But this particular ceremony was also marked—even if only tangentially—by the presentation of the Schottenstein Talmud as an equally momentous benchmark of the waxing public presence of Haredi Orthodox Judaism.
Excerpted from Orthodox by Design by Jeremy Stolow. Copyright © 2010 Jeremy Stolow. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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List of Figures ix
List of Tables x
1 Authoritative and Accessible 30
2 Artscroll's Public Life 64
3 Prayer Books, Cookbooks, Self-Help Books: Designs for Kosher Living 103
4 Materializing Authenticity 145
5 Gravity and Gravitas: A Concluding Reflection on Print Scripturalism in The Digital Age 176
Select Bibliography 241