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  • Dov Greenwood

“We Are Right”: The ArtScroll Humash and Its Significance

Excerpted from “The Legacy of The Hertz: The Synagogue Humash and Modern Orthodox Judaism in the Twentieth Century and the Present Day”


Preface

The Torah has always been and still is the central text of Judaism. Most Jews access it in the form of a liturgical and study Bible, or Humash. Humashim (plural) are printed in many different forms; some contain a translation of the Torah into the vernacular, and most contain commentaries of some sort. Until recently, Rabbi Joseph Hertz’s The Pentateuch and Haftorahs (1928), affectionately known as the “Hertz Humash,” reigned supreme in the world of English-speaking Jewry. The Hertz was a landmark achievement in Jewish history, akin to Mendelssohn’s Sefer Netivot Hashalom in Germany 160 years earlier: it was the first English-Hebrew Pentateuch to contain a Jewish commentary in English, which blended traditional ethics and interpretation with contemporaneous secular scholarship, along with (in its later editions) the acclaimed English translation of the Bible published by the Jewish Publication Society (1917).


Hertz’s The Pentateuch and Haftorahs represented a delicate and masterful balance between Jewish tradition and secular modernity, produced by an esteemed spiritual leader, who had received his rabbinical ordination in the United States. It found a home in synagogues across the US, specifically those of the budding Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements, whose foundations lay in grappling with this tension between tradition and modernity.


However, the turn of the century signaled an end to this broad consensus with the publication of ArtScroll’s The Chumash: The Stone Edition (1993) and the Rabbinical Assembly’s Etz Hayim Humash (2001). Now, the Hertz Humash is a rare sight. The “fall” of the Hertz Humash coincided with, reflected, and foreshadowed, the widening divide between these two religious denominations, which had been closely tied for much of the 20th century.


Introduction

Although ArtScroll came into existence in 1976 and met with wide success, it surged in popularity with its liturgical works, beginning with the ArtScroll Siddur in 1984. These books quickly became dominant in Modern Orthodox synagogues, homes, and schools, and had virtually no successful challengers for decades, such that by 1998 the publisher could boast that in “the several years since its publication, the Stone Edition of the Chumash [had] become the standard Chumash of the English-speaking world.” [1] Synagogues that once used the Hertz often relegate it to upper shelves or cellars, where they are hardly used.


Unseating the Hertz Humash was an explicit goal of ArtScroll, with Nosson Scherman stating that the “Hertz was a masterpiece in its time [. . . but now] people are offended by that. Now you have people with a yeshiva education. They want to know what the Chumash means to Jews, what the traditional sources have to say.” [2] This chapter explores how the ArtScroll Humash responds to the Hertz Humash’s legacy—what it keeps, what it attacks, and what it abandons—and how the ideology that it transmits has played a role in shaping the Modern Orthodox community over the past thirty years.


The ArtScroll Humash: An Overview

As the first of its kind, the Hertz Humash established a precedent for what the English synagogue Humash should look like, which influenced the design of its successors. It supplanted the layout of the traditional Rashi-Humash by replacing Onkelos and Rashi with the new English translation and commentary, and the weekly Haftarah was positioned between each Torah portion so it could easily be found during the Sabbath prayer service. This was supplemented by essays and prefaces for each book. During the transition period wherein one generation would move from the Hertz to a different Humash, any change would come as a shock.


The ArtScroll Humash leans into this shock, declaring through its design that it has a greater fidelity to tradition. Whereas Hertz took the elements of the Rashi-Humash and substituted them with his own, the ArtScroll returns these elements. It does so by moving the English text to the left-page and using the extra space on the right-page of the spread to restore the Rashi-Humash layout, with the Targum in a narrow column to the left of the Hebrew text and Rashi’s commentary in a smaller script underneath. This subtle strategy signals to readers that the book they are reading is more in line with the “traditional” interpretation of the text.


That sentiment is compounded by the organization of the book’s sections. The Hertz Humash had placed the Haftarahs between the weekly Torah readings, which emphasized that its main use was for the synagogue. In contrast, the ArtScroll Humash relegates the Haftarahs to the back of the book, which can be confusing for readers in synagogue. [3] However, with the Haftarahs out of the way, the ArtScroll Humash becomes much more effective as a study Bible. Similarly, the breaks between the five books of the Torah are broken up only by a title page; there are no essays or prefaces between them to break up a pure reading of the text.


The difference is immediately apparent even in the parts that parallel the Hertz. Like the Hertz Humash, the ArtScroll has an English commentary running along the bottom of the page that relies on traditional sources. In most cases, ArtScroll follows Hertz’s convention in citing the name of the exegete who gives the opinion, but without any further information. However, in many cases, the ArtScroll Humash provides further detail about where the commentary can be found so that learned readers can study the original sources. Additionally, certain parts of the ArtScroll commentary are interspersed with diagrams or images that flesh out obscure details of ritual laws, Levitical dress, and the Tabernacle’s construction. Supplementing these diagrams, the appendix includes meticulous “charts of the Temple offerings.” These features emphasize the expertise of the editor, who demonstrates knowledge of even the smallest details of the Law.


Two more small but significant aspects of the commentary deserve mention. First, the ArtScroll commentary has a distinct comment at the end of each Torah portion based on the siman, a word created hermeneutically from the number of verses in the portion, which traditionally bears some sort of significance. By utilizing a hermeneutic that the Hertz does not, it signals that it relies on tradition not only for the content but also the method of Torah study. Second, the transliteration of Hebrew words in the commentary strikes an odd but purposeful balance between the ultra-Orthodox writer and his readership. Since 1967, most non-Orthodox American communities have adopted the Israeli pronunciation of Hebrew, and although the Modern Orthodox community continues to use the traditional Ashkenazi pronunciation of consonants, many have adopted Israeli vowel pronunciations. In its commentary, ArtScroll uses


a cross between the Sephardi [Israeli] and Ashkenazi transliterations, using Sephardi vowel [sic] and Ashkenazi pronunciations. Thus: Akeidas Yizchak, rather than Akeidat Izhak or Akeidas Yitzchok. [4]


With this, ArtScroll admits that one of its primary goals is to reach out to Jews beyond the ultra-Orthodox sphere of influence. This compromise also heightens ArtScroll’s claim to authenticity by showing Ashkenazi readers that the publisher of the book has preserved the pronunciation of their ancestors.


The translation uses Anglicized spelling, yet it cements itself as more traditional by other means. The 1917 JPS translation and Hertz’s “alternate translation” comments served to combat Christian translations of scripture. In composing a completely new translation, ArtScroll had a parallel goal: to replace the JPS translation in the Hertz, which was informed by scholarship, with a translation that is informed by tradition and piety. This aspect is already clear from page 11, where the tetragrammaton is translated as “HASHEM,” which simply means “the name,” the title employed by Jews in place of God’s sacred unpronounceable name. Moreover, although the translation is easier to read than the older JPS translation, it displays a stubborn adherence to the syntactical structure of the Hebrew. For example, Genesis 2:3 is notoriously difficult to interpret:


1917 JPS Translation: And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it; because that in it He rested from all His work which God in creating had made.

1967 JPS Translation: And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done.

ArtScroll Translation: God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it because on it He abstained from all His work which God created to make. [5]


ArtScroll’s translation provides a literal rendering of the enigmatic construction at the end of the verse, “which God created to make,” whereas the JPS translations attempt to resolve it.


Additionally, whereas the new JPS translation eliminates an unnecessary pronoun, ArtScroll, like the older JPS translation, keeps it. The greatest way that the ArtScroll translation diverges from any previous ones, though, is in its reliance on Rabbinic sources.


The Ideology of the ArtScroll Humash: Case Studies

Because of ArtScroll’s intense fidelity to syntax, it can be difficult for readers who rely on the English translation to realize that it is often skewed in favor of a non-literal rabbinic interpretation of the text. The ArtScroll Humash translates this way selectively, only when it is required for a theological or Halakhic reason, which is why it is easy to overlook. This is especially the case when a rabbinic expansion of a Biblical commandment relies on a forced reading of the text, or the rabbinic reading directly contradicts the text.


The law of Exodus 23:4 should literally be rendered, “if you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, return you shall return it to him,” doubling the verbal phrase “hashev tashivenu” to emphasize the action. However, ArtScroll renders it as follows:


ArtScroll Translation — If you encounter an ox of your enemy or his donkey wandering, you shall return it to him repeatedly.

Commentary — The Torah requires one to return a lost item “repeatedly,” meaning that even if it is lost time after time, it must still be returned. The finder may not ignore it on the grounds that the owner is apparently careless (see Bava Metzia 30b). [6]


In other places, however, ArtScroll does translate according to the emphatic meaning of the doubling, when it does not defy the rabbinic interpretation. [7]


Even when ArtScroll does not inject the rabbinic interpretation of the verse into the translation itself, it presents the minutia of the rabbinic law in the commentary. This contrasts with the Hertz Humash, which frequently comments on laws by divulging their ethical underpinnings. This can be seen in their different expositions of the laws in the Covenant Code, one of the main law codes in the Torah. The Hertz commentary focuses on exploring the ethical foundations of the laws, providing 18 such comments, while the ArtScroll commentary only provides seven. In contrast, the ArtScroll focuses on explicating the rabbinic interpretations of the laws, providing 29 such comments, while the Hertz only provides eight. [8] This should not be taken to mean that either text fully excludes the other category of comment, as in some cases the opposite is true. However, in such cases, the ArtScroll Humash dives into more detail. Regarding the command to wear a blue thread among the ritual fringes on one’s garment, the comments in the two books seem identical:


Hertz Commentary a thread of blue. To be intertwined with the ‘tassel’ itself. [. . .] The thread had to be dyed with the blood of a mollusc [ . . .] The dye was scarce even in Mishnaic times. Hence the authorities agreed that white wool- threads alone need be inserted. [9]

ArtScroll Commentary — One of the strings is to be dyed turquoise with the blood of an aquatic creature [. . .] The exact identity of the creature that is the source of this blue dye is unknown nowadays, so that techeiles is unavailable currently. [. . .] The white threads and the techeiles shall combine to form a single fringe, for the two elements in combination constitute a single mitzvah [commandment]. If techeiles threads are unavailable, this absence does not prevent the performance of the commandment with all white threads (Rambam, Hil. Tzitzis 1:5). [10]


While the Hertz’s commentary contains more individual laws, it has less detail. Meanwhile, the ArtScroll commentary explains the intricate Halakhic reasoning that justifies the wearing of the white threads without the blue—because the “two elements in combination constitute a single mitzvah”—and cites a precise location where this law can be explored in depth.


Many of the ArtScroll’s non-Halakhic comments connect with one another across a chapter or Torah portion to form a unified ideological “argument.” In this way, the ArtScroll Humash can transmit a worldview without resorting to topical essays, as the Hertz does. To do this, comments are selected from the corpus of tradition that complement each other rather than disagreeing, bringing out an underlying theme of the unit. The ArtScroll commentary understands the rabbinic division of the Torah into weekly portions to reflect distinct spiritual themes in each section, as is apparent in the siman comments, such as the one at the end of the Torah portion containing the Binding of Isaac: “the profound [. . .] faithfulness of Abraham [. . .] is the primary theme of the sidrah [Torah portion].” [11]


The commentary on the story of the Binding of Isaac demonstrates this approach as well as ArtScroll’s promotion of strict Halakhic observance. Beginning with the message, attributed to Rabbi Isaac Abravanel, that this “section epitomizes the Jew’s determination to serve God no matter how difficult the circumstances, [which is] the very reason for Israel’s existence,” many of the following comments explore this theme. [12] The tale’s protagonists exemplify how the pious carry out even the most difficult of commandments: Isaac is persuaded to travel to his death because he was “[persuaded] to do the will of God,” God “[makes] the commandment more precious to Abraham” by phrasing it as he does, and this leads Abraham to go to “slay his son [. . .] with [. . .] alacrity” and “[rejoice] to do God’s will.” [13] Thus, Abraham sets “the standard of behavior for his descendants,” which requires unswerving devotion to even God’s most upsetting commands. Because of this, should his descendants “sin grievously,” they will “fall into the hands of their enemies,” but if they obey the commandments, “no nation can dominate them.” [14]


While one might argue that ArtScroll is merely conveying the plain meaning of the text, its predecessor proves otherwise. Hertz also sees this as a “test to Abraham’s faith,” but does not derive from this the necessity to obey the Law. Neither the commentary nor Hertz’s essay on the Akedah propose this. The commentary elides moralizing entirely, focusing rather on explicating the details of the vague narrative. [15] While the essay spends a few lines on the idea that one demonstrates a love of God through a “willingness to serve Him” with actions, he clarifies the scope of this teaching by writing that such an extreme command was “a test safe only in a Divine hand.” The rest of the essay argues that the command to Abraham was intended to “demonstrate [. . .] that God abhorred” the contemporary practice of human sacrifice, while the primary message is “the ideal of martyrdom [. . . which] represents the highest moral triumph of humanity.” [16]


In addition to promoting the practice of Halakha, the ArtScroll also promotes its study. In certain places, this is expressed directly, such as the consecutive comments on the Shema: a “person demonstrates his devotion [. . .] by [prioritizing] the education of his children”; one comes to love God by “occupying [oneself] with Torah study in every possible situation.” [17] It is emphasized in other passages that are interpreted as commands to teach Torah, such as the instruction to teach one’s child about the Exodus story, which is interpreted to mean that “the child who is unlearned and unsophisticated [. . .] would not have been redeemed [from Egypt] on his own merits, but because he is part of the nation.” [18]


Just as it glorifies Torah study, the Humash glorifies the person who spends his life studying it unceasingly: the gadol, in ultra-Orthodox parlance. Gedolim (plural) are towering figures in the world of ultra-Orthodoxy, who dedicate every hour of their lives to studying and writing about the Torah and Talmud. Sometimes, general comments on Torah study express this admiration, suggesting that those “who seek perfection [. . .] study the Torah unceasingly at all times and in every possible situation.” [19] More often, the commentary re-interprets Biblical heroes as great scholars, following the Midrash. Thus, in the battle with Amalek, the Israelites lose when they are not “diligent in their Torah study,” so they must be led by Joshua, a person who “never left [. . .] the house of [Torah] study.” [20] Similarly, Jacob spends fourteen years of his life studying enough Torah so he can remain spiritually pure in his uncle’s home. [21]


While intense Torah study is promoted, the study of secular subjects is disparaged. The ArtScroll Humash repeatedly asserts the dubiousness of secular knowledge compared to the strength of tradition; even contemplating ideas that contradict the Torah is dangerous. The Torah commands a person to wear ritual fringes on the corner of their garments to remember the commandments and not “follow [one’s] heart” to sin. [22] The commandment according to the ArtScroll is to “not explore after [one’s] heart” (emphasis added), which is interpreted to mean that people “are enjoined to avoid thought that could entice [them] to uproot a fundamental of the Torah,” as “human intelligence is limited and not everyone can ascertain the truth.” [23]


This worldview shines through most clearly in the commentary to Genesis 1. While the Hertz Humash, in its commentary and the related essays, argues that the Creation story does not contradict the scientific account of the origin of life, the ArtScroll Humash ignores the issue. Rather, it asserts that the “work of creation is a deep mystery that can be comprehended only through the tradition transmitted by God,” not by human methods. Scherman explains this in more detail in an essay in another of his books on Genesis:


The most vital element in creation is spirituality. It is obscured by the material, interlaced with evil, disguised by statistics, logic, and data. But it is man's task on earth to cut away the earthly insulation the prevents the rays of spirituality from warming his soul. [24]


Here, secular knowledge—signified by “statistics, logic, and data”— is “evil.” The only way to access the truths of the universe and the Torah is through the Torah itself.


The worldview of the ArtScroll Humash encapsulates the ultra-Orthodox ideology of da’as toyreh, “pure Torah knowledge,” according to which the proper way to study the Torah is for one’s mind to be completely untainted by secular knowledge. The gedolim, who supersede all others in their da’as toyreh, deserve the utmost veneration, while other men should strive to study the Torah as much as possible and avoid possibly heretical ideas. The purpose of this is to align oneself completely with God’s will, down to the seemingly insignificant minutia.


The Significance of the ArtScroll Humash

In the past 30 years, Modern Orthodoxy has shown an overall drift toward the values embodied in ArtScroll publications, such that sociologist Samuel Heilman dubs the form of Judaism embraced by right-wing Modern Orthodox rabbis “the ArtScroll Mesorah Publications version of Judaism.” [25] Just as importantly, the ArtScroll Humash has impacted the intellectual landscape of Modern Orthodoxy by displacing the Hertz, thereby removing its ideas and methodology from contemporary discourse.


The Hertz Humash was revolutionary for its attempt to tackle two of the greatest contemporary assaults on Judaism: Evolutionary theory and Biblical Criticism. In his essay on Evolution, Hertz argued that Evolution could be reconciled with the Biblical account of creation by recognizing that the story is not literal. ArtScroll implicitly undermines the scientific view in its commentary, but does so only by planting doubt, not by presenting an alternative. This discomfort with reading Genesis 1 allegorically is apparent in some of the contemporary approaches to Evolution in Modern Orthodoxy. In the early 1990s, three Modern Orthodox physicists published books that argued that a fundamentalist reading of the Creation story, if read properly, still aligns with modern science. [26] Due to their books’ popularity, they were invited to be scholars-in-residence at synagogues where their ideas circulated and became prevalent. [27]


The fundamentalist-scientific reading of Genesis aligns with the perspective in the Hertz Humash’s commentary, but not with Hertz’s own view of the distinct “dominions” of scientific and spiritual truth that he argues in his essay on Evolution. To Hertz, these were two equally valid alternatives; to these writers, they are not—Hertz’s allegorical reading of Creation was a threat to the truth of the Torah. [28] When the Hertz Humash was displaced by the ArtScroll, his philosophy fell from public consciousness, leaving the fundamentalist reading dominant. This was confirmed in 2006, when Rabbi Natan Slifkin published a book on reconciling the Torah with Evolution that was seen as controversial but original. However, Slifkin’s view merely echoes Hertz’s earlier argument, arguing that the Torah does not “teach science” and similarly drawing on the Jewish rationalist tradition as support. [29]


Likewise, when the ArtScroll Humash overtook the Hertz, it left the next generation of Modern Orthodox Jews bereft of a compelling voice arguing against Biblical Criticism. The ArtScroll Humash chooses to disregard the field, relegating it a heretical belief that should not even be considered. Many Modern Orthodox educators have assumed this posture, assuming that it is better not to mention the topic. However, this has left young adults unprepared for challenges to their faith at secular universities. In 2020, Rabbi Joshua Berman, a Modern Orthodox Bible scholar, published Ani Maamin, a book aiming to confront the issue head on, because many “rabbis and educators would not dare broach this topic for [. . .] their students and congregants.” [30] This issue is rooted in the fall of the Hertz, which educated the previous generation about Biblical scholarship from a traditional standpoint within the walls of the community, but is not available to the current generation.


In sidestepping the most difficult issues confronting a contemporary reader of the Torah, the ArtScroll Humash utilizes a more conservative hermeneutical approach to the text. This approach has gained recognition in Modern Orthodoxy and takes on several forms. Aside from advocating for a fundamentalist reading of the Bible, the ArtScroll Humash also propagates a fundamentalist reading of the Midrash, according to which the tales should be understood as history; this view has become popular in the Modern Orthodox world as well. [31] ArtScroll’s pedagogical approach of granting traditional voices overwhelming authority in Torah discourse is reflected in the Day school classroom, where “students and teacher [think they] cannot understand the true meaning and depth of the Humash unless they immerse themselves in the [...] sanctioned commentaries.” [32] The Modern Orthodox community has been invigorated to study the Torah more regularly and traditionally, at least in part as a result of ArtScroll’s influence. [33] Additionally, the ArtScroll’s selective commentary paves over the differences between its sources, making it appear as though all authorities represented a unified front in defending a clearly defined tradition. [34]


These examples are representative of a hidden revolution in ArtScroll’s exegetical approach: the narrowing of Torah discourse into the realm of da’as toyreh. The ArtScroll Humash vociferously deviates from the approach of the Hertz Humash in its choice of sources. The appendix to the Hertz Humash listed 48 modern Jewish commentators, 26 medieval or ancient sources, and 26 non-Jewish authorities. The ArtScroll also lists its sources in the back of the Humash, numbering over 230, none of which are secular. [35] More significantly, it adds a plethora of ultra-Orthodox, Yeshivish, or Hasidic sources; on the first two pages (of seven) of the bibliography alone, more than 20 such authorities are listed. By overwriting the “valid” sources that can be brought to bear on the Torah, ArtScroll fundamentally changes the nature of Torah discourse for readers. This would have been particularly apparent to the generation that grew up on the Hertz before switching to ArtScroll, who would now have to wrestle sources that they had never considered, until this point, to be authoritative.


Many of the ultra-Orthodox authorities cited from the century are gedolim or Hasidic Rebbes (the Hasidic equivalent), such as Rabbis David Feinstein, Yaakov Kamenetzky, and Gedaliah Schorr. The attractiveness of the gadol ideology and the veneration of ultra-Orthodox gedolim has seeped into Modern Orthodox Judaism. One need only point to the outpouring of grief in Modern Orthodox institutions over the 2022 passing of ultra-Orthodox gadol Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky as a demonstration of this. [36] This has also sparked anxiety within Modern Orthodoxy’s liberal wing to find a Modern Orthodox gadol to clarify the movement’s ideology. [37]


Finally, the accompanying shift toward text-based authority is the most noticeable factor in the swing to the right, especially in the realm of Halakha. Aside from liturgical works, ArtScroll’s best-sellers in the Modern Orthodoxy community are their works of practical Halakha, giving guidance on even the minutiae of religious observance. They became particularly popular because they were written in English, making them the easiest way to find a quick answer to a question; Modern Orthodoxy, meanwhile, had for a long time no distinct works of practical Halakha. [38] Moreover, although ArtScroll has repeatedly stated that its works should not be the final word on any matter, the sheer breadth of its output indicates otherwise. [39] At least some part of the popularity of ArtScroll’s Halakhic works can be attributed to the use of the Humash in synagogues, which itself takes frequent opportunities to outline Halakhic practice.

Conclusion

In an article that went against the prevailing view that Modern Orthodoxy is undergoing a swing to the right, one interviewee noted that rather than moving rightward, YU seems to be pulling the ultra-Orthodox world to the left: “[YU is] making inroads into communities that have been dominated by the right wing [. . .] many more [YU-trained rabbis] are entering the rabbinate.” [40] This does not represent a swing to the left but the opposite; the Modern Orthodox rabbinate has become sufficiently conservative to serve in ultra-Orthodox congregations. The institution that once competed to control Conservative synagogues is now fighting to control ultra-Orthodox ones.


The use of the ArtScroll Humash reflects this change, in the same way that the use of the Hertz Humash once signified the tense unity of “modern” Orthodox Judaism. The rabbis produced by Yeshiva University go on to serve in congregations with similar values— values that Revel and the OU’s founders had seen as damaging to American Judaism. Those values have been codified in the Torah that is read by their congregations.


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