Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Wisdom of ArtScroll

Some of you may have done a double-take upon reading the title of this post. But this post really is about the wisdom of ArtScroll. And I'm not being sarcastic.

Of course, like many others, I have my criticisms of ArtScroll's revisionism in some places, and I am deeply disappointed at their having omitted Rav Hirsch's critical letters on Aggadata from Shemesh Marpe. But they handle mermaids with great wisdom.

Today, Daf Yomi reaches the topic of "the people of the sea," which I discuss at length in my book Sacred Monsters. In brief: The Gemara provides a perfectly accurate account of dolphins. Rashi, however, for reasons that I discuss in my book, (mis)understood the Gemara to be referring to mermaids. Which, in the view of most (but not all) people, do not exist.

Now, Rav Aharon Feldman, in his much-criticized defense of the ban on my books, claimed that it is only Chazal (the Sages of the Mishnah and Talmud) that have divinely-acquired infallible knowledge about the natural world, and not the Rishonim (the scholars of the medieval period). And Dr. Marc Shapiro recently suggested that "that the opponents of Slifkin do not assume that together with Hazal the greatest rishonim are also infallible on scientific matters."

But it is abundantly clear that for many, many people in the charedi (and even non-charedi) world, it is unthinkable to say that the Rishonim erred in anything. Rishonim k'malachim! I remember only too well how furious many people were at my pointing out that elephants don't jump, contrary to the statement of one of the Tosafists. And when it comes to Rashi, the most beloved of all Rishonim, who is said to have written with ruach hakodesh (however one understands that), people recoil in horror at the notion that he could have been wrong about anything,

But on the other hand, the Gemara is obviously talking about dolphins. It even calls them dolphins.

So let's see how Artscroll handles it in their footnote:
“There are marine animals,” writes Rashi, “half of whose bodies are of human form, and half in the form of a fish. They are called sereine in French.” Rashi clearly refers to mermen (the French sereine derives from Latin siren, meaning mermaid), whose existence was widely accepted in the ancient and medieval world and indeed until recent centuries. (According to Raavad in his commentary to Toras Kohanim 3:7, sirens are mentioned as well in Toras Kohanim ibid.) As understood by Rashi, then, the Baraisa teaches that humans and mermen can interbreed.

Others suggest that the dolphins of the Baraisa are none other than the familiar dolphins of the order Cetaceans. These endothermic (warm-blooded) air-breathing mammals “reproduce as do humans” (following the variant kbnei adam) in that they copulate ventrum to ventrum (the manner ascribed to humans later in the Baraisa), bear live young, suckle their calves, and rear them intensively for six or seven years, to near adulthood. Dolphins were known by very similar names in the milieu of the Baraisa: Latin delphinus, from Greek delphis. Delphis is related to delphys, meaning womb, so that the genitive delphinos probably denoted [a sea creature] possessed of a womb; the very name dolfinin thus suggests that the animals in question “reproduce as do humans.” Rav Yehudah may have called dolphins sons (or people) of the sea because of their affinity for humans (they commonly approach and accompany boats), and because they often evince humanlike intelligence in their behaviors and social interactions.

Brilliant! They manage to make it clear to more enlightened readers that the Gemara is actually referring to dolphins, while not offending traditionalists by explicitly pointing out that Rashi's explanation is not correct.

Now, some people might be asking why I don't manage to emulate ArtScroll and have a more circumspect "tone." The answer is twofold. First of all, they are writing a very brief footnote. I wrote a full-length book on such topics; when discussing something in so much detail, it's impossible to remain ambiguous. Second, we are writing for different audiences. I am writing for enlightened people who want a thorough discussion of a topic in which the author says it straight rather than using weasel words and ambiguity. ArtScroll, on the other hand, is writing for a much broader audience, including many who are much further to the right, and must be more careful.

And so, while it's not the way that I deal with this topic, I congratulate ArtScroll on the way that they handled it. I would be grateful if readers who attend Daf Yomi can tell me what their maggid shiur said about this topic, as well as what he said about egg-laying bats and gestation periods.

40 comments:

  1. You may not realize this, but Artscroll also gave room for people to say that when Rashi said 'mermen' he was merely pointing out the affinity between humans and dolphins.


    Btw, the use of the word 'enlightened' here is very strange. Don't you just mean people who use the rationalist approach, or are you trying to bring back feelings of the Maskilim?

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  2. Is there any chance that those ancients who believed in mermaids could have been referring to Sirenomelia, which is what Shiloh Pepin had? A video of the "Mermaid girl" can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zRqGXa0DuU
    I actually doubt it, but it couldn't hurt to ask.

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  3. See my book Sacred Monsters for a full discussion of this topic, including sirenomelia. If you're interested in reading this blog, then presumably you will also like the book!

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  4. but what led rashi to not go with the more obvious real dolphins?
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  5. My maggid shiur, who is a chareidi avreich full time kollel student, suggested that it is 100% OK to adapt Rav Hirsh's approach. Furthermore, while some might object strenuously to this approach, they would not consider me to be a "kofer". Slifkin was banned only because of his tone.

    He also alluded to some scientific journals from year past that seemed to indicate that mermaids might indeed have existed at some point.

    note - due to respect, I make it a practice to engage these sensitive topics sparingly and not to press for details.

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  6. Yitz,

    Have your chareidi maggid shiur read the bans on zootorah.com. His position is not in accordance with that of the "gedolim" and thus, is at odds with Daas Torah.

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  7. > I am writing for enlightened people

    As opposed to the benighted people who are Artscroll’s audience? :)

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  8. 1. The Schottenstein Edition commentary (English) was not written by Rabbi Art Scroll but by a number of scholars ranging from MO to Chareidi. The quality and depth of scholarship varies from chapter to chapter.

    2. Artscroll Shas was originally made as a response to the Steinsaltz gemara which was banned by the chareidi gedolim. They were walking on a thin ice and had to be extra careful in formulating various opinions. They were almost banned anyway (R' EMM Shachs opinion wasn't very favorable and that was before there was a version in a language he could understand).

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  9. We quoted rav Hirsch for gestation and the bats. As to the dolphins we quoted rashi and then the alternative raised in Artscroll.

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  10. "He also alluded to some scientific journals from year past that seemed to indicate that mermaids might indeed have existed at some point."

    LOL. You were doing great until that.

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  11. it is 100% OK to adapt Rav Hirsh's approach... Slifkin was banned only because of his tone.

    1. He should speak to Rav Wachtfogel or Rav Shapiro, the main forces behind the ban. They disagree.

    2. If the approach is ok, why doesn't he publish a book with all the same content but a different tone? I'll arrange to help him get it published!

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  12. 1. He should speak to Rav Wachtfogel or Rav Shapiro, the main forces behind the ban. They disagree.

    2. If the approach is ok, why doesn't he publish a book with all the same content but a different tone? I'll arrange to help him get it published!


    Points well taken, but I'm not pushing it with him! I don't see anything coming of it other than a strain in our relationship.

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  13. what does Reb Artscroll say in Hebrew?

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  14. for joel Rich:One reason that Rashi might have understood "dolfinin" to mean mermaids is that his text of the gemara was not "c'bnei adam" (like humans) but "mibnei adam" (from humans) that is,they are interfertile with humans which would not be true of dolphins. Tosphot claims a tosefta supports Rashi's text.

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  15. "I am writing for enlightened people"

    Why not phrase it in terms of insularity and assume a complexity to people's mindsets? After all, there are those(eg, Professor Solomon Schimmel) who think the best of the Modern Orthodox intellectual, academic elite are not "enlightened", and there are plenty in the "masses" of the Haredi community targeted by Artscroll who are profoundly intellectually sophisticated in learning Ketzos and Maharal(even if one is of the opinion that they haven't dealt publicly with certain challenges in an open and rational manner).

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  16. "Artscroll Shas was originally made as a response to the Steinsaltz gemara which was banned by the chareidi gedolim. "

    I don't think that's exactly accurate. More likely the Steinsaltz ban was orchestrated to smooth the way for the Artscroll Shas.

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  17. "I don't think that's exactly accurate. More likely the Steinsaltz ban was orchestrated to smooth the way for the Artscroll Shas."

    I dont think that's exactly accurate. Shimon S. is correct. The Steinsaltz ban began in 1988 and the first Steinsaltz Talmud didnt appear until 1990. I doubt Rav Shach, the most prominent Stainsaltz critic, was working to smooth the way for the Steinsaltz Talmud to be published two years later especially given his lukewarm attitude toward the project.

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  18. I find your points valid in general.
    This time I do not understand what you see from artscrol.
    As Amateur said, it doesn't seem from your quote that Artscrol took sides on the issue.
    I am not challenging your view that Rashi may be mistaken. The gemorah is replete with "hava amina" and "ka salka daatach"'s.
    And Artscroll may feel just as you do.They just don't seem to say so

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  19. "More likely the Steinsaltz ban was orchestrated to smooth the way for the Artscroll Shas."

    How so? The ban was primarily against the hebrew Steinsaltz, and Artscroll was originally an english project. R' Elyashiv's haskama suggests that he supports Artscroll only because of the story with Steinsaltz.

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  20. Let's not kid ourselves. The "ban" (to use that term) against the Steinsaltz shas was not because of its content, not b/c of its "tzuaras hadaf", and not to smooth the way for Artscroll. It was banned by the charedi gedoilim b/c it was a large ambitious Torah project that did not emanate from their camp. The charedim believe they have a monopoly on Torah. Therefore, by definition, any Torah project that comes from someone else must ipso facto be treif.

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  21. " and there are plenty in the "masses" of the Haredi community targeted by Artscroll who are profoundly intellectually sophisticated in learning Ketzos and Maharal(even if one is of the opinion that they haven't dealt publicly with certain challenges in an open and rational manner)."

    Enlightenment is an ambiguous word, but it is not at all synonymous with intellectual sophistication.

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  22. I have been learning the Artscroll Yerushalmi and have been frustrated numerous times when the notes refers to machlokesim between rishonim how certain plants grow (whether the roots grow vertically or horizontally for instance) without ever(!) citing what modern-day botanists actually know!

    (This despite the fact that in the intro Artscroll promises to cite material from a few books written by academics on botany in modern-day Israel.)

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  23. "I dont think that's exactly accurate. Shimon S. is correct. The Steinsaltz ban began in 1988 and the first Steinsaltz Talmud didnt appear until 1990. I doubt Rav Shach, the most prominent Stainsaltz critic, was working to smooth the way for the Steinsaltz Talmud to be published two years later especially given his lukewarm attitude toward the project."

    Amazing coincidences. Such hashgacha pratis, really. No doubt Rav Shach initiated the attack on Steinsaltz all by himself. I guess he was browsing in a seforim store and came across it.

    The fact that bans are always orchestrated? Just a side point. That year long gap between the ban and when the first volume of the Schottenstein appeared in print? Why, that's certainly such a long time that it would be utterly absurd to suspect that there was a connection. The fact that Rav Elyashiv appears to specifically be referring to Steinsaltz when he says that the Schottenstein edition is an es la'asos? That R. Aharon Feldman wrote a critical review of the Steinsaltz in Tradition, so as to justify the ban? That the entire yeshiva world in America was denouncing the Steinsaltz? Just coincidences on top of coincidences. And even though it is true that Rav Shach was talking about the Hebrew, the English already existed. In fact, I recall at the time that people were also disapproving of the fact that it was printed by Random House (since they had to look for additional disqualifying features, as the tzuras hadaf thing is obviously weak to anyone who thinks about it for a minute).

    Yes, I am well aware that this sounds like a conspiracy theory. While normally I am not a conspiracy theorist, I feel that since bans do not come out of nowhere, that the entire yeshivishe world came out against Artscroll, and soon after supported or muted any criticism of Artscroll, that the possibility must at least be raised. Therefore I say "more likely the Steinsaltz ban was orchestrated to smooth the way for the Artscroll Shas." Indeed, I think this possibility is more likely than that the Artscroll was made as a response to Steinsaltz being banned. It is hard to believe that the project was initiated after the ban. Indeed, Artscroll claims that R. Yaakov Kamenetzky urged the translation, which shows that it goes back at least as far as when he was alive. Maybe both of us are wrong and there is no connection with Steinsaltz whatsoever. But of the two possibilities, I think mine is more likely.

    To change topics a bit, I will say, however, that the use of the word "enlightened" is not a very wise decision.

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  24. Let's not kid ourselves. The ban on Steinzaltz was exclusively because of its content--i.e. an academic approach to the Talmud's realia, its cavalier attitude to its personalities, and a critical misunderstanding of the nature of the transmission of the Oral Law.

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  25. Joel Rich: "but what led rashi to not go with the more obvious real dolphins?"

    I don't suppose there were many dolphins in Worms.

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  26. In our daf yomi shiur, we laughed at mermaids, but Rabbi Linzer was careful to point out that (1) Rashi had a different girsa, and (2) the actual text of the gemara that we have gets it right.

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  27. R. Slifkin,

    Have you noticed that much of the Chardal world is pretty much in line with the Hareidi world despite R. Kook's explicit positions?

    Here's a gem from R. Aviner's Shu"t SMS:

    Ha-Rav answers hundreds of text message questions a day! Here's a sample:

    King Shlomo
    Q: Did King Shlomo really understand what the animals were saying?
    A: Yes.

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  28. "and soon after supported or muted any criticism of Artscroll, "

    I can't speak for the New York Jews, but where I lived, no rabbi would allow his students to use the Artscroll Gemorah. It was reserved for people like our parents who didn't get a yeshiva education. And even in our shul, if you used the artscroll during a shiur the Rabbi would say, "artscroll isn't an acceptable source, let's look at this inside". Even if the rabbi would say the same thing that artscroll said.

    About 5 years after that, it was more widely accepted, but I remember that's how it was for a while.

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  29. "Have you noticed that much of the Chardal world is pretty much in line with the Hareidi world despite R. Kook's explicit positions? "

    why do you write this as if it's a shock or surprise... Chardal means Charedi Dati Leumi.

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  30. I don't understand how people can think that the Rishonim are infallible if they argue with each other. If Rishon X says Rishon Y is wrong and vice-versa (which happens all the time), then surely at least one of them is wrong.
    I imagine these people would reply with a statement like "eilu v'eilu" without explaining properly how it works. But the truth is they probably believe the Rishonim are infallible and that they can argue with one another without ever thoroughly considering the contradiction between these two beliefs.

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  31. "elie said...

    I don't understand how people can think that the Rishonim are infallible if they argue with each other. If Rishon X says Rishon Y is wrong and vice-versa (which happens all the time), then surely at least one of them is wrong.
    I imagine these people would reply with a statement like "eilu v'eilu" without explaining properly how it works. But the truth is they probably believe the Rishonim are infallible and that they can argue with one another without ever thoroughly considering the contradiction between these two beliefs."

    They consider the contradictions between them but they don't choose opinions between them. The result is a belief that while it was ok for them to argue it is not ok for us to argue with them.

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  32. "The ban on Steinzaltz was exclusively because of its content--i.e. an academic approach to the Talmud's realia, its cavalier attitude to its personalities, and a critical misunderstanding of the nature of the transmission of the Oral Law."

    That is sheer fantasy. And since you label yourself "rav Shach fan", you're better off not attributing these made-up motives to your idol.Only a totally unlearned amharaetz would offer these as grounds to ban the Steinsaltz. There's not a single approach of his that hasnt been used by rishonim and achronim for centuries.

    To S. - I'm not sure I agree with your theory, and think, as I wrote, that the ban was simply b/c of the charedi mindset that Torah can only come from them. Still, in support of your thoughts, it is interesting that all of the antagonism we heard as kids towards the "crutch" of using the English Soncino, mysteriously disappeared when the Artscroll came out. Not only did it disappear, but Arstscroll - under the "guidance of GEDOILIM" - even came out with chinuch translated gemaras on certain chapters of Gemara.Veeery intressante.

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  33. Will just add also, re Soncino - not long ago a rabbi told me that he has a "kaballah" [his word] that Soncino should not be used because it was written by Catholic priests and meshumadim. Verily, I do think that kind of stupidity is beleived by many of the yeshivah world. And if I had a dime for every time I've heard that the English of Soncino is too hard to read, I would have at least $2.80

    (Though I will concede there is at least one writer, who contributed two masechtas, for whom English was not a first language. His particular contributions are quite awful.)

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  34. Rashi was probably not wrong about this gemara. The amoraim in many places did not understand the Greek words in beraitot. B'nei Yamma sounds more like Rashi's understanding than what the beraita really meant, not to mention the girsa 'mibnei adam' that might have been the gemara's girsa.

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  35. Ameteur

    "I can't speak for the New York Jews, but where I lived, no rabbi would allow his students to use the Artscroll Gemorah. "

    Same here, but so what? There was no ban on Artscroll. For goodness sakes, they even suceeded in getting Rav Shach to agree to shev ve'al ta'aseh! It was a practical matter, that bochurim need to learn how to learn, and do it with amelus.

    I am not disputing that Artscroll is looked upon with utter disdain by the yeshivishe velt.

    DF, I am not even sure what my theory is myself. For example, my theory isn't that Scherman secretly orchestrated it. But I just can't see the two as purely coincidental. As I said, bans are orchestrated. We know that now. The question is who did it and why.

    Your point about who may and may not establish a valuable Torah project isn't in opposition to my conspiracy theory. It in fact dovetails nicely with it.

    As for the "Kabbalah," sounds a lot like, well, Kabbalah. Seriously, Guillaume Postel was instrumental in the first printing of the Zohar. He believed that he and a special virgin he knew were going to bring God's kingdom.

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  36. "It was banned by the charedi gedoilim b/c it was a large ambitious Torah project that did not emanate from their camp."

    That is actually meduyak in the excerpted approbation from R' Elyashiv at the front of each Artscroll volume (ayen sham). Also, some 20 years ago when the ban on R' Steinsaltz first broke, I asked R' Berel Wein to explain to me what was wrong with the Steinsaltz Gemora. He responded that nothing was wrong with it, and gave an explanation virtually identical to DF's above.

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  37. Speaking of the issue of realia and so forth, the Steinsaltz does nothing, literally nothing, that you would not find in the mechkarim of the Seridei Eish. Show me who would dare to ban, or even criticize, the Shu"t Seridei Eish? So it can't be the realia, and it can't be the academic approach, unless not being yeshivish is itself a bannable offense.

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  38. I have to say that as is often the case at this site, the post and the comments section are really fascinating. I especially appreciate the personal testimonies! (For example when someone asked Rabbi Wein's opinion and told us what he said back then). For someone like me this is a historical treasure, should be preserved in a museum (or a compendium of greatest hits at this site), because without a lot of these comments I would only be exposed to present day propaganda that is rampant in frum society. Here we can get the emes.

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  39. Student V, I doubt that Rabbi Wein would answer any differently today.

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  40. MJ:

    I take it your not too fond of R' Aviner's response that you qouted.

    So aside from the medieval ages, the Chid"a in Shem Hagedolim (gedolim, aleph os 74) says he heard that the Rav in question understood the Language of Birds. Don't take it out on R' Aviner.

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