Who Are We Kidding?

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Among my other subscriptions, I am on the e-mail list of the World Jewish Daily, which collects news from various sources — in format, it’s probably most similar to the Drudge Report. Each day, they e-mail out a feature apparently written in-house; besides news from Israel, there are interesting features like “Science Confirms What Rabbis Understood: Jewish Practice Makes You Happier and More Fulfilled.”

One of the pieces from last week, though, was entitled “Orthodox Jews in America Are Assimilating Too.” I must admit, this was certainly news of which I was unaware. Following the link was even more interesting:

The prevailing wisdom among sociologists is that while most of American Jewry is assimilating, and likely to disappear into the general population in a generation or two, American Orthodox Jews are shifting rightward. But in a recent issue of the Israeli magazine Eretz Acheret, writer Pinchas Landau argues provocatively that, in fact, American Orthodox Jews are not immune to the forces that are sweeping away the rest of American Jewry. Why? Because of Artscroll.

Now, stop laughing. The writer (the Israeli one; I’m not sure what WJD had to make of this) was apparently serious — since I don’t have the magazine, and the synopsis on its website is quite basic, I can only go by what WJD posted. And WJD invited reaction, so I’m happy to provide mine.

This is primarily evidence of two things. First, when one writes for an audience that knows nothing about a subject, one can pass off well-written gibberish as the result of serious research. And second, the secular community in Israel, like liberal Jewry in the Diaspora, is quite anxious to believe that the Orthodox face the same problems now causing the implosion of the Reform and Conservative movements. Without both of these prerequisites, I don’t see how this could ever have been published.

For example: “Walk into any Orthodox synagogue in the United States, writes Landau, even the most black-hat, and the siddurim lining the shelves will for the most part be dual-language ones.” Anyone who has actually walked into a few such synagogues, on the other hand, knows that most shuls with primarily dual-language siddurim are not serving the congregants with the most background. There is neither surprise nor shame in this. The English-Hebrew Artscroll editions have helped countless Jews of limited background to connect to the prayers and the Chumash. They are so well done, in fact, that those with more background envied the modern typeface and layout — and the Hebrew-only editions of the Artscroll Siddur and Chumash are the result.

It is no mystery why the Artscroll Siddur, Chumash and Talmud are universally praised, while Mendelson’s German translation met with condemnation. Mendelson wanted those who respected his scholarship to learn high German and thus become more “enlightened.” The Rabbis at Artscroll have exactly the opposite mission: to help those with limited Hebrew and Aramaic skills to learn Torah — and, along the way, to learn more Hebrew and Aramaic.

Thus Landau is equally off-base when he claims that whereas Jewish learning has traditionally meant “delving into the sources in their original language,” this is no longer true in America. Actually, he has it backwards.

Recently, a student at Ner Yisrael Rabbinical College of Baltimore pointed out to me that whereas no English-speaking yeshiva bochur would want to get caught using the Artscroll Talmud, he saw Israelis in the finest schools using the Hebrew version. And who doesn’t use the Kehati edition of Mishnayos, also written in modern Hebrew?

English language Torah literature is a tremendous blessing, because it helps adults make strides in their understanding that would be incredibly difficult otherwise. At the same time, we should not expect to see Choshen Mishpat in English or the Artscroll Ketzos HaChoshen.

Landau is right that today, most yeshiva students no longer study in the language that “has stood the test of time.” He imagines that because today, American students study in English rather than Modern Hebrew, they won’t all end up studying and mastering the same Aramaic and Rabbinic Hebrew texts.

But the language they used to speak in most yeshivos wasn’t Hebrew; it was Yiddish. Or Ladino. Or any of a dozen other languages… the Rambam, of course, wrote in Arabic. So he couldn’t be more wrong, and should stop wasting ink pretending the American Orthodox world faces an existential threat.

In fact, what was newsworthy about the WJD report was its claim that “the prevailing wisdom” is now that American liberal Jewry only has a generation or two left. I didn’t know that the Federations had admitted that yet, and certainly haven’t seen the funding changes which would reflect a more sound investment strategy in the Jewish future…

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20 Responses

  1. Bucky says:

    Ludicrous argument. I use Artscroll exclusively, as I learn for an hour after work and do not have time to prepare a blatt. Could I open up a page of Gemora and layn it and understand it without Artscroll…no. But that is what I have a Chevrusah for as well. If it was not for Artscroll, I could not learn daily. And what about Daf Yomi… you think these guys are not using Artscroll? Funny, whenever I use the specific commentary of the authors, my Chavrusah always asks, “What does Art say?”

    BTW, I am fluent in Modern Hebrew, and know my dikduk pretty well. The dikduk is what is tremendously useful, the Modern hebrew does not come in handy very much at all.

    Hebrew is Hebrew. Most Hebrew speakers can read a Mishnah and understand the words…but what use are the words if they make no sense or you can’t understand the “sevora.”

    Artscroll is for the “Baalei Battim” like myself. Talmidei chachamim do not use it except as an aid to study. This ridiculous argument would rule out using a “laz” dictionary for Rashi. Are all Talmidei chachamim supposed to learn Old French?

    Dumb argument…the man has no Gemorah kop.

  2. cohen y says:

    Raymond,
    To be precise ,the greatest revolution since Hirsch.

  3. YM says:

    I think it is the fault of Zionism, not art scroll

  4. Esther says:

    Great article, Rabbi Menken, and I enjoyed your comments with a good laugh. Just one point: IMO, a language becomes “Judeo-” if it’s written with Hebrew letters. איי דאונט סי איט העפענינג אין יינגליש.

  5. Yaakov Menken says:

    Of course, if the conversation were about secular education, the same commenters would be discussing how woefully deficient yeshiva students were in that area. And that about says it all. Our students already have schedules that boggle the minds of dedicated academics outside our community. R’ Yehoshua has noted the trade-off — certainly, Zionist parents want their kids to understand Hebrew no less than yeshivishe ones, but Modern Orthodox schools place a greater emphasis upon secular subjects, and there are only so many hours in the day.

    There’s no question that understanding modern Hebrew makes the entry into our texts that much easier. I completed the third semester of Hebrew in college and the grammar was helpful to some extent, but learning is a lifetime project. Where they are at age 18 is remarkable, but where they are by age 25 is as well.

    Living in an English-speaking community doesn’t prevent a person from becoming an outstanding scholar of traditional texts, and certainly doesn’t mean that people will give up the traditional course and just study in English. That was what Mr. Landau was trying to say, and of course he was completely off-base.

  6. Chareidi Leumi says:

    >I’m not talking about Ner Yisroel graduates and the like, I am talking about the vast majority of modern Orthodox yeshiva graduates

    Having had several Beis Yaakov girls and their counterpart boys schools – I have to say that on average, their grasp of Hebrew is not very impressive. They can learn a blatt gemara – but take them out of the narrow texts they are used to and they become pretty illiterate. From kinnot to tanach – they are nowhere near where an educated Jewish 18 year old should be holding.

  7. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    Rabbi Menken, it is true that Pinchan Landau has a myopic view of American Orthodox Jewry, but when you say that the average American yeshiva high school graduate can make a layning on a page of gemara without assistance, just ask the gemara rebbeim here in the “gap year” yeshivas in Israel what the proficiency of entering talmidim is. I’m not talking about Ner Yisroel graduates and the like, I am talking about the vast majority of modern Orthodox yeshiva graduates, who daven in the shuls where they do use bilingual siddurim, although not exclusively. Contrastingly, on your next trip here, meet some Israeli baalei teshuva and ask them what their initial learning curve was like. When a secular Israeli chooses to start learning Torah, he or she takes to it like a duck to water and very quickly is learning gemara and difficult texts in mussar, philosophy, hassidus and kabala. It is true that the usual secular Israeli doesn’t know how to learn gemara, but once they apply themselves to it, they pick it up fast and well. Modern Hebrew is a good platform for beginning to learn gemara.

  8. saulking says:

    We have ASSIMILATED: America is the only country where Jews-religious Jews, are completely integrated within society including higher education, professional & white-collar society, politics, government arena and more. We do not live in ghettoes and are part of the non-jewish society unlike UK, Belguim, Montreal, etc. Do not chap the ‘Artscroll’ connection to this?

    America is the only society where religious Jews speak the language of the land, (ENGLISH or YIGLISH)as well as others, and are open to newspapers, radio, computer, magazines, libraries which perhaps has opened a door which was normally tightly shut.

  9. Chareidi Leumi says:

    >Charedi Leumi must be reminded that the ability to speak Modern Hebrew is not a prerequisite to understanding the Siddur or Navi, much less the Gemara. The average yeshiva high school graduate can “make a layning” on a page of Talmud without assistance.

    I am not as sure as you are of this assertion – at least regarding everything outside of gemara. In my non-scientific and anecdotal experience, the vast majority can not properly translate much of tehillim and the harder parts of the siddur – not to mention the piyutim. Bavli is a special case since it uses a very small vocabulary that is pretty easy to learn and access – even without proper Aramaic grammar. Give the average American some midrash, yerushalmi, or Unkelos and they will be pretty lost. Israelis, on the other hand, even secular ones, can, with much less work than their American counterparts, access these texts – especially the siddur and tanach. Gemara would require some extra training – but speaking as an Israel who started learning Gemara pretty late in life, you can catch up and get the basic skills in 6-9 months. It is hard to deny that proficiency in modern Hebrew is one of the single greatest assets a person can have in their learning.

    >To a secular Israeli it’s a closed book. That’s due to a combination of the written Aramaic with the cryptic, un-punctuated style of the page.

    As I said above, while this is true to an extent. But the secular Israeli is much closer to being able to access this text than their irreligious American counterpart. Although this is not really the topic of the post. I admitted above that gemara is different.

    >Certainly, familiarity with modern Hebrew is helpful to understanding Navi, but the assertion that speaking English at home leaves one unable to read advanced Rabbinic texts is disproven thousands of times a day. And the modern world has a whole collection of risks as Michoel notes, but English isn’t the problem.

    I don’t think that this is true. The broken Hebrew with which the average frum American learns Navi can barely get him to the point of understanding the words, much less to the point of understanding the poetry and composition and rhythm of the Navi’s beautiful use of the Hebrew language. I am sorry, but there is a level at which the American non-Hebrew speaker can simply not appreciate the bible.

    >Finally, it is true that Yiddish is a “hybrid,” but I wonder if Ch”L has stepped foot in an American Yeshiva, if he doesn’t think there’s a Judeo-English. Takah, it’s a shaylah whether he’s holding kup in the gantze inyan!

    Yes, but to me yeshivish is more of a sad joke than a dialect. It contributes nothing to learning and is really just a way for people to feel “heimish.” In any case, there is a reason why, with the exception of judeo-arabic in the middle ages and Aramaic in the era of chazal, the last 800 years of rabbinic scholarship has employed Hebrew. With some popular exceptions, the greats didn’t write commentaries in ladino or Yiddish – they used the only language that is unique to the Jewish people. A language which only truly lives today in EY – and if people want to fool themselves into thinking that they have not lost a ton in this department by choosing to live in chu”l – then in my opinion – they are sorely mistaken.

  10. cvmay says:

    One reason why we keep debating comments on Cross-Currents is because no matter how silly the assertion someone has made, someone is going to come along and say it “has merit.”

    PIRKEI AVOS: Who is a chacham? One who learns from ALL people.
    There is something to discuss, think about and learn from this original article. Amidst the silliness of the article are points of value. The choice can be to totally ignore or take a moment and think about it. Both choices are options.

    Languages of the Jewish people have taken a shift over the last few years in America and in Israel. There are stores, shuls, parks and neighborhoods where Torah frum Jews (in Bklyn, Queens, LA.) speak Arabic, Farsi, Ivrit and Russian. For sure, the Chassidisha enclaves are predominantly Yiddish speaking with a sprinkling of English and Ivrit. A Mama Loshon changes depending on the zipcode and always remains the foremost language of familiarity. Since the Jewish population of Israel is nearing 7 million, outpacing any other country, the future (in one/two generations) MamaLoshon will be Ivrit.

  11. Tal Benschar says:

    “Finally, it is true that Yiddish is a “hybrid,” but I wonder if Ch”L has stepped foot in an American Yeshiva, if he doesn’t think there’s a Judeo-English. Takah, it’s a shaylah whether he’s holding kup in the gantze inyan!”

    I think the correct term is “Yinglish”

    [Yeshivisheh Reid, Yeshivisheh Shprach, Takeh, Eppes, Grada a Gevaldike Zach.Abie Rotenberg, Journeys — YM]

  12. Yaakov Menken says:

    One reason why we keep debating comments on Cross-Currents is because no matter how silly the assertion someone has made, someone is going to come along and say it “has merit.” Is there any merit whatsoever in the claim that thanks to the Artscroll Talmud, American Talmidei Chachamim no longer learn in the original? No, of course not. Is it true, as Landau wrote, that the average “black-hat” synagogue uses bilingual siddurim? As Charedi Leumi admits, no, that was equally bogus.

    Mr. Landau has expertise in international financial markets, but he commented about American synagogues without apparent familiarity with what goes on inside. Regardless of whether he himself is observant (I don’t believe that he davens in black-hat synagogues on his book tours, not least because he thinks most of them use bilingual siddurim), I stand by my opinion that if not for the secular clamoring for material like this, it wouldn’t have been published.

    Charedi Leumi must be reminded that the ability to speak Modern Hebrew is not a prerequisite to understanding the Siddur or Navi, much less the Gemara. The average yeshiva high school graduate can “make a layning” on a page of Talmud without assistance. To a secular Israeli it’s a closed book. That’s due to a combination of the written Aramaic with the cryptic, un-punctuated style of the page. Certainly, familiarity with modern Hebrew is helpful to understanding Navi, but the assertion that speaking English at home leaves one unable to read advanced Rabbinic texts is disproven thousands of times a day. And the modern world has a whole collection of risks as Michoel notes, but English isn’t the problem.

    Finally, it is true that Yiddish is a “hybrid,” but I wonder if Ch”L has stepped foot in an American Yeshiva, if he doesn’t think there’s a Judeo-English. Takah, it’s a shaylah whether he’s holding kup in the gantze inyan!

  13. Michoel says:

    I am with Chardal on this. We are utterly American but usually don’t get a window to see ourselves accurately. And a very big part of that is that we think and live in English. It is long term danger to us. When we had nothing to focus intellectually, we could grow decent talmidei chachamim. But now our brains are just way over-packed with competing information. And we need great effort to fight the tide. We cannot continue with large numbers of 10, 11 year olds needing basic help in kriah and expect them to be strong Jews a few years later. The future of Klal Yisroel is in Eretz Yisroel speaking and thinking in lashon hakodesh. I say this as a fairly typical American Charedi, not anti-zionist but certainly not enthusiastic zionist. My wife and I struggle with this constantly because there are certainly many immediate reasons to stay put, where I think Chul is far superior, but Baltimore is not where I think my children should raise their families.

  14. Chareidi Leumi says:

    If I am not mistaken, Pinchas Landau is himself religious, so I am not sure you can attribute to him the motivations of “the secular community in Israel.”

    Second, what he writes has merit. We host many American kids here who are spending their after high-school year in yeshiva or seminary here in Israel. And, with some notable exceptions, they are practically illiterate in Hebrew. And one can not hind behind the feeble excuse of modern Hebrew somehow being a different language than rabbinic or biblical Hebrew – for frankly – the average secular Israeli has a better chance of understanding a chapter of Yeshaya than the average orthodox American 18 year old.

    You are correct, that there are many shuls that do not employ dual language siddurim – however, this is not indicative of a greater understanding of the text but rather of not caring what the text means as much as the ability to recite it. What I said above regarding Yeshaya is equally true regarding most piyyutim (although almost no secular Israeli will get the allusions, and only those with an above average education will understand the less common words and usages.

    You may very well be correct that this situation was somewhat paralleled in Europe – but the main difference is that Yiddish was/is a hybrid language which is tightly integrated with traditional Jewish culture – English is not. The Rambam – who you cite – also wrote not in Arabic but in Judeo-Arabic – which was similar to Yiddish in its function. I don’t think that there is an equivalent Judeo-English.

    Most Americans learn and think in a language which is born out of a foreign culture – the effects of this is not negligible nor is the cultural effect that the “American Dream” has had on the way orthodox Jews view the world. The fact is that the nature of the questions that American high school students ask their teachers generate responses that adapt to the American scene – and that is how it should be. American chareidim play sports, often get a solid secular education, and frankly, look much more like R’ Hirsch’s dream than his colleagues in Eastern Europe from whom they supposedly draw their primary religious inspiration. These are all the effects of America and not of some natural progression of pure Torah interpretation.

  15. Raymond says:

    Isn’t it the job of a good teacher to make the material he is teaching, as easy and accessible for his students to understand, as possible? I have heard that the King of all Torah commentators, namely Rashi, was criticized in his time for going too far in making the Torah easier to understand. Artscroll has performed a much needed and valuable service in making the teachings of the Torah and Talmud available to so many Jews who might have otherwise given up on such a quest long ago. The ArtScroll Revolution may be the world’s greatest revolution since the American one in 1776.

  16. Shea says:

    Was not the gemara written in Aramaic the “English” or rather ‘lingua franca’ of the ancient near east?

  17. Michoel says:

    I tend to think that we need another 50 or 100 years to begin to judge the actual effect of Artscroll gemarras. Not to start a hole tumult. Many gedolim were and are in favor and many were not. And it could very well be that the net result will be more am haaratzus. (A lot more people that know a bit and a lot less people that know a lot)

  18. dr. bill says:

    Rabbi Menken, while you are correct that the language of discourse of great sages was often their local dialect, that is very different than allowing people to think gemara in English. Kehati does a marvelous job of writing commentary in modern hebrew that draws you to understanding the original texts. perhaps poorly stated by Landau, but some rabbis of the artscroll generation say some very questionable things in the guise of divrai Torah because they assume their English mindset when reading ancient texts. translations often unconsciously distort, particularly the subtext. i agree however, the result of the artscroll phenomena is much more complex than depicted.

    to be concrete, even the original language is hard to comprehend/appreciate absent a mimetic tradition. the original language translated is yet more misleading. i use the word “squeezing” in hilkhot shabbat as a typical example.

  19. Ori says:

    I may be a bit behind the time, but what’s really worrying me is the tendency of Babylonian Amoraim to abandon the Hebrew of Israel and the Mishnah and use the local Aramaic language instead. Doesn’t that mean they are going to be assimilate, and in a couple of generations be indistinguishable from their non-Jewish Babylonian neighbors?

    More seriously, last time I checked Judaism was not opposed to using non-Jewish tools. Anything from King Solomon’s use of Tyrian labor (I Kings 5) to Internet sites is considered fair game. There was nothing particularly holy about Aramean (in the 1st temple period, the language of our enemies), Spanish (the source of Ladino, who name is literally a corruption of the word “Latin”), or German (the source of Yiddish). If they became holy, it was through holy usage. Nothing prevents English from being used the same way.

  20. Shades of Gray says:

    “Recently, a student at Ner Yisrael Rabbinical College of Baltimore pointed out to me that whereas no English-speaking yeshiva bochur would want to get caught using the Artscroll Talmud, he saw Israelis in the finest schools using the Hebrew version”

    My Shabbos chavrusah used to tease me, good-naturedly, for quoting from the commentary of the Artscroll Hebrew version(despite the fact that he himself regularly consulted with the English version which he kept under his regular Gemara).

    One Shabbos, I walked in with a big smile. I told him to read that week’s Yated, where R. Nosson Scherman wrote that R. Elyashiv consults the Artscroll Hebrew Gemara, because he finds the commentary useful! Needless to say, my friend’s opinion changed.

    R. Scherman also mentioned this in a more recent interview on VIN(3/17/10):

    “While some have accused Artscroll of making learning too easy, R’ Scherman disagrees, saying Artscroll seforim are meant as study aids, used to complement the actual seforim. They should be used to resolve difficulties in the original text, or as a way to make learning fit into a busy schedule when time constraints don’t permit reviewing the complete text and commentary inside the actual sefer. R’ Scherman smiles as he explains that even R’ Elyashiv finds it helpful to go through the Hebrew comments in an Artscroll gemara, adding “If it’s okay for R’Elyashiv, it’s okay for me and you.”