Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Authoritativeness versus Accessibility

(Or, Orthodox vs. Open-Source?)

I've been reading an interesting book about major Orthodox publisher Artscroll, whose publications have become ubiquitous throughout the Jewish world. While Artscroll books (which are mostly in English) are quite widespread among the Modern Orthodox community, the author, Jeremy Stolow, has some very interesting statistics indicating their growing "market share" into non-Orthodox populations as well. He even goes so far as to link new Reform and Conservative publications directly to Artscroll's increasing popularity among their congregants:
ArtScroll books are praised as instructive, meaningful, authentic, and even empowering. Its enthusiasts thus claim that an "ArtScroll revolution" has facilitated an unprecedented degree of access to Jewish knowledge and confidence in ritual performance among English-speaking Jews, forming a readership that extends from the erudite to the culturally illiterate and that transcends the traditional markers of institutional affiliation or local custom. At a further remove, ArtScroll has precipitated a reaction among its competitors that one is tempted to describe as an "ArtScrollification" of the Jewish liturgical field as a whole: most notably, with the recent publication of Eitz Chaim (the new Conservative chumash, designed explicitly to "respond" to ArtScroll 's success), and Mishkan Tefillah (the new Reform siddur, which incorporates many design elements, editorial structure, and instructional material found in ArtScroll). 
At first I thought this was just hyperbole, until he cited quotes from those movements' own rabbis admitting that part of the motivation to put out those publications was to counter Artscroll's popularity.
Movement rabbis acknowledge that a main impetus for commissioning the new commentary, titled “Or Hadash” and set to be released April 15, was the growing phenomenon of Conservative worshipers using the popular Orthodox prayer book put out by ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications. The trend certainly irked many Conservative leaders, who concluded that the increasing popularity of ArtScroll was not a function of its ideological bent, but the desire of many Conservative congregants to have a prayer book that offered them more than a flowery translation of the Hebrew text.
...“I’ve been using ArtScroll for about 12 years,” said Steven Rothman, a third-generation Conservative Jew and a member of the ritual committee at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia. “I wanted something with commentary. But the problem with some of their commentary is that it is coming from a strictly Orthodox point of view. I would like to see commentary from a Conservative point of view.” 
Rothman told the Forward that he is excited about the upcoming release of “Or Hadash.” Along with “Etz Hayim,” he said, the prayer book represented a newfound, and long-needed, willingness on the part of Conservative movement leaders to tend to the intellectual and liturgical needs of their followers. “They are finally answering some of the questions about what it means to be a Conservative Jew,” Rothman said. “I’m very pleased that the Conservative movement is opening itself up intellectually to the lay person. That’s not always the way it was before.” 
...“It’s clear that many congregants have been complaining to us for a long time that they have felt a real lack of ability to grab hold of a lot of the prayers,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of United Synagogue, the movement’s congregational arm. “Some have felt that the ArtScroll really provided them with information that they needed. But its approach doesn’t represent what we are or what we stand for.”
This, I think, is a key point that many Artscroll triumphalists often overlook. There is no question that some Jews are attracted to Orthodox texts because they see them as an authoritative voice over Conservative or Reform ones. But my impression is that a large number may also simply be reaching out to sources like Artscroll because they are offering information they want and have had a hard time finding elsewhere-- and not necessarily because they're craving an ideological purity that can only be found in Orthodoxy. In the case of Etz Hayim, the willingness to engage with a lay congregant-- to wade into the issues of commentary and interpretation and to lay out exactly what the Conservative approach or approaches are to the text, not only helps inform people about possible interpretations, but also specifically about what the Conservative movement has to say about it.

Still, at the end of the day I think many liberal Jews, particularly those who, like me, were not born into a specific movement and whose denominational affiliations and identities are more fluid, are less interested in establishing or even explicating specific ideological boundaries than in just getting some good nuts and bolts information, which we can then use to draw our own conclusions.  Personally, my lack of Hebrew skills-- but interest in having access to traditional texts- has meant that I've had to invest a fair amount of effort to find resources that reach my needs. Sometimes Artscroll has filled that niche (I used their Schottenstein Talmud quite often in various Jewish studies classes as a source for midrash), and for that it should be commended and given credit. However my gut is that a lot of liberal Jews who use or have used Artscroll or similar texts (including my Conservative shul's Reconstructionist rabbi) are most interested in what Artscroll can do rather than what it specifically says: Artscroll remains a good, solid resource to help bridge the gap between a desire for information about traditional Jewish theology and practice while still needing explicit instruction. However what that tells me is that the real market is not in polemics or apologetics, but good old information: in a nutshell, it's the open-source mindset.

What is open-source? Generally it refers to the philosophy or approach of having open access to technology, often with the ability to copy, modify or transfer it. The "modification" element is challenging when applied to Judaism (there was a book a few years ago that actually used the term  "open source Judaism," which I find a little problematic by its implications). That said, I think what we're seeing here is definitely connected to the effects that open source has had on popular culture. These days many people, particularly young people, approach information as something that should be open and accessible to anyone that wants to see it-- and this in turn leads to a lowering of hierarchy. Even in non-Orthodox Judaism, the communal values are very much clustered around who has the most information and knowledge. This then leads to a huge gap between those who know a lot and those who don't-- and the ones without a lot of education or knowledge therefore get to a point where either they start to lose interest or opt out, or they find ways of gaining access to the information. That's where open source Jewish texts-- not necessarily "open source Judaism" comes in.

As more movements and independent writers start opening the tradition up and making it accessible to less Jewishly literate Jews, I think ultimately we'll find a larger segment of liberal Jews who, if given the opportunity, are interested in taking Judaism more seriously and grappling with it in a more authentic way-- because they won't be operating from an all or nothing, "Orthodox or secular" binary. Having the ability to access Jewish tradition on your terms, whether it be through the siddur, text study, or other forms, is incredibly empowering as well as challenging. Now that you've read the parsha, what do you think about it? Now that you know what your prayers mean, what do you intend to do with that knowledge? What does a liberal Judaism informed by regular or semi-regular Talmud study look like? When liberal Jews are confronted with the knowledge of what their tradition says, they by necessity are required to start becoming more engaged and more authentic-- not more Orthodox, but more informed. "I don't know" is no longer an excuse.

With the advent of accessible-- but hopefully still authentic-- Jewish texts, we in liberal communities now get to start having some of these conversations. And funnily enough, in a real way a lot of this is thanks to Artscroll- for inspiring or attracting its readers, for irking its competitors, and for inspiring more of us to wrestle with our tradition-- but on our terms and its, not theirs.

1 comment:

Antigonos said...

I agree with you. Often, I can take the Artscroll commentary as being interesting -- a view into a particular mindset, but not necessarily one with which I agree, yet which I have to admit has been the traditional one for who knows how many centuries. My personal take might be quite different, and that's my privilege.

I don't quite know whether there IS a universally accepted Conservative viewpoint, which is Conservatism's weakness -- and strength. Reform positions are much clearer. But the main thing seems to be the burning need for both movements' members to be better Jewishly educated. We are now going into the third and 4th generations who lack basic grounding in even the simplest level of Jewish knowledge whereas the Orthodox long ago decided to make that a priority. In Europe the number of Torah scholars was really only a fraction of what it is now.

BTW, FY, and Mrs. FY, gmar hatimah tovah!