The Modern Orthodox Intellectual

I find it really tiresome in Modern Orthodox life how its rabbis go about picking on Artscroll (a hugely succesful chareidi press) for the tiniest of mistakes.

Another symptom of this is when Modern Orthodox rabbis go off on Agriprocessors.

Agriprocessors is run by chareidim so it feels really good beating up on it for unethical practices, but what do you expect from a slaughter house? You think you’ll find a bunch of tender souls there? If you truly want to be ethical about what you eat, be a vegetarian.

Meat is the product of violence as are children. All sex contains an element of violence. The better the sex, the more violent.

If you think Artscroll sucks, then produce your own prayer books and chumashim — tasks beyond the Modern Orthodox intellect.

Rabbi Yitzchak EtShalom is always going off on Artscroll for inaccuracies whose significance I rarely grasp.

The point seems to be that we Modern Orthodox care about truth while the chareidim (ultra-Orthodox) prefer legends.

What’s particularly stupid about this is that from the perspective of secular scholarship, belief in the historicity of the Exodus and the unitary nature of the Torah (core beliefs of Modern Orthodoxy) are the equivalent of belief in Santa Claus.

So the idea that Modern Orthodoxy in particular or Judaism in general is any more rational and fact-based than Chareidi Judaism or Christianity is pure delusion. They all demand leaps of faith not just beyond reason but against reason.

I remember when I was speaking on the telephone with Rabbi Yitzhock Adlerstein circa 1992 and I was so confused when he said "medrish" instead of "midrash" and I asked him why he did that and he chuckled and I think he said something about that’s how the yeshiva world speaks.

Professor Marc B. Shapiro writes:

People often refer to me as a Modern Orthodox intellectual. There are actually quite a number of us out there. If you hear someone using words like “ontological,” “existential,” “mimetic,” and now, “tergiversation”[2] you can assume he in in our club. Also, another telltale sign is that when we give divrei Torah you will hear us refer to Philo, the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha (if we are confident that we can pronounce the word properly[3]), Shadal, or Cassutto.[4] Of course, we are careful to only say Midrash, and never Medrish, as the latter pronunciation is a sure sign of a Philistine.

It is no secret that Modern Orthodox intellectuals like to look down on Artscroll, and to let others know about this. So we must find places where Artscroll makes mistakes. It is not enough to point to the vastly different historical conceptions between us and Artscroll; we need to find places where Artscroll simply got it wrong (for one such example see here). This will show that even if they are conquering the world, they shouldn’t think that they are so brilliant. I am not speaking about the Artscroll Talmud (which we use when no one is looking) or the Artscroll “History” series, which is not popular with the Modern Orthodox.[5] I am referring to the Artscroll siddur and chumash which have taken over the Orthodox world. (The Modern Orthodox intellectuals must have been so busy these last twenty years producing articles read by each other that it never occurred to them to produce their own siddur and chumash.)[6]

But finding these errors is easier said than done. I am not referring to run-of the-mill errors, but the sort that will impress people at your Shabbat table. That way you can show them that you are a Modern Orthodox intellectual, and not afraid to stand up to Artscroll, this generation’s anti-Messiah. Artscroll is the Goliath, and if it can be felled, then Feldheim, Targum and certainly the minor leaguers at Aish Ha-Torah will be that much easier to take down. If the obscurantists are not yet shaking in their feet, once they see our ever-forthcoming translation of the Arukh ha-Shulhan, which will bring back the 1950’s and the “mimetic tradition”, this will put them in their place.

As I state, it is not so easy to find the perfect mistake. One could point out that in the Artscroll siddur, p. 320, it refers to a “responsa” of Maimonides, when the word they should have used is “responsum.” But this clearly won’t do the trick. After all, no one assumes that Artscroll is an expert in English; it is because Artscroll is expert in Jewish things that it has become so popular. For a while I thought that I could impress those ever-impressionable Shabbat guests by pointing out that contrary to what the Arscroll siddur, p. 870, states, R. Eleazar Kalir was not a tanna. But again, this is not something that most people care about. Besides, someone always ended up pointing out that no less than Tosafot claims that he was a tanna, and my protestations about what Shir proved were always met with blank stares, for what does a Prague song have to do with anything?

And what about when I showed people that in the chumashim printed until 1999, Lord Jakobovits, who died in that year, is referred to as Emeritus Chief Rabbi of the British Empire (see one of the first pages of the chumash where it lists the important people involved with Artscroll). On the title page of Hertz’s chumash he is referred to as “Late Chief Rabbi of the British Empire,” and the Jakobovits reference might be trying to parallel this. All my protestations that Jakobovits was never Chief Rabbi of an Empire (which had ceased to exist before he came into office) but of a Commonwealth have never found anyone showing much interest. (The technical title is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. The title is more grandiose than the office. At most, there are 300,000 Jews in the United Kingdom (as, at present, no one in Australia, Canada, Zambia, etc. looks to the British Chief Rabbi for religious guidance). Subtract the unaffiliated, Reform and Masorti from this, and then subtract the Haredim and the Sephardim and this will give you the number of Jews represented by the Chief Rabbi.)

…It is easy to see why the Artscroll siddur replaced the Birnbaum. It is simply better, i.e., much more complete (although I wonder who gave them the crazy idea to put the English in italics). But I am not sure what makes the Artscroll chumash “better” than Hertz. It is different, to be sure, but I think that a typical Modern Orthodox congregation would still be well-served by Hertz, if not exclusively, certainly in addition to Artscroll. I don’t understand why all the Hertz chumashim were carted away, never to be seen again. The RCA chose to make the Artscroll siddur its siddur (adding in the prayers for the government, the State of Israel, and the IDF). The fact that the first RCA siddur, edited by De Sola Pool and published in 1960, never achieved lasting popularity, and Artscroll was willing to put aside its anti-Zionist ideology when presented with the possibility of selling hundreds of thousands of siddurim, no doubt influenced the RCA to go with a tried and true product. (I understand Arscroll leaving out the prayer for Israel, but how did the haredi community come to the view that the prayer for the government is not “frum”.and thus is neither recited nor included in the siddur?). The RCA’s reluctance to actually produce a new siddur on their own was probably influenced by the controversy that ensued when their first siddur was released. This siddur was banned by Agudas ha-Rabbanim. One of the reasons was that the Song of Songs appeared with a literal translation, and this no doubt helps explain Artscroll’s method of translation of this text. For details on the ban, see see Ha-Pardes, Feb. 1961.

Let me also note that in his 1987 introduction to the RCA Artscroll siddur, RCA president Rabbi Milton Polin wrote about the original De Sola Pool RCA Siddur, that it “has been reprinted many times since its original publication and continues in use in most large Orthodox congregations.” I don’t believe the last part of this sentence is correct. In fact, even if there were some large congregations that used the original RCA siddur as the “official” shul siddur, Birnbaum certainly outnumbered De Sola Pool 10-1 in this respect.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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