A Talmudic Revolution

Most of the Jews in Israel, as well as in the U.S., are probably not aware of the silent but dramatic revolution behind the somewhat laconic announcement by the Mesorah ArtScroll publishing house in Brooklyn.

Avi Beker
Avi Beker
Avi Beker
Avi Beker

Most of the Jews in Israel, as well as in the U.S., are probably not aware of the silent but dramatic revolution behind the somewhat laconic announcement by the Mesorah ArtScroll publishing house in Brooklyn. It stated that the 73rd and last volume of the translation of the Babylon Talmud into English, accompanied by commentaries, would be published next month.

Without exaggeration, it can be stated that the Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud (named for the main donor) has caused the most significant revolution in the bookshelves of American and Israeli Talmud scholars in the past century. It has made the Talmud available on a scale that had never been known within or outside the Jewish people. Even in the heyday of the Eastern European yeshivas, before the Holocaust, there were never so many Jews who studied, read and understood the unique language, style and logic of the "Sea of Talmud." Every one of the volumes in the ArtScroll enterprise was published with more than 60,000 copies, and they have been deposited in the libraries of the most prestigious universities in the world.

About 10 years ago, the publishing house began translating the Talmud with commentaries into Hebrew, and has so far completed 30 volumes. At the same time, they started a French translation of the Babylonian Talmud and an English one of the Jerusalem Talmud. In Israel, thousands of people use ArtScroll's Hebrew translation for their daily page of Talmud study or in academic frameworks.

The publication of the last volume of the Schottenstein Edition will be the culmination of 15 years of labor by thousands of workers and translators in the U.S. and Israel - at a cost of some $20 million - to create the most reader-friendly version of the Talmud since it was written, and one that has received the stamp of approval from the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox world in both Israel and the U.S.

That is the difference between the ArtScroll edition and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz's undertaking, which preceded it in concept and implementation but was boycotted by the ultra-Orthodox establishment in Israel. Steinsaltz originally changed the structure of the traditional Talmud study page, but though he amended this in later editions, the boycott remained in effect.

There is quite a great deal of irony in this disqualification, since the structure of the page that has been accepted for centuries was originally decided on by the non-Jews who wanted to market it to the Jews.

In addition to this important contribution to the Jewish bookshelf, the ArtScroll edition can be seen as a clear victory in the latent struggle between "the new Babylon" (in other words, the U.S.) and Jerusalem. In the same way that the Babylonian version of the Talmud took the upper hand over the Jerusalem version in the sixth century, Orthodox Jewry in the U.S. has clearly succeeded in establishing an enterprise that the yeshiva world in Israel, supported also by the state, is not even able to begin.

The struggle was determined by the scientific and organizational superiority of the ultra-Orthodox Jews in the U.S. Their success - particularly those associated with the world organization of Agudat Yisrael, like ArtScroll - is characteristic of the greater openness of the American ultra-Orthodox world. Many from that world have academic backgrounds and many have the need to work for a living, and their connection with technological innovations made it possible to harness the computer era to the benefit of the Talmudic enterprise.

In fact, all the great works of interpretation and concordance in recent generations have been written outside the world of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox yeshivas: the Mishnaic commentary of Pinhas Kehati, the Da'at Mikra commentary on the Bible published by the Rabbi Kook Institute, Steinsaltz's Talmud and others. ArtScroll has published many hundreds more translations and commentaries, including the Bible and prayer books, the Rambam and the Shulhan Aruch. All of these follow the Orthodox tradition but comply with the accepted criteria of modern scholarship, and also serve non-religious Jews and non-Jewish researchers.

It is possible today to wrestle with difficult Talmudic problems without understanding Hebrew or Aramaic. The Talmud, rather than the Bible, which was adopted by Christianity and partially by Islam, is considered the most influential spiritual influence in forming the identity of the Jewish people in the Diaspora. In many cases, it was the main thrust of anti-Semitism.

ArtScroll's representatives - especially its chairman, Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz, and the chief editor, Rabbi Nosson Scherman - are modest about their achievements and describe their enterprise as translation with some interpretation. Whoever knows their volumes of the Talmud is aware that this is a gigantic work of commentary that brings together interpretations from different periods and adds to them a historic Torah context.

In addition to the literal translation - which is likewise anchored in scientific research - the ArtScroll Talmud contains a vast amount of commentary and remarks on the Talmudic text and the interpretations of Rashi, the Tosaphists and other Medieval commentators, and those of later centuries (the Aharonim). The scientific approach, the sifting and choosing of material, the rewriting and the historical research all make ArtScroll's Babylonian Talmud the greatest enterprise of commentary on the Jewish bookshelf in the last few centuries.



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