The ArtScroll Revolution Examined: Religious Print Culture in the Information Age

BY: Shlomo Zuckier.

Reviewed Book: Jeremy Stolow, Orthodox by Design: Judaism, Print Politics, and the ArtScroll Revolution (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2010). Price: $24.95.

Known as “the people of the book,” Jews, one might say, are perhaps the religious community most connected to print culture. From the Bible to the Talmud to the writings of the medieval philosophers, Jewish texts have historically had significant contemporaneous impact on the cultures in which they were situated, and those very same texts still have lasting influence today. Which Jewishly-connected individual is unaware of the stories of the Patriarchs, the laws of the Sabbath, and notion of the unity of God? Traditional writings have had an effect both upon their immediate audiences and upon Jewish tradition in the broader sense, as well.

And yet, when one scrutinizes the last 500 years of Jewish history, one finds that few if any texts have achieved the canonical status reached by the earlier works. Jewish writings today have some contemporary degree of impact, but it seems that their lasting effect is much diminished and their impression more local to their periods of circulation. In our age of mass publishing and an overflow of books – one is reminded of the aphorism “asot sefarim harbeh ein kets
(there is no end to the oversupply of books) – not to mention the more recent advent of the internet and blogs, can any one text enjoy the dominance once available to the great works of classical and medieval literature? What is the impact of print culture in the modern (or postmodern) world?

Jeremy Stolow’s recent book, Orthodoxy by Design, deals with this question, focusing on the print culture of the ArtScroll book series over the last couple of decades. He splits his critique into several parts, first looking at the basic appeal of ArtScroll, its combination of being both “authoritative and accessible,” then moving to analyze the way the publisher has “sold” itself to the public world, examining its different constituencies. Later parts of the book focus on some specific subgenres of ArtScroll publications that are popularly marketed and purchased, and the book concludes with a perspective on what ArtScroll represents, its combination of gravity (the inertial nature of text culture) and gravitas (the religious connection it provides).

The first point that must be noted is that the book’s objective – to “study the case of ArtScroll, [which] invites reflection upon the ways in which the medium of the printed text has assumed a new status within Jewish public culture,” and to relate this to a broader study of print culture – was manifestly carried out. In terms of fundamentally understanding the ArtScroll project, Stolow showed himself to be fully capable. And with regard to properly executing a sociological analysis of the topic at hand, by abstracting the information gathered from interviews, sociological research, and data regarding the publications themselves, he definitely comes off as impressive. The book’s observations are sharp, its analyses incisive, and its formulations astute in its observations and conclusions.

Furthermore, the book manages to deal closely and critically with the important questions regarding ArtScroll – what are its publication and marketing techniques? who are its targets? who actually buys the books? are ArtScroll’s expectations being realized? – while maintaining an unbiased and professional position. This book is not an excuse for an anti-Haredi polemic, nor is it used to unabashedly sing ArtScroll’s praises; it gives praise where it is deserved (for instance, ArtScroll’s masterful Talmudic elucidation) and critiques when relevant, as well.

One such critique, which was, in my opinion, very much to the point, was a sharp insight that undermined ArtScroll’s claim that it could simultaneously maintain complete fealty to traditional ideas while reaching out to a broader audience with an aesthetically-pleasing and up-to-date product. After presenting ArtScroll’s leaders as explaining how they adhere to tradition even as they print for a broader public, as well as the response of end users who found the works user-friendly, Stolow comments:

“What, then, is at stake in this desire to make Haredi-defined standards of knowledge and conduct ‘easier to understand’ or ‘more convenient to execute’? Does the production of ‘helpful’ (or even ‘enjoyable’) points of entry into the prescribed life path of ever-greater stringency undermine the very idea of stringency?”

What common ground can a true Haredi, simple if not self-abnegating, viewpoint have with an individualistic, 21st-century American philosophy of convenience? This case of cognitive dissonance is most radically noticed when reading some of the promotional material for ArtScroll’s “higher-end” products. Certain ArtScroll leather-bound books, ironically named “Yerushalayim leather” products, sell for highly inflated prices and fairly clearly function more as accessories to be displayed and not simply as religious items to be used. In this case, Stolow’s fair-handed approach reveals some material for critique, as the chasm between tradition and contemporary American culture, so carefully navigated by ArtScroll, here proves too wide a gap to bridge.

The timing of the research and publication of this book presents both a strength and a weakness in that almost all the work was carried out before the advent of Koren publications and the OU Press in America. [For example, despite the book’s publication date of 2010, a (fairly representative) chart on the percentage of synagogues in different cities with ArtScroll siddurim and other books runs from 2001 to 2004.] On the one hand, this means that the material is not fully up-to-date, as the competition from Koren and OU publishers is not taken into account in this work. But, at the same time, presenting on the monopolistic control that the ArtScroll brand had on the pre-2008 Orthodox world allows for a much sharper and stronger analysis of the impact that such an institution can have. A “purer” sociological study is possible if one does not have to take into account limiting factors such as competition and, in that sense, this makes the lack of up-to-date information a (partially) salutary outcome.

One thing that the book does not relate to is some of the more intellectual questions surrounding the ArtScroll publication house. It mentions in passing that there have been “controversies surrounding ArtScroll as an index of a ‘slide to the right’ […] or as an instance of ‘religious fundamentalism,'” but it does not deal with these issues, instead focusing on questions of how the texts’ authors achieve power and influence through their publication. Even as the book notes that the original ArtScroll siddur was modified for RCA synagogues, it does not mention that this was a unique occurrence or that other works have not been modified in such a way and possess religious centers of gravity far from the average Modern Orthodox user’s belief system. It is fairly well-known that both the ArtScroll Talmud elucidation and Torah commentary leave out the writings of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik and R. Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook, who not only were major Talmud scholars and leaders of their Modern Orthodox and Dati Le’umi communities, but were immaculate darshanim (sermonizers) as well. For these thinkers to be ignored by the ArtScroll literature is a true travesty, and its community of users is all the poorer for it. It may be that a study on sociology will normally ignore issues of an intellectual nature, but something is lacking when a book dealing with the status of ArtScroll in the Jewish community leaves out the major question of which scholars are included in the corpus of these works.

Orthodox by Design, then, is successful in spelling out ArtScroll’s contribution and modus operandi (while leaving out certain subsidiary, if important, issues). ArtScroll preserves a feeling of authenticity, projecting a Haredi belief system, while at the same time simplifying and beautifying the reading experience, which attracts consumers. The traditional idea of the Jewish text, modified significantly from the great works of old, is nonetheless retained (as much as possible) as the medium through which to reach the Jewish populace. It is in this sense that text culture can succeed in affecting the community – by reaching out to consumers and providing something user-friendly and with a genuine feel.

While this form of textual output is popular and has been very successful, it does not appear to have the same staying power as that of the classic texts. (It remains to be seen how far into the future ArtScroll will continue as the dominant publishing house in this area.) In the meanwhile, though, it may be that the democratization of available knowledge brought about by the information age has led to a scenario where the most influential religious books are the ArtScrolls of the world, while the more classical areas of religious scholarship, Talmudic novellae and pieces of philosophical speculation, are to be reserved for a mere slice of the overall Jewish readership.


Shlomo Zuckier is a senior at YC majoring in Philosophy and Jewish Studies and is an Editor-in-Chief for Kol Hamevaser.