Monday, June 11, 2007

Gedolim Biographies

I read last week with interest Elliot Resnick's interview on Artscroll's accomplishments, and feel that many Jews, no matter how they identify, or what their background is, owe a debt of gratitude to the staff of Artscroll for their monumental Torah dissemination. With that preface in mind, I would like to comment on the genre of gedolim(Torah leaders) biographies discussed in the interview.

Because of halachic and hashkafic(ideological) considerations unique to the Jewish world, authors of the popular gedolim genre, apparently try for a cross between an actual historical biography, and on the other extreme, a hagiography, whose purpose is merely to inspire readers to learn from the protagonist. Two separate and distinct areas that challenge a writer are the question of how to portray, if at all, human frailties, and also editorial decisions that involve ideology.

Regarding human frailties, authors of academic biographies also need to make judgment calls, based on more subjective secular standards, as to what is merely sensational gossip, and should therefore be excluded from a book. To quote Dr. Marc Shapiro("Of Books and Bans", Edah Journal, 2003) regarding a biography which was written more in an academic style:

Every biography involves choosing from a mass of information in order to portray various characters. When dealing with potentially controversial matters, my own yardstick has always been whether the information will help in one's assessment of the individuals concerned, or if is it simply voyeuristic gossip...

What about from strictly a Halachic perspective? On the one hand people are not inspired by figures which they can't emulate. To quote Rabbi Emanuel Feldman(Jewish Action Summer, 2002):

It is precisely because gedolim and posekim are so crucial to Jewish existence
that searching biographies, grounded in life and in truth, are so indispensable. The masses of Jews thirst for uplift and inspiration. Puerile, cookie- cutter life stories are no tribute to the
gedolim and no help to us. That incisive biographies do appear from time to time only underscores the fact that it can be done. Such writing requires not only objectivity and careful research, but also a recognition ofthe reader’s intelligence and his ability to absorb ideas and subtleties. When a reader senses that he is being condescended to, that instead of an account
of a meaningful life he is being offered bedtime stories, that reader, if he has
any self-respect, will turn away.


On the other hand, "humanizing" Gedolim would require disclosing certain negative information, which would involve a halachic question of lashon hara. Is it permissible to focus on the immaturities of youth in order to bring out a lessen? I understand that proponents of the Making of a Gadol type of genre argue that "humanization" is not really negative(or that is for a good purpose), and that that the intelligent reader can see the greatness in how the Gadol overcame a problem, but those who favor the more hagiographical type of book apparently hold that there is a halachic problem. Who is correct? I am not a poseik, but I can understand the position of Artscroll.

If halachic considerations of lashon hara(gossip) indeed do not allow a true, or absolute description of a particular facet of a gadol's life, readers should nevertheless keep in mind that any human being is infinitely more complex than as portrayed in even the most complete and fully-disclosed biography, and to paraphrase Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner(Iggeros u-Kesavim, #128), has likely overcome "struggles, failures, falls, and regressions" before he or she had became a model for readers to emulate, rather than "issued from the Hand of their Creator in their full stature and stance". Rabbi Emanuel Feldman writes(Jewish Action, Winter, 2002):

... concerns about halachic constraints of lashon hara are well placed. It is a classic issue in halachah whether such constraints apply to incidents and facts that are well known, and where the clear intent is to instruct readers and not to denigrate the subject. And if, in fact, halachic constraints prevent us from relating the crucial inner struggles and conflicts that might have been present in the lives of today’s great Jews, perhaps we should consider finding a name other than “biographies” with which to label a genre which has the noble purpose of uplifting and inspiring, but—because it cannot relate the entire, balanced story of a life—will not succeed in uplifting and inspiring. The issue is certainly not clear-cut...

I therefore think that we should simply accept the genre for what it is: a slice of reality which is meant to inspire. Judging against the Halachic constraints which the genre need to follow, I think that the books would be considered successful. On the positive side, a significant amount of time is spent on researching and interviews, and I find that the books are written in good taste, and with the goal of educating and inspiring people. Our chachamim tell us, "who is wise, he who can learn from everyone", and if one keeps an open mind, I think that most of us can learn something from these books, whether or not we agree with the overall concept of a near-hagiography.

Hashkafic(ideological) decisions, on the other hand, are a gray area, and here the publisher and author, based on perception of their target market, exercise greater flexibility and discretion. One segment of the Orthodox Jewish market, for example, may feel that it is unimportant and even detrimental, for impressionable children and teenagers to read a description of the secular books that some European Gedolim read in their youth, as this might lead them away from a particular lifestyle(it should be noted, that Artscroll's "Reb Yaakov" mentions that both Rav Aharon Kotler and R. Yaakov Kaminetsky were exposed to secular literature in their youth).

Other, less insular parts of the Orthodox community, which range from parts of the Yeshivah world to the entire Centrist and Modern Orthodoxy communities, to the contrary, benefit from a more intellectually-open, or less-sanitized editorial approach when it comes to writing about issues of ideological nuance. Artscroll and other haredi publishers needs to take the needs of the more Right-wing segment of its market into consideration, and on such and similar issues, are unable to satisfy the needs of both its less and more worldly readership simultaneously.

Instead of the latter group negatively focusing on what they understandably perceive as editorial slant(one sentence in the translations of Makor Baruch or Hamoadim B'halacha, for example) , this group should continue to develop it's own articles, books, and electronic media to offer an alternative to Artscroll's treatment of issues involving ideological nuance or contention.

One might suggest an innovative approach for Artscroll as well, which might satisfy more people. At times, the Jewish Observer has noted that a supplemental discussion of certain topics is available from their office. Obviously, they feel constrained not to expose some of their readers to certain information(detailed discussions of evolution, for example). Artscroll can similarly translate the above-mentioned volumes as they see fit, but note that upon request, additional discussion is available. Such discussion should be on a high intellectual-level, and should be a respectful, fair, and open presentation of both sides of the editorial decision. This might seem awkward, and doubtless, would not satisfy everyone, but it is an out of the box suggestion, for an out of the box problem, or a unique one to the Jewish world.

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