In a recent essay at the Seforim blog, Yaakov Rosenes provides a fascinating window into some unfortunate trends in the world of Jewish publishing. In particular, Rosenes highlights how technology has impacted not only how seforim are printed today, but also what seforim are printed — today, every Tom, Dick, and Harry can print a sefer, and increasingly many of them choose to do so. While much of what he writes comes as no surprise to those who have even casually followed the printed literature in recent years, the concrete numbers and anecdotes he provides are certainly illuminating.
On one of his points I would like to suggest a “correction”. In comparing the secular and Torani worlds, Yaakov Rosenes focuses more on popular printing than on a more relevant one: academic. Like talmidei chachamim, scholars of various fields attempt to promote their work, and to convince others of its importance; to appropriate his words, “to open up a dialogue with a readership”. Likewise, “we have to concentrate more to understand what we read” appears similarly true of much academic scholarship as it is of Torah, much moreso than, say, of the Wall Street Journal or Time magazine. It might pay then to contrast that world of publication with that in the Torah world.
I believe that two major factors — both largely lacking in the world of Torah publishing — enable the academic world to succeed in promoting quality of publication far beyond what we can say for Torah printing. First, there is a wide-spread appreciation for the distinction between “old” and “new” material. Responsible journals typically aim to print new results and ideas. Old material is by no means unimportant, but no research journal will print a routine review of Lagrange multipliers or differential curves, in the way that many Torah journals might print your chavrusa’s summary of hilchose chol hamo’ed or of the sugya of kinyan meshicha. Of course there is a wide range in quality in what is printed in both worlds, but the goal, at least, of high-quality journals in the academic world is to mostly print new ideas. This can hardly be said for Torah journals, and by extension Torah books. Open a typical Torah journal and merely peruse the table of contents: b’inyan ptur tamun b’esh, b’din get meuseh, etc. Very general titles, which often indicate articles that can be summarized: “Moshe learned this sugya and here are some of his ha’arose”. There is a reason why we can find 90% of the same material in 90% of the printed literature. Of course, most readers do not have time or interest to read through hundreds of pages to find the genuinely original pieces, and so the diamonds get lost in the rough. And there’s lots of rough.
This, of course, is related to a second difference between the academic and Torah world — quality control through peer review. Aside from weak journals, that oftentimes solicit and even guarantee publication (sometimes for a fee!), academic journals typically enlist the aid of a network of people in the field to referee submissions before they are accepted for publication. Other researchers, from graduate students and postdocs to Fields medalists and Nobel laureates, will read a submission and advise the editors of the journals regarding its suitability for publication: Is it well written? Does it appear to be well-researched? Does it make a valuable contribution to the field? Is it readable to a non-specialist? At the same time, the referees also provide important feedback to the authors: “The paper’s central point might be stated more clearly”, “The paper does not explain the meaning of term x”, “The paper would benefit from additional discussion of an additional related point”. The effect of this review process is thus two-fold. First, low-quality articles — those that are poorly written or otherwise bring little to the table — are filtered out before the printing stage. Indeed, the acceptance rate at PRL, a representative first-tier journal from the physics community, is under 35%; in contrast, during my years of editing and printing the Beit Yitzchok, the rate was closer to 98%. Second, the articles that are printed are often made substantially stronger. The net result is that readers are not burdened with the significant challenge of extensive searches through piles of low-quality work, and instead are treated to work befitting of their time. It is unfortunate that at this point, no similar infrastructure exists in the world of Torah publishing. True, there are good Torah journals with talented editors, but as far as I can tell, the editors of a given journal are typically a tiny group of people doing the job of what can only effectively be done by one much larger.
Some people will respond that indeed our most serious talmidei chachamim are too busy with other responsibilities to contribute to such a task. To those people I will ask the following. Consider a typical academic employed by a typical research institution. Aside from their own research, teaching, administrative and myriads of other responsibilities, he or she also makes time to referee several articles a year. Why do they do that? I don’t believe that the answer is prestige or academic promotion, as refereeing occurs by and large anonymously, and is generally of little value to academic advancement. Instead, I believe that academics feel a responsibility to their field to ensure that it is being done “right”, and that random idiots aren’t getting up there and passing off their bunk as quality scholarship. In a word, they feel a responsibility to preserve the “integrity of the mesorah”. It seems to me that talmidei chachamim do not, generally speaking, practice this same level of shmira when it comes to Torah. Instead, there is a polite gentility that goes around, under the guise of which any person’s Torah is ok — anyone can give a shiur, any person can write a Torah article, any person can write a sefer. It is the same politeness that leads to haskamose that read: “I haven’t read this sefer, but I see that this person is a very qualified talmid chacham, and chazaka ein chaver motzi mtachas yado davar sh’eino metukan, and yehi ratzon that he should continue to be marbitz Torah.” This passive approval is a polite way of avoiding serious engagement with the Torah of others. It is certainly not an effective shmira even if it temporarily avoids some hurt feelings.
Publishing a quality journal — the kind that people are genuinely excited to receive and read — is an admirable and feasible task, and one that would be a very worthwhile contribution to the world of lomdei and ohavei Torah. But I believe that this cannot happen in the current intellectual climate, one that does not seem to appreciate the distinction between old and new, and in which tacit wholesale approval of scholarship is interpreted as genuine respect. When the climate changes, the publication of high-quality journals — and books — can become a warmly welcomed reality.