Conversation with James Kugel about Revelation

Last week, I attended a wonderful symposium in Yarnton Manor, Oxford on “Orthodox Judaism and Theology in the 21st Century”. I thank Miri Freud B Kandel (Oxford) and Adam Ferziger (Bar Ilan University) for all their wonderful work organizing the delightful conference which included an intimate Shabbat for the participants. I will have several blog posts about the conference. The session in which I spoke “Orthodox Judaism and the Bible” consisted of Joshua Berman “Jeremy Bentham and the Modern Perception of Contradiction in Biblical Law,” Alan Brill, Orthodoxies confront Biblical Criticism: Must Orthodox be Orthodox?, Tamar Ross, Orthodoxy and the Challenge of Biblical Criticism, and James Kugel was the respondent to our papers. The core of Berman’s paper was already posted on this blog, and I will post mine in upcoming weeks, the core conclusion of which is that: Yes, one must be Orthodox and that Louis Jacobs was closer to Reform thinkers in his theology by the 1970’s.

In the response to our papers, Kugel stressed how should not preclude that God can actually talk and that we should not use Biblical criticism for theologies. The positions that Kugel explained during the weekend was not the same as the position that many ascribe to him. When Shabbat was over and the others were eating the melavah malka buffet, I sat down in another room with Kugel for a conversation about his opinions and to explain the Orthodox community to him. I recorded some of his points to which Kugel kindly responded with greater detail. The bold print is my echoes of what he said to which he replied in writing.

The Jewish approach, the Rabbinic approach,is one of Torah min Hashamyim as an ongoing process of explaining, reworking, and interpreting the text.

Dear Alan—thanks for all of this, and please excuse all my fussy diyyukim below.
Well, the Jewish approach is certainly Torah min ha-Shamayim, but saying it’s an “ongoing process” might mislead people. For me, Torah min ha-Shamayim is the belief that the Torah was given to Israel by G-d, period. I wouldn’t want to seem to say by this that the text of our Torah was given over a period of centuries or anything like that—just that it is all of divine origin.

I also said that no modern biblical critic that I know of has ever suggested that scholarship can prove or disprove the divine origin of the Torah: this is a matter of belief. The Torah consists of words, and there is no litmus test that can determine that this word came from G-d while that word was inserted by Moses (or someone else). Words are words are words. Even if someone could point to contradictions within the Torah, or apparently unnecessary repetitions, or signs of later editing or interpolation—none of this has any bearing on the Torah’s divine origin: after all, who makes up the rules of what a divine text can or cannot consist of? This may sound like an apologetic approach, but when you think about it, it’s just the simple truth: who are we to determine what or how G-d can put in His book, or how it can arrive in our hands?

The phrase “Torah mi-Sinai” is entirely different: it refers to a particular place, Mt. Sinai, and implies a particular time and person, Moshe at the time of Ma’amad Sinai. A modern scholar can certainly take issue with this doctrine (and lots of them do). I myself have never done so; never.

Frankly, I don’t believe that doing so is consistent with being a religious Jew. (Of course, I reported in my book about the whole development of the Documentary Hypothesis, and I know that some readers took this as an endorsement of it—but that’s because they misunderstood, or never got to, the basic argument of that book—on which see more below.) I would say, however, that Torah mi-Sinai and Torah min ha-Shamayim exist on two completely different planes and are not, therefore, of equal importance. Torah min ha-Shamayim is what counts. As Hazal said, anyone who says the whole Torah comes from G-d except for this one pasuk, which Moshe wrote on his own—such a person is a blasphemer who dishonors the Torah.

Jews do not study the text
I meant: “Jews do not study the biblical text alone, in isolation,” because for us the Torah is not, and never was, just the Torah’s own words on the page, but it was those words plus the interpretations and explanations of the Torah she-be’al peh that constituted the Torah’s true meaning.

I’d put it this way: I have said from time to time (somewhat whimsically) that it might have been better if, instead of printing Humash with Rashi, publishers had started out printing Humash with Yalkut Shim’oni, since, unlike Rashi’s commentary (which, for all sorts of laudable reasons, sought to eliminate any inconsistencies between one midrash and another and therefore made a specific kind of selection of various midrashim), Yalkut Shim’oni preserves that kind of tentative, and strikingly modest, character of midrash: “It could be this, but on the other hand, here’s another explanation.” What bothers me is that nowadays people learn Rashi as if it simply is what the text means; it is the Torah. Among other things, I don’t think this is good pedagogically. It works fine with third-graders. But by the time they get to high school, most of them know Hebrew pretty well, and they know that those Hebrew words in the pasuk don’t mean what Rashi says they mean. So how can Rashi be the Torah? At this point, the best of them develop a new interest in biology or social studies, because limmudei kodesh don’t seem to fit with their notion of the truth.

Kugel accepts Torah from Sinai through Moshe as a historic event but more important is that Torah from Heaven in the continuous reading of meaning in the text.

It’s what I said above about Torah min ha-Shamayim being the crucial matter. I could not, and would not want to, be part of a religion that claimed that Torah was a human creation, or that it is, as I’ve heard some people say, “a human reaction to the ineffable divine.” At the same time, though, I think it is a basic principle of Yahadut that what starts in heaven is inevitably given over to human beings. “Lo ba-shamayim hi” means “the Torah is no longer in Heaven.” It started out there, but then it was given to our sages to adjudicate.

Rather than cite the much-cited Oven of Akhnai story or any of the others, I’d mention a matter close to my own area of research, the calendar. There was this great calendar that some Jews used in Second Temple times: it worked automatically on the basis of the solar year—30-day months with an extra 5 or 6 days added to keep pace with the sun, hence no need for witnesses to go to Beit Yaazek and testify before the beit din that they had seen the new moon, no need to intercalate a whole month at irregular intervals,, and the hagim were never, as we say, “early this year” or “late this year,” because they were basically in sync with the sun. Was this calendar not a better representation of the passage of time than the calendar of Hazal? After all, it was G-d who set the sun in the sky and it was that solar year that had to be followed if Pesah was to occur in the spring and Sukkot in the fall; why play around with lunar months and all the difficulties they entailed? (If you read the words of the Torah alone, there is no indication that the months it speaks of are lunar months, dependent on sightings of the new moon.) But Hazal gloried in the idea that the sacred calendar was NOT automatic, that it required human beings as witnesses and a beit din to interrogate them (“Hakhazek ra’ita o khazeh—did it look like this, or did it look like that?”). And they made sure to stress the point by having us say the berakhah “mekaddesh yisrael ve-rashei hodashim” which means: You gave us the authority to determine the calendar, having us establish not only when each new month starts, but also when all the holy days within it occur, hence “mekaddesh yisrael ve-ha-zemenaim,” and even “mekaddesh yisrael ve-yom ha-kippurim.” This is a striking instance of the principle, “Lo ba-shamayim hi,” what starts in Heaven is given over to humans to interpret and apply.

Biblical scholarship and Biblical criticism is fundamentally a Protestant endeavor and antithetical to the Jewish approach.
Absolutely. The whole Protestant movement began with the rejection of interpretive traditions or anything like our Torah she-be’al peh: the only thing that mattered was the Bible’s own words, or, as they said, “Sola Scriptura,” by Scripture alone. That’s why biblical criticism began as, and still largely remains, a Protestant undertaking, still pursued for the most part in Protestant centers like Germany, Scandinavia, England, Holland, the U.S. and Canada—and, for various easily discerned reasons, in modern Israel as well.

The title “How to Read the Bible” as explained in my introduction was to show two radically different approaches to how to read the Bible.
True enough. But, by the way, I never wanted to call the book How to Read the Bible. That was the publisher’s idea. I wanted to call it: The Bible and its Interpreters. Most of my previous books had been published with university presses, which generally let you call your book what you want. But they don’t get your book into bookstores, so if you’re interested in reaching a wider public, you sometimes have to make a deal with the devil. So I accepted “How to Read the Bible.” (I originally thought I would make it, “How to Read the Bible: a Modern Dilemma,” but my publisher said: “Nobody want to buy a dilemma.”)

I’m sure some people were misled by this title (despite what I think I made clear in the preface). I know some people even thought—in spite of everything I wrote in the preface, the introduction, and the final chapter—that I was recommending that people adopt the conclusions of modern biblical scholars as the way to read the Bible. That was actually the opposite of my message. Don’t get me wrong: some of these modern scholars were nothing short of brilliant readers and thinkers. But they all approached the job of reading the Bible from the Protestant assumptions that I have described—which were quite at odds with the assumptions that had always accompanied the reading of the Bible in an earlier age.

It might have helped some readers to know something about the work I have done as a professor. I suppose that many of them just assumed that I have spent my life writing about, and contributing to, modern biblical criticism. Actually, almost all of my previous books and articles (starting in 1982) have been about ancient biblical interpretation, things in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the sefarim hitzonim (the book of Jubilees, Ben Sira, etc.). Among those books: Ancient Biblical Interpretation (1986), In Potiphar’s House (1990), The Bible As It Was (1997), Traditions of the Bible (1998), The Ladder of Jacob (2006), and A Walk Through Jubilees (2012). I’m sure that almost anyone who knew my previous research could not misconstrue the message of How to Read the Bible: it is all about the role of ancient biblical interpretation in determining the meaning of the biblical text, a role that had existed long before the elements of the Torah she-be-‘al-peh first began to be committed to writing at the end of the second century C.E.

Protestants are basically concerned with the text itself and all that modern scholars now know about the historical and other circumstances connected to it. Jews, by contrast, are concerned with the text as it has always been interpreted in the Torah she-be’al peh, which is often at odds with the literal meaning of the Torah’s own words.

AB- I wrote “He rejects Moshe Greenberg, Nahum Sarna, and anyone who attempts to create a Jewish version of Biblical criticism.”
Actually, I knew both these scholars and admired them. But I do think that they were chasing a phantom, a synthesis of traditional Judaism and biblical criticism. The very basis of such a synthesis is incompatible with Jewish tradition. This approach just assumed that biblical criticism was, or could be made to be, compatible with traditional Judaism: and the solution and integration was just around the corner. But somehow, it never materialized.

It never could because biblical criticism is concerned with the literal meaning of the Bible’s words on the page, divorced from Judaism’s age-old traditions of interpretation. That is to say, Jews and Protestants can’t even agree on what the text is. For Protestants, it’s the words on the page, sometimes supplemented with archaeological or historical data gleaned from excavations in the Middle East. These data are certainly interesting, in fact, fascinating—but they don’t have anything to do with Torah in the classical Jewish sense.

This critique also applies to Orthodox Bible scholars who think they can teach philological peshat and the Near East context as part of an overall Jewish approach. Creating derashot that mix midrash and Mesopotamian elements in the text is a kind of sha’atnez that must ultimately be unfaithful to either approach, and usually ends up censoring out of each anything that might call into question their combination. It’s just a kind feel-good operation. Lots of people like this feel-good stuff, including lots of Orthodox Jews.

I wrote “He rejects the approaches of Rosenzweig and Jacobs.”Kugel deleted it and explained:

I didn’t like it because it seemed too general. Rosenzweig was basically a trained philosopher, so rejecting his approach might mean almost anything (philosophers trying to make sense of Judaism, his ideas about Bible translation, etc.); Louis Jacobs… my sense so far is that it’s more a matter of his conclusions than his approach (I’m not sure there’s anything distinctive about his approach).

Kugel does not like Bible as literature.

I don’t like the “Bible as Literature” approach primarily because it’s another feel-good operation, designed to get us to appreciate what Norman Mailer once called (sarcastically) “the great novelist in the Lord.” We don’t honor Scripture above all other writings because it’s the most beautiful or artistic; that’s Islam. The Torah is our most sacred book, divrei Elokim hayyim; it’s not about literary excellence. What’s more, the “Bible as Literature” approach is often unconvincing: it finds great artistry where it wants and overlooks anything in the text that might counter this conclusion.

He accepts the entire text as Torah min Hashamayim and therefore rejects any approach that minimizes God’s role.

It is certainly not illogical to believe that God can communicate with human beings, as some have suggested: This is the whole idea of prophecy, and without it Judaism cannot be said to exist.

Do you limit God’s activity to only inspiration of the Biblical authors or a vague inspiration of God’s will?
As I’m sure you know,inspiration is a very tricky term for modern theologians, Jews and Christians as well: for some them, it isn”t something less than actual divine speech, so I”d rather leave that term out of the discussion entirely. But I’d be happy to reword what I wrote in blunter form and say: I believe that God does speak to man; this is the whole principle of prophecy, and without it Judaism cannot be said to exist.

His field is ancient interpretation of the text, not modern Biblical criticism. He is surprised that people think he is a Biblical critic or that he works in that field or made any contribution to that field. He has not. On the other hand, he thinks Orthodox Jews should learn to live with Biblical criticism the way they have learned to live with such things as Darwinian evolution or modern astrophysics.

I think it is best to deal with modern biblical scholarship not by hiding from it, but by understanding that its underpinnings are based on a conception of Scripture that is altogether alien to Judaism and, frankly, to everything other scholars and I have discovered about the very idea of Scripture as found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient texts.

If only Maimonides were alive, he certainly wouldn’t hide from Biblical criticism. [AB- The same way he showed everyone how not to be bothered by the eternality of the world or naturalistic Aristotelians.]

Yes!

He cannot account for the emblem he has become.

None of what I’ve said in the above is new: it’s all in the last chapter of How to Read the Bible, as well as in earlier works such as The Bible As It Was and In Potiphar’s House. Nor, frankly, have I said any of the above to find favor in the eyes of my critics, Teaneck or otherwise.

If they want a Bad Guy—well, I’m sorry if it has to be me; I don’t think anyone likes the idea of being disliked. On the other hand, the things I’ve said here, and in my book, are really pretty straightforward. If some people are of such a nature as to willfully distort what I’ve said above and in my books, well, I’m not sure I’d want to convert them into allies even if I could. Let them seek out the company of others, Orthodox Jews who would rather hide their heads in the sand than even acknowledge that modern biblical scholarship exists, or else the feel-good people who try to make everything work out by a selective reckoning with the evidence. In the end, I don’t think either of these approaches can succeed.

On the other hand, I do believe that in fifty or a hundred years, a lot of Orthodox Jews will wonder what all the shouting was about; modern biblical scholarship, like Darwinian evolution or astrophysics, will just have receded into the background. Who knows, maybe some will even understand what I have been saying about the difference between the very idea of Torah in Judaism and the quite different, Protestant conception of Scripture underlying the whole enterprise of modern biblical scholarship.

My Comments not vetted by Kugel
By the last quarter of this hour discussion, we had gathered a small group of listeners who started to participate in the last round of questions. In the discussion of Kugel’s being singled out, the listeners started to point out the lack of education in the community. How many in the community think the words of the Talmud were from Sinai, how they think there is direct causal reward for mizvah observance and observe Judaism out of fear, how they accept outreach arguments like the kuzari proof. How they approach Torah text with mechanical literalism, even when do the new approaches of Bible as literature. The discussion turned to how Orthodox pick up Kugel’s book and think that he is preaching the Enlightenment critiques of religion, which are certainly more readily available elsewhere than his book. The fact that Orthodox, even modern ones, read his book and hear about common academic ideas for a first time is not to be laid at his feet.

Kugel has little interest in addressing or correcting the low level readers of his book lacking a good humanities education. He did not realize that not just high school students but most of the community including leaders, authors, Bible teachers, and high school Jewish studies teachers lack his requisite erudition. He was more than shocked at the lack of basic exposure in the Orthodox community to historical thinking and critical studies. He will be publishing a sequel to his introductory work On Being a Jew where he will discuss Biblical criticism and Judaism but none of the content of this interview. He does not think it is needed and if it is,then it is not his audience.

This is not my final post about Kugel’s work. I still seek to process in my mind: his giving preference to Jubilees and Wisdom of Solomon over Rabbinics, his method of treating everything as eisegesis without problems to be solved, and his Spartan view of not seeing the poetics and values that can still be found within and in comparison to Mesopotamian texts. Most of all, I need to recheck his writings and see if they were as free of ambiguity as he claimed.
If you comment, please reread the rules for comments and remember the discussion is the contents and topic of the interview not outreach arguments or your opinion of academia.
(P.S-If you catch typos, just leave me a comment with corrections. This is my longest post ever, three times the size as my usual limit.)

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48 responses to “Conversation with James Kugel about Revelation

  1. Nice job, Alan, compiling all this. I also read his book “How to Read the Bible,” a very informative book.as well as other books of his and have attended a number of his lectures. Brillian mind.

    “Even if someone could point to contradictions within the Torah, or apparently unnecessary repetitions, or signs of later editing or interpolation—none of this has any bearing on the Torah’s divine origin: after all, who makes up the rules of what a divine text can or cannot consist of? This may sound like an apologetic approach, but when you think about it, it’s just the simple truth: who are we to determine what or how G-d can put in His book, or how it can arrive in our hands?”

    What Prof. Kugel is saying here, I think, is that Biblican criticism has identified these “contradictions within the Torah, or apparently unnecessary repetitions, or signs of later editing or interpolation,” but a traditional Jew can and should interpret these as Divine acts: Gd contradicted Gdself, repeated Gdself, and inspired or told later editors to edit and to inperpolate.

    Thus a person in the 21st Century with the benefit of mesora in one hand and, as Prof. Kugel acknowledges, an unbridgable rival analysis, Biblical Criticism, in the other, has no choice, a heretical imperative per Peter Berger, but to decide which is the more credible view based on the evidence available.

    In view of the “contradictions within the Torah, or apparently unnecessary repetitions, or signs of later editing or interpolation” the move to explain by saying “Gd did it” seems a bit far fetched, does it not? Imagine going through TaNa”Ch with, for example, “How to Read the Bible” in one hand, and each time one of these problems identified by BC appeared, saying with a straight face, “Gd did it; Gd told prophets to write the various strata, to introduce various problems, etc. and then sometimes told later prophets to edit the text.” Also, throughout the golden ages of Biblical interpretation Gd hid this for the most part from Chazal, who thought they were interpreting (for lack of a better word, sorry–acknowledgement to Professor David Weiss Halivni) an immaculate text while doing their extensive exegeses. Am I missing something or am I getting Kugel right? It seems Kugel has given up most of the chips.

    • You wrote:
      In view of the “contradictions within the Torah, or apparently unnecessary repetitions, or signs of later editing or interpolation” the move to explain by saying “Gd did it” seems a bit far fetched, does it not?

      That would be the position of Rav Breuer. Look at the critical data and interpret it differently as God’s will.

      Kugel’s choice is much starker. He see the contradictions and chooses the path of Jubilees, Midrash, and Yalkut Shimon.

  2. Fascinating. There was a time that RDZ Hoffman’s approach of dealing with criticism interested me but then I started finding the arguments convoluted and confusing. By the time I read Rabbi Breuer;s book on Breishit I had accepted that biblical criticism was irreleveant as far as we Jews are concerned. Professor Kugel has put it into cogent words and I thank him for it.

  3. Even if someone could point to contradictions within the Torah, or apparently unnecessary repetitions, or signs of later editing or interpolation—none of this has any bearing on the Torah’s divine origin: after all, who makes up the rules of what a divine text can or cannot consist of?

    I can’t begin to agree with this. A deity incapable of producing a more coherent text (not to mention a less violent one) isn’t one I can respect. If he’s using this as a blanket concept to include divine inspiration, I might find that acceptable, but he doesn’t seem to like that term.

    He was more than shocked at the lack of basic exposure in the Orthodox community to historical thinking and critical studies.

    Here’s something you may find interesting. I met Kugel at Harvard three or four years ago, and we spoke for several minutes. The subject of Orthopraxy came up (I can’t remember how or why), and he said he’d never met anyone who practiced but didn’t believe. I told him there was a sizable and growing online community of people who engaged in Orthopraxy – people who no longer believed, but remained in that world for various reasons (family connections, lack of opportunity for leaving, etc.) and needed to put on the appearance of being frum (Sol Schimmel told me he did it for more-or-less sentimental reasons; he had happy childhood memories associated with observance). He replied that he had only recently learned of the existence of the online community (although it had been around for some time), and that he didn’t understand it; he didn’t see how it would be possible to maintain that kind of existence. He seemed genuinely perplexed.

    Now you mention this. It seems odd to me that he’s so unaware of what’s going on in the frum world. As you may recall, I was never frum and I now have an antipathy to the tradition and to religion in general, yet even I am at least passingly aware of much of it (perhaps I have too much time on my hands).

    Yes, one must be Orthodox

    What do you mean by “must”? Are you saying one is obligated because of divine fiat, or that if one wishes to practice Judaism, Orthodoxy is the only legitimate form?

  4. Jeff, it is interesting that your comment shows how much your thinking is affected by religion. It is the Torah and its supposed imperfections (to put it mildly) that get you all worked up. Isn’t that in itself a proof to its divine source? Conflict and dialectics are at the root of our humanity and the Torah feeds into it giving us the opportunity to grow.

    • It is the Torah and its supposed imperfections (to put it mildly) that get you all worked up.

      Um… I’m not “all worked up”.

      Isn’t that in itself a proof to its divine source?

      Seriously?

  5. Alan, Kugel writes in the same paragraph from which I quoted: “The Torah consists of words, and there is no litmus test that can determine that this word came from G-d while that word was inserted by Moses (or someone else). Words are words are words….none of this has any bearing on the Torah’s divine origin: after all, who makes up the rules of what a divine text can or cannot consist of? This may sound like an apologetic approach, but when you think about it, it’s just the simple truth: who are we to determine what or how G-d can put in His book, or how it can arrive in our hands?”

    Kugel here can be mean one of two things: 1. All of the Tana”ch is the word of the Divine and the problems were introduced by Gd. (This is what I thought he meant before I read your reply); or 2. Some of the Torah is of Divine origin but much of it is the result of fallible human endeavors.

    But you wrote regarding Kugel: “He accepts the entire text as Torah min Hashamayim and therefore rejects any approach that minimizes God’s role.” Kugel also says: “I think it is best to deal with modern biblical scholarship not by hiding from it, but by understanding that its underpinnings are based on a conception of Scripture that is altogether alien to Judaism and, frankly, to everything other scholars and I have discovered about the very idea of Scripture as found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient texts.” And “Torah min ha-Shamayim is what counts. As Hazal said, anyone who says the whole Torah comes from G-d except for this one pasuk, which Moshe wrote on his own—such a person is a blasphemer who dishonors the Torah.”

    So what does Kugel mean?
    George

  6. From a "Feel Good" Orthodox scholar (Joshua Berman)

    I want to thank my colleagues Alan and Jim for having this important conversation, and for sharing with us. I would challenge, though, Professor Kugel’s contention that interest in the pshat of the text in its ancient Near Eastern context is, somehow, not an authentic Jewish approach. Maimonides stakes his claim on this clearly in Guide 3:32, 3:49 and elsewhere: the text of the Torah is a snapshot in time. It demonstrates to us how the Almighty endeavored to bring Israel from a lowly state *gradually* and *slowly* to the next step. He says explicitly that the more we know about the ancient Neat East, the more we can appreciate Hashem’s moves, and the more we can appreciate the pshat level of the Torah. Ralbag in his final gloss to Exodus claims that were we to understand ancient modes of composition, we would better understand the Torah. These are authentic Jewish approaches.

  7. Jon A. Levisohn

    Each time Kugel refers to “the very idea of Scripture” or the “core idea of Torah” or some such formulation, orally or in writing, that’s the time to sit up and take notice. For example: “Scripture is sacred but more sacred still [is] the purpose underlying the very idea of Scripture.” Read the final chapter of “How to Read the Bible” to understand what he thinks that idea is (esp. starting on p682). That’s his theology.

    I myself am not sure whether Kugel is genuinely esoteric in his writing, in the Straussian sense, but there’s some good evidence that he is, i.e., that he intends for his writing to be taken at two levels, one level for the masses (a simple affirmation of faith in both Torah mi-Sinai and Torah min ha-Shamayim) and a second level for the mevinim (as when he writes, on his website, “The basic idea that Israel’s connection to God is to be articulated through avodat H’ … is the whole substance of the Sinai revelation,” which is not contradictory to the simple affirmation of faith so much as a gloss that changes everything).

  8. This sounds like it must have been a fascinating conference! Thank you, Alan, for doing such a great job of spreading the contents of the conversation.
    I teach Bible at Yeshiva University, where this issue is very much a live one. The obstacle is that in most people’s minds (and for good reason), the line is not between “Jewish” and “Protestant” readings of the Bible, but between pre-modern readings (which happen to be Jewish) and modern (which are overwhelmingly Protestant).
    I can’t help thinking that there’s still some obfuscation (or self-denial) going on here, though. Fine, God gave the Torah. Why are there so many doublets, contradictions, tensions, etc.? Does Kugel expect all the modern readers to adopt the “solutions” suggested in Jubilees and the like? That doesn’t sound like a productive strategy. So now that he explained to everyone how the modern/Protestant readers solve all the problems, what’s he offering as an alternative?

    • Also, does it seem to be Kugel’s saying we, as Orthodox Jews, shouldn’t have our heads in the sand when it comes to Biblical criticism, yet he also says it cannot be utilized in an Orthodox theology. So what exactly are we supposed to take away from all this, as Aaron’s saying? His entire dismissal of those who integrate criticism and knowledge of the ANE in forming a contemporary theology, like Ben Sommer, Levenson, et al, based on the misguided position that this is not “traditional” is extremely bizarre, as illustrated by Josh Berman above. It’s also not intellectually honest, as Aaron’s implying- if modernity has led to new discoveries and understandings of Tanach, what good reason, religious of otherwise, should prevent us from utilizing that knowledge?

  9. I wonder what Prof Kugel makes of the Rashbam, ibn Ezra, Bechor-Shor, Radak, etc. They seemed concerned with peshat. Were they proto-Protestants? It’s been a while since I looked at his book, but, if I remember correctly, I was struck by how he ignored the medieval pashtanim.

    Personally, I loved and learned a great deal from his earlier scholarly books on early biblical Interpretation. But I find the wholesale dismissal of any religious relevance of modern bibilcal scholarship in “How to read the Bible” troubling. This ties in with Kugel’s neglect of the medieval pashtanim. For in many ways their approaches feed into those of modern biblical scholarship.

    I suggest readers of this blog read, if they have not already done so, Prof. Ben Sommer’s critique of ” How to Read the Bible” in JQR. A response tothe critique by Prof. Kugel is available on-line. I found the critique more convincing than the response.

  10. Shavua Tov. This was a very revealing post and thank you both!

    Personally, I am unimpressed with Prof. Kugel’s dismissal of literary readings of the Bible.

    • To move you from your personal impressionistic impulse to something cognitive on this thirty year old discussion, first read James Kugel, “On the Bible and Literary Criticism.” Prooftexts 1 (1981): 217-36.Adele Berlin’s ‘On the Bible as Literature’, Prooftexts 2 (1982), pp. 323-28, with a response by James Kugel
      Rebecca Raphael, That’s No Literature, That’s My Bible: On James Kugel’s Objections to the Idea of Biblical Poetry. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament;Sep2002, Vol. 27 Issue 1.

      And even if accepts literary methods, what is the relationship between the literary text and the text as revelation, you can start with Paul Ricouer, Essays on Biblical Interpretation. Transl. David Pellauer. Philadelphia: Fortress Press,

  11. I meant: “Jews do not study the biblical text alone, in isolation,” because for us the Torah is not, and never was, just the Torah’s own words on the page, but it was those words plus the interpretations and explanations of the Torah she-be’al peh that constituted the Torah’s true meaning.

    Yes. But this statement neglects the speculative element that has been part of our tradition til very recently – see for eg.the Netziv’s comments on the end of parashat Bereishit (bnei Anak etc.) which have little basis AFAIK in midrash and seem to be largely the result of his own analysis and speculation.

    Rav Soloveitchik did engage in this kind of speculative (one might even say Nietzschean) kind of analysis. Though his talmidim seem to do this less full-heartedly.

    Creating derashot that mix midrash and Mesopotamian elements in the text is a kind of sha’atnez that must ultimately be unfaithful to either approach, and usually ends up censoring out of each anything that might call into question their combination. It’s just a kind feel-good operation. Lots of people like this feel-good stuff, including lots of Orthodox Jews.

    There is something to Kugel’s evaluation. But there is nothing wrong with a “feel-good operation”. Just as there is nothing wrong with a “musar operation”.

    A large part of academia these days is a feel-good operation. Leo Strauss points out that the original apikorus (Epicurus himself) conceived of his heresy as a feel-good operation.

  12. Dr. Brill, do you think the full text of the different lectures will be published or otherwise made accessible ? Maybe online ? I, for one, would be very interested to hear the whole thing.

  13. Alan – it seems that Kugel believes in a type of continuous divine revelation if he believes in torah min ha-shamayim and any of the findings of modern biblical scholarship in dating of text (maybe he doesn’t believe in the latter). or does he reject all modern biblical scholarship of dating as well as multiple documents?

    what doe he mean when he says: ” I wouldn’t want to seem to say by this that the text of our Torah was given over a period of centuries or anything like that—just that it is all of divine origin.” but it seems he believes this.

    he can tap dance all he wants around the subject (its divine) but how can he believe that kol ot v’ot was given to moshe via God?
    He believes in a “handoff” between God and the jewish people – but really never says what was in that handoff. am i missing something or just confused with all this talk?
    thank you for this post.

  14. How is the argument that the contradictions, repetations etc could have been God given any different in essence than the argument that the fossil layers, do not constitute proof of evolution, since they could have been laid down by God (perhaps as a test of faith?). Don’t both arguments have a slightly hollow sound when tapped even gently?

    • That would be the approach of Rabbi M. Breuer. It is not the approach here.

    • Don’t both arguments have a slightly hollow sound when tapped even gently?

      It’s a mistake to view these statements as “arguments” – they are “terutzim” (ie. perfectly good terutzim).

      These terutzim make sense to people who regard torah misinai and maaseh bereshit as things that are known a priori ie.thru tradition and/or emuna peshuta – before all the intellectualizing begins.

  15. Very fascinating discussion! Thank you Alan.

    Lawrence Kaplan raises an important point about the medieval pashtanim. But we should also bear in mind that this approach was in some ways a reaction and response to contemporary christian polemic, and a departure from the freer and more pluralistic midrashic approach.

  16. That our Hebrew Scriptures should have a fascination beyond belief and life in the tradition of torah min hashamayaim or of torah misinai should not surprize or dismay those who generally relate to Torah as God-given. But there are many Jews who view our scriptures as holy, but do not accept unreservedly it being served on a b’al peh tray. There are, whether one cares to admit it or not, pluralists, non-traditionalists, for whom Kugal’s works are intriguing findings but approach tradition in a more bracketed way, for those who love it as literature — .Jewish literature. There are those who accept it as literature stimulated and simulating to a great degree by the contemporaneous literatures of the pre-exilic environment. As universal as it undoubtedly is, it is specific to particular a society, a society that today is difficult to conceive yet accept.

  17. Kugel continues to be confounded by people “misunderstanding” his work. No matter how many times he tries to explain it, to us simple folk it still makes no sense. Torah M’sinai is a founding principle of Orthodox Judaism. That means the text as we have it (excluding lower criticism issues) was given at Sinai and/or over the 40 year wilderness period. Biblical criticism is 100% at odds with that, whether you are a Protestant or Jewish scholar (and there are plenty of Jewish and even Orthodox scholars). So you have 3 choices[according to the simple folk]. You reject biblical criticism as false from a purely scholarly perspective (something Kugel does not do) a la Hoffman; you accept its principles but say God wrote it as if it was written by various authors over many years- a la Breuer; you accept its principles and deal with its theological implications a la Jacobs; But a la Kugel makes no sense [to the simple folk] no matter how many times he tries to explain himself.

    • R DZ Hoffman most decidedly does not “reject BibCrit from a purely scholarly perspective”. He states explicitly that the BibCrit methods are to be axiomatically rejected. Instead his work purports to show that Wellhausen is wrong even “le-divreichem” ie. using tools and assumptions that RDZH does not himself accept.

      if you were to demolish his work from a BibCrit perspective, RDZH might agree with the criticisms and renounce his arguments against Wellhausen. But this would have no impact on his theology.

  18. Hatley, respectfully, Professor Kugel is not “confounded” by anyone, as far as I can tell. A good scholar’s conclusions are driven by the evidence available, no matter how the cookie crumbles, and he learns to live with the consequences of those conclusions. (As opposed to an apologist who knows what he would like to believe and then selects a convenient theory in support.) Kugel doen’t “choose” convenient answers because the evidence appears inconsistent with them, as he has explained in the book and elsewhere.

  19. There will be a follow-up post in a day from Prof Kugel, so ask your questions this afternoon if you have any substantive questions that reflect a deep reading of his work and the needed academic background. Non-intellectual comments and those that dont show the requisite reading will not be forwarded to him.

  20. Would a belief in Torah meSinai and min haShamayim also necessarily require a kind of literal belief in a particular historical narrative or set of
    them; or could we also include as a legitimate construal of it, via a
    meta-principle of Torah min haShamayim that states Shivim Panim laTorah, containing the possibility of Torah meSinai and min haShamayim, as the sacred Mashal haKadmoni [as we have it today, interpretive tools, and with all the inconsistencies in Masoretic spelling and times of composition and redaction], and is as such, meSinai [where the traditional distinctions between Torah and Na”Ch inhere] and min haShamayim – as the ongoing unfolding of Torah sheBaal-Peh – without requiring a faith in the historicity of a personage called Moshe, who when he counted the Levites and the First-born of the 600,000 Israelite males, found them both to be around 22,000 – against all family-demographic logic?

  21. Is the rest of nach, outside of chumash also divine and min hashamayim, and if so in what way? Is it possible for the history books, Joshua thru Kings 2 as well as the Book of Esther to make historical mistakes? Can entire chapters be fictions?

  22. Michah Gottlieb

    Thanks for posting this!

    Two questions:

    1. Historically: Does Kugel believe in an original text of Pentateuch revealed to Moses at Sinai? If so, how does what was revealed to Moses relate to the Masoretic Bible? Does Kugel believe that there was fluidity in the text of Pentateuch? If so, for how long?

    2. Theologically: If Kugel believes that there were accretions/changes to the original text of the Pentateuch does he believe that these accretions/changes were the result of divine revelation (God speaking to man) or purely human activity? Or does he believe in an original revealed text to Moses (God speaking to man) and then see later changes/accretions in the text as part of an exegetical process that uncovers the deeper meaning of the original textual revelation (of course this cannot account for much of lower criticism)? Or does he have some other view?

  23. Prof. Kugel writes in How To Read The Bible that, at a certain period in time, these (on the whole, rather unedifying) texts came to be reinterpreted as a moral code which taught that worship of God means devoting one’s life, in its every moment and aspect, to divine service. It is this moment – not the moment of original authorship, but the moment the text underwent this reinterpretation – that Prof. Kugel identifies as the moment of revelation. But he also writes in his book that this reinterpretation began to occur in the period of the wisdom literature and as part of that cultural shift. He writes, moreover, that the wisdom literature – and its conceptions of worship and morality – were influenced by Hellenistic thought. Is Prof. Kugel then implying that the divine revelation to the Jewish people was actually mediated/influenced by Hellenism? This seems to be an (unstated, of course) implication of his writing. I may have got this all completely wrong, but if not, I would be very interested to hear a response to this question.

    • anonymous- I think you are on to something real. Can you pick a name even if a pseudonym to ID yourself for discussion?

    • Anon – i don’t think Kugel equates reinterpretation with revelation. He has stated many times that he believes in a “handoff” between God and the jewish people. what and when is always sketchy – my opinion. while the reinterpretation takes place around the time of wisdom literature he also states that coincides with viewing the entire pentateuch as solely a work authored by God( first seen in jubilees chap. 11)- also ascribed to the text hidden prophetic meanings. again, it has nothing to do with revelation but the ancient interpretators creating the “biblical”.
      “…wisdom mentality seems to have exercised a profound influence on how the bible was perceived in late biblical times.” p.671 also reread the last 2 paragraphs of the book.

  24. Anonymous, do you a citation in the book for your first assertion (“It is this moment…that Kugel identifies”)?

    • I guess I may have misremembered. Prof. Kugel does write (p.687): “…it seems to me that the whole matter of Scripture’s inspiration can only be understood in connection with the overall change in Israel’s apprehension of God…Rather, as some rabbinic texts themselves intimate, it [Divine inspiration] all has to do with the great, single revelation that inaugurated (and on which was predicated) Israel’s changed apprehension of God.” And as he also writes on his website, in answer to a reader, “What really underlies everything — and what was the ongoing substance of the Sinai revelation — was the revelation of a new way of being connected to God.”
      He also suggests that this changed apprehension occurred in the closing centuries BCE. (“..one is left with the conclusion that most of what makes the Bible biblical is not inherent in its texts, but emerges only when one reads them in a certain way, a way that came into full flower in the closing centuries BCE.” p. 668. “It is really the wisdom mind-set that made so many ancient texts into Scripture.” p.671)
      In any event, in light of Prof. Kugel’s acknowledgement of the human initiative involved in this “changed apprehension” (“at a certain point in this history…Israel began to conceive of a different sort of “standing up close”, p.683), it’s curious that he is so hostile to the “human response to the ineffable Divine” formulation. Even if we are talking about reinterpretation, and not revelation, here, Prof. Kugel does nevertheless maintain that “frankly, we don’t really seem to (sic) all that aware of, or even care much about, where the dividing-line falls.” (answer to a reader on his website). And also that the (re)interpretation is more important than the words themselves (p. 685).
      Anyhow, my original question was just that I’m curious to know to what extent this change was influenced by cosmopolitan cultural influences.
      One last suggestive quote from the Professor: “All of these texts underwent a radical change in meaning…The original meaning of these texts disappeared. In a sense, ancient intepreters rewrote every one of them, even though they did not change a word.” p.518

  25. If Midrash is how Jews understand Scripture — then doesn’t Kugel’s enterprise of providing historicist literary origins to Midrash undercut that reading? Isn’t there a profound difference between understanding the Torah through Midrashic lens, and understanding Midrash through Kugel’s lens?

    In other words, having declared that Midrash is the true Jewish meaning of scriptures, doesn’t Kugel replicate all the problems of the Documentary Hypothesis by doing scholarship on Midrash?

  26. From a "Feel Good" Orthodox scholar (Joshua Berman)

    Nothing “biblical” in the Bible? Well, let’s see. In the Mesopotamian flood account, when the hero disembarks from the ark, the gods work double-overtime to find ways to limit human re-production, so that mankind won’t disturb the gods by making too much noise. And when Noah dismebarks the ark in the (uninspiring simple reading of) Bible, God says “be fruitful and multiply.” That’s pretty “biblical” to me, and it’s long before the Hellenistic era. In fact, it makes me “feel good.”

  27. Prof Kugel and others can propose diverse theologies of Revelation – as did Louis Jacobs. The problem is in the use of the word ‘Orthodox’. That group of scholars has no control over this moving target. Ownership of the term has been decisively taken by the Haredi/Yeshivah world. They have increasingly less tolerance of any but the most narrow interpretation of the term, or of any theory which suggests anything other than letter for letter revelation by God to Moses on Mt Sinai, and an immutable text. [See the latest public controversy just emerging in Toronto]. They have no knowledge of or interest in any of the scholarship or research. It is a sociological phenomenon. In this context — no-one who would be featured, mentioned, referred to or who would contribute to this blog would be termed ‘Orthodox’.

  28. What happened in Toronto?

    • Presumably the reference is to this: http://www.cjnews.com/?q=node/101489

      • Prof Lockshin wrote a Canadian Jewish News review of Rabbi Norman Solomon’s book on Torah min Hashamayim; the Vaad Harabbonim (sic), chaired by R’Shlomo Miller, deemed the review (let alone the book) beyond the pale: Rabbi Korobkin of the BAYT wrote a review of the review in the CJN; this was not sufficient for the Vaad, who issued a Kol Koreh.
        A well-known anti-Slifkin website has also taken up the cudgels against Profs Lockshin/Solomon. Ask your Toronto / Thornhill friends for further background….. {I am no longer there}. Enjoy/weep.

  29. Could we please learn to separate the issues of so-called higher criticism from lower criticism in these discussions? The hyperliteralist view of the Rambam’s eighth iqqar is simply not defensible (and see R. Yaakov Weinberg’s Fundamentals and faith: insights into the Rambam’s 13 principles for a concession on that score if you need one). This is one of the errors that Halivni made in his treatment of Torah shebikhtav; he doesn’t distinguish between lower criticism, which at times is grounded in fact, and higher criticism which remains “hypothetical.” Discussions of “lower criticism” are found in Rashi, Tosafot, R. Hai Gaon, R. Akiva Eiger, Rashba etc., with a variety of opinions being put forth on how to relate to apparently variant citations from the Bible in Hazal. “Higher criticism” contradicts the notion of Torah mi-Sinai; “lower criticism” does not.

    • Where would you draw the line? An added letter is lower criticism, presumably. An added verse? An added chapter? An added book?

      • Also, plenty in the domain of higher criticism is not hypothetical. Are parallel ANE texts, differences between parallel accounts within the Torah, differences in sentence structure, word usage, appearance of cognates, and the like hypothetical? (is archaeology hypothetical?) Ok, so what you make of them relies on theory, but then again, lower criticism is also theory-laden. If the hyperliteralist view of the Rambam’s eighth iqqar has epistemic priority for you then you will offer all sorts of alternative theories to account for these variations. If Torah mi-Sinai has epistemic priority for you then you can offer alternatives as well. If I trot out a Rashi or Ramban that deals with a textual discrepancy addressed in higher criticism does this kasher higher crit?

        It is easy enough to draw a line at the point where it is theologically comfortable for you. But that’s all it is, a reflection of where you feel comfortable.

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