James Kugel has written a new book, The Kingly Sanctuary, a short volume explaining his views on the Bible, Oral tradition, and Judaism. While based on his earlier writings, he is clearly answering many of the questions he has received in the last few years from his troubled religious readers. The book is currently available only as an e-book; a hard-copy paperback is due out in another few weeks. It is a fun read and between that and this interview all your questions about Kugel’s views will be hopefully answered.
This interview is third in a series of interviews with Kugel on this blog. The first one is here and the second one is here. There seems to be a greater clarity and a much greater role for an independent act of faith in the commanding voice of revelation than the first interview or in the appendix to his 2007 book. Kugel seems to deny this change in his articulation, yet greater readers than I such as Marilynne Robinson also read his book as I did, far from the positions in this interview.
In short, here is as an introduction to this interview for those trying to follow the discussion. Prof James Kugel was a professor of Bible, Second Temple literature, and Midrash at Harvard and Bar Ilan universities (he’s now retired from both)., He started off by writing an award winning book on The Idea of Biblical Poetry, then began to concentrate on Judaism in the Second Temple period and, in particular, the Dead Sea Scrolls. He is not an archeologist or historian of the ancient Near East such as professors David Carr or Jacob Wright (Read their interviews to see the difference).
Kugel wrote another book (How to Read the Bible) in which he contrasts traditional Jewish and Christian understandings of the Bible, which were based on ancient interpretations and traditions not found in the text itself, with the modern critical approach, which seeks to uncover the original meaning of different parts of the Bible by studying them in terms of their original historical setting and incorporating everything that archaeologists, Assyriologists, Egyptologists, and others have discovered about the world of the Bible. He personally advocates the former approach as the only appropriate one within a Jewish framework. But many of his readers found his outsider’s presentation (in that he is not a Biblical source critic) of the critical method as cogent, convincing, and more attractive than Jewish midrash. Think of a believing philosophy professor who is better in his lectures at presenting atheism than belief.
In this current interview (and book), we have a clear confessional acceptance of revelation that is entirely separate from modern Biblical study. Now, the divine sound of revelation breaks through and commands the Jews to serve Him. Now, the Bible is a work of teaching us how to serve God, albeit as known through the historic text and its interpreters.
He wears at least four hats and keeps them quite separate. He can encapsulate the work of the Biblical historians, he can then change his hat and describe his own beliefs, he can be a critical scholar of Second Temple traditions, and he can explain the modern rise of Bible as literature. I see this interview as finally answering all our queries on Kugel’s Biblical positions. But now we are opening up a whole new set of questions on the nature of Judaism’s oral tradition. Are we back to discussing the theological positions of Shadal, Krochmal, and IH Weiss on the Oral Law?
As noted in the first interview, Kugel did not realize that not just high school students but much of the observant community including its leaders and authors lack the requisite exposure to historical thinking and critical studies. He also cannot begin to address those lacking a good humanities education. Before commenting on the blog, I invite my readers who fall into the latter category and think revelation can be proved to peruse the writings of Hume, Hobbs, and Kant on religion, or a good introduction to the philosophy of religion.
1) What is revelation? What do you mean when you say that Judaism without revelation is impossible because it virtually denies God ?
The term revelation refers to God appearing to, and/or speaking to, human beings, just as the Torah recounts. I’ve always believed these are real encounters, as I tried to show in an earlier book of mine, The God of Old (so anyone who wants a longer account of things should look there).
I know that there are people who wish to claim that the Torah, or all of Scripture, is simply a human creation, because God does not, or cannot, actually speak to human beings. To me this seems a contradiction in terms. Without a God who can, and did, speak to humans, Judaism makes no sense.
2) How much of the Torah was given at Sinai?
As most Jews know, there are two classical assertions about the Torah’s origins, known by the shorthand expressions Torah mi-Sinai (i.e., the Torah was given at a particular time and place, that is, at Mount Sinai after the exodus from Egypt) and Torah min ha-Shamayim, that the Torah was given to Israel by God. (The word Shamayim, “Heaven,” is a common way of saying “God” in rabbinic Hebrew, as in the phrase yir’at Shamayim, “the fear of God,” Malkhut Shamayim, “God’s kingship,” and similar expressions.)
I’ve never denied either of these formulations (I’ve always said that I’m not out to create a new form of Judaism, just trying to live with the old one). But I should point out that of these two classical assertions, only the second one—Torah min ha-Shamayim—is a weight-bearing member in the structure of Judaism (see thus its mention Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1).
On this our rabbis were quite clear: anyone who says that the whole Torah came from God except for such-and-such a verse, claiming instead that it was introduced by Moses on his own authority—to such a person apply the words of Num 15:31, “For he has impugned the word of the Lord and violated His commandment” (b. Sanhedrin 99a).
In other words, the role of Moses in transmitting the Torah to Israel was simply that of a go-between: the fact that he was the go-between and not someone else had no bearing on the Torah’s content. The same of course is true of the place involved. Sinai’s actual location was so unimportant to our rabbis that no one today knows where it really was—we’re not even sure that it was located somewhere in the Sinai peninsula, which was so named because of a much later theory that that is where the mountain was.
The thing that does matter is that the Torah came from God, that is, Torah min ha-Shamayim. This is absolutely essential. At the same time, as many people have pointed out, this is a claim that is not subject to proof or refutation. The Torah is made of words, and words don’t come with little flags attached to them, identifying this word as of divine origin and that one as merely human.
To put it another way, Torah min ha-Shamayim is an article of faith. That is why no biblical scholar I have ever heard of has said that modern research proves that this or that part of the Bible did not come from God; this is just not subject to scientific verification. Either you believe it or you don’t. I do.
3) So is the Torah just Divine inspiration?
I don’t know what “just Divine inspiration” means. The Tanakh presents different pictures of how prophecy works. Most often, God is said to speak to prophets, but it is not clear how exactly this happens—or what happens next. Bil‘am was undeniably a prophet, but he seems to have turned whatever he heard from God into what the Torah calls meshalim, couplets apparently of his own composition that sound a lot like biblical poetry. God at times showed Jeremiah or other prophets images or pictures, and then asked them, “What do you see?” (Spinoza made much of this, sliding the Latin word imaginatio from “mental image” to “imagination” in our sense.)
On the other hand, Philo of Alexandria, an otherwise rational Alexandrian Jew of the first century, said that when God speaks to prophets, He takes over their minds completely, so that when they recover from their prophetic trance, they don’t know what they said or what it means.
As I said before, I believe that God speaks to human beings; but not being a prophet myself, I’m really not sure what this is like. Something tells me it’s not a matter of words traveling on sound waves through the air that separates God’s mouth from the prophet’s ear. If you object to this by reminding me that the Torah itself says that God spoke to Moses “face to face, as a man speaks to his fellow” (Exod 33:11), I would say that this is an expression of what the Torah says elsewhere (Num 12:7-8, Deut 34:10-12), that there never was a prophet like Moses—no one else reached his degree of closeness to God. But I don’t think I would push this into being a literal description.
(People often ask in this connection about Maimonides’ eighth principle and his assertion that “we believe that the entire Torah presently in our possession is the one given to Moses our master…Moses was like a scribe writing from dictation.” Everyone in Maimonides’ day knew precisely what he was talking about, though it has subsequently been forgotten and his meaning distorted. What he had in mind was the Islamic doctrine of tahrif, “distortion,” namely, the claim that while Moses had gotten the true Torah, it had been distorted by Ezra the scribe, so that the Jews no longer had the correct text. This claim Maimonides rightly rejected; but he was also careful to say that it all came from God “in the manner that is metaphorically called ‘speaking.'” That is to say, it really wasn’t words moving on sound waves through the air.)
In fact, I would give the same answer that Albert Abbadi, the protagonist of my new book The Kingly Sanctuary, gives to Judd when the latter insists that the Torah must be factual history because it was “written by the finger of God” (Exod 31:18): “I see,” Abbadi says. “It is, whatever else it is, necessarily factual. Then perhaps you will explain to me in what sense God has a finger, as factually reported the verse you just cited.”
4) How is the Bible not history? If it is not history, then why in How to Read the Bible did you seem to treat it as history? Your readers are confused.
The Bible certainly recounts historical events, but merely relating history is never the point. Here I am hesitant to use any kind of analogy, especially a literary one, since I’ve been arguing against the appropriateness of such analogies since I wrote an article called “The Bible as Literature” more than thirty years ago. So I don’t think that the Tanakh is like Shakespeare.
But I would say this: Shakespeare’s Hamlet may be based on a certain obscure Danish ruler named “Amleth,” whose story was told in the medieval chronicle Deeds of the Danes by Saxo Grammaticus, but most people don’t read or see the play Hamlet in order to find out what really happened to the historical Amleth. Same with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and the real events surrounding the assassination of a Roman tyrant by the same name in the first century BCE. It is in this sense, too, that the Bible is not merely relating history.
My readers are confused? I suppose some of them are. But the whole point of How to Read the Bible was to argue against the approach of modern biblical scholarship, with its systematic exclusion of the great exegetical traditions that have accompanied the Torah from the start, as well as against modern scholarship’s relentless focus instead on “what really happened,” that is, the historical events underlying biblical texts. In chapter after chapter, I contrasted what modern scholars have discovered about “what really happened” —much of it carried out with great insight and skill, let it be said—to the way in which the Bible had been read and understood by both Jews and Christians for centuries and centuries before.
These two approaches, I said, are fundamentally incompatible, and their incompatibility has put lots of modern Protestants in particular in a bind. In order to make this argument, of course, I had to give my readers an extended look at how modern scholarship works and what it has figured out; nor did I hide my admiration for some of its practitioners and what they have been able to do. But the incompatibility remains.
For Jews, I went on to say, the solution to this problem is clear, since it has always been in place: our Torah is not about “what really happened” and is not limited to the words on the page alone. Rather, ours is the Torah as it was explained and expounded by the rabbis of Talmud and midrash, a great, multiform text that combines the written words, the torah she-bikhtav, with the oral traditions explaining their meaning, the torah she-be‘al peh. It is as concerned with “what really happened” as Hamlet is with “Amleth.” Still confused? I can’t put it more clearly than that.
5) Wasn’t the Bible changed during Beit Sheni (the Second Temple Period)?
This is an important question, since the answer says something fundamental about the significance of divine revelation in Judaism. Interestingly, this is a subject on which modern biblical scholarship does have something to say.
Biblical scholars have demonstrated over the last two centuries that many books in the Tanakh have undergone a lengthy process of editing and supplementation. (Actually, part of this insight goes back far earlier: for example, the great medieval biblicist Abraham ibn Ezra suggested that the later chapters of the book of Isaiah, starting with chapter 40, did not come from the biblical prophet Isaiah, who lived in the eighth century BCE; they seem to presume a historical setting toward the end of the Babylonian exile, or perhaps still later.)
Thanks to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we now know that the book of Jeremiah circulated in at least two different editions in Second Temple times; the one that Jews translated into Greek in the late third or early second century BCE (the so-called Septuagint edition) is considerably shorter—by about eight chapters’ worth—than our current Hebrew text, and the order of the chapters is different from ours. Through careful examination, scholars have come to similar conclusions about quite a few books in the Bible. In fact, we can sometimes see this process of revision and supplementation continuing in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The obvious question that this raises is: How dare they? How dare someone come along and take a sacred text, one that had been preserved for centuries, and start fiddling with its contents?
If we could ask an ancient prophet or sage how he dared to change this or that piece of Scripture, I think I know some of the reasons he might give: “There was an apparent inconsistency between what it says here and what it says there—so I had to clarify things”; “Ordinary people wouldn’t understand this particular word/place-name/historical reference”; “I had to highlight what is really important in the prophet’s words for us nowadays”; or sometimes, “Our sages just don’t think that way anymore,” or “We don’t do that anymore.” But this in turn tells us something basic about the idea of divinely given Scripture in biblical times. It was divine, but not unalterable. I don’t believe there is any other way to construe the evidence.
6) But how can that be? Do you mean they just had a different idea of what was permitted, a different set of “rules of the game”?
This touches on what is really the main point. I think that there is, and always has been, something very basic in Judaism, so basic that we tend not to talk about it—it’s just obvious. But it deserves to be said here. The whole idea of Judaism (I suppose one has to be over the age of 60 to start off a sentence this way) is that we can come close to God by doing His bidding, that is, by keeping His commandments. This is what Judaism is all about—what is called in Hebrew avodat ha-Shem, the service of God. This may sound like some theological abstraction, but it underlies everything religious Jews do every day, from the birkhot ha-shahar that they say first thing in the morning until the keriyat Shema that they before going to sleep at night. Avodat ha-Shem is the whole purpose for which the Torah was given to Israel: to set out a detailed list of actions, great and small, to be done throughout our daily lives, 613 concrete do’s and don’ts that bring us closer to God.
But precisely because avodat ha-Shem is so important, our rabbis did not hesitate to add to those 613 commandments, fleshing out the details and sometimes promulgating what are called mitzvot de-rabbanan, commandments transmitted on the authority of the rabbis alone. This interest in fleshing things out is what stands behind every page of Gemara, and for that matter, every paragraph of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah or Yosef Karo’s Shulhan Arukh. And in the end it is why we are not fundamentalists or literalists: even the apparent sense of a verse in the Torah is sometimes expanded or modified in the interest of avodat ha-Shem, serving God more fully.
Of course, there have always been people who are bothered by this fact, and I understand why. They want to claim that everything comes from God—not only the Torah and the rest of Tanakh, but the entire Mishnah and Tosefta, all the give-and-take of the two Talmuds, all of midrash, the decisions of Geonim, everything that Rashi said, and so on, right down to the teshuvot of R. Moshe Feinstein ztz’’l.
I know where this desire to attribute everything to God comes from, but I think it’s quite wrong-headed: at some point ordinary human beings, or extraordinary ones, have to enter the process. In fact, this is a basic principle (a kelal gadol, I would say) in Judaism: what starts in heaven eventually has to come down to earth, or, as the rabbis said, Lo ba-shamayim hi, the Torah started out in heaven, but it is no longer up there. Even in the days of Hazal (the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud), the Torah was held to have been given over to human interpreters, human poskim, human authorities. And our rabbis were not bothered by this handoff; it was central to their whole view of Torah and avodat ha-Shem.
I mentioned one concrete example of this in my new book, The Kingly Sanctuary. Various sorts of calendars were used by Jews in Second Temple times. One was based on the Babylonian calendar, in which each month began with the new moon and ended 29 or 30 days later, at the end of the lunar cycle. Twelve lunar months make for 354 days per year, so this calendar required an extra month to be intercalated at irregular intervals. Exactly when each month began was determined by human observation, just as when that extra month was to be added was originally decided on an ad hoc basis by human beings, specifically by a board of experts learned in these matters.
But there was another Jewish calendar, used by the Dead Sea Scrolls community and others in Second Temple times. It was based on the solar year of 365 and a quarter days. Month had no connection with the lunar cycle (just as our September or January don’t). They were arbitrary units of 30 days apiece, making for 360 days over 12 months; another 5 or 6 days were interspersed and/or added in some other way to bring the total into equilibrium with the solar year.
Which calendar was better? Both could certainly claim to be the “right” calendar: after all, the Torah nowhere tells us which sort of calendar to use. (Supporters of the sun-based calendar actually claimed that the biblical chronology of the flood supported their case—see Genesis 7:11 and 8:3-4). In any case, one could certainly say about the sun-based calendar that, in a sense, it came straight from Heaven, since it required no human intermediaries: no two witnesses testifying that they saw the new moon, as in our Hebrew calendar, no intercalating a second Adar, no human intervention at all. So why not adopt it?
But Hazal actually gloried in the other calendar and our human role in determining the months. That is why we say on every Rosh Hodesh: “Blessed are You…who established the laws of Rosh Hodesh for them [Israel]; blessed are You who have sanctified Israel [that is, given us this sacred task of determining] the new months.” In fact, because we exercise this function, we also determine the days on which the festivals in various months will occur; we even determine the most sacred day in the year, the day on which people will fast on Yom Kippur (see on this Mishnah Rosh ha-Shanah 2:8-9). So here too: what starts in heaven ends up in human hands. I can’t think of a more striking example of this “handoff” from divine authority to human beings. And just as it is with the calendar, so is it with the other things I mentioned.
7) How do you feel about the website “TheTorah.com” and its contributors, some of whom claim your book, How to Read the Bible, as their inspiration?
Not great. Of course I know some of the people involved in this website, and I have nothing against them personally. But my position is exactly the opposite of theirs: they seem to believe that there is some possible way to reconcile modern biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism, and I have always said that these two are irreconcilable. Traditional Judaism and modern scholarship have completely different approaches to the text, different notions of what it is for and why we study it—in fact, they don’t even agree on what the Torah is, since ours consists of both the written Torah, the torah she-bikhtav, and the orally transmitted torah she-be‘al peh. So trying to blend these two approaches inevitably results in apologetics and, I’m afraid, sometimes leads to plain intellectual dishonesty: “I’ll take this part of modern scholarship because it suits my purposes, but I’ll never mention that part, because it doesn’t.” The way to proceed is to recognize that our Torah is the Torah as explained by Hazal. Its meaning is not up for grabs or subject to new insights from archaeology or modern scholarship; it already has its definitive interpretation in Talmud and midrash. This is its meaning.
8) Tell me about your new book, The Kingly Sanctuary. Why did you write it?
Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a kind of general introduction to Judaism called On Being a Jew. It took the form of a conversation between two Jews, an older, knowledgeable fellow (a Syrian banker named Albert Abbadi) and a younger man (Judd Lewis) who, although born a Jew, really knew nothing. By the end of the book Judd at least knows some of the basics of Judaism and decides to go to yeshiva in Israel to learn more.
I always had in mind to write a sequel, and that’s the new book. Judd has been learning in yeshiva for four years, and now he has a whole new agenda of questions to work through. One thing that pushed me to write this book now is all the emails and letters I’ve gotten since How to Read the Bible came out. Many of my correspondents are frum Jews who are troubled by modern biblical scholarship; in fact, some of them are yeshiva students themselves, and their questions go way beyond just modern biblical scholarship to things that are even more basic. So I thought it was time to go back to my old notes and bring out this next volume.
9) I saw in one place in their conversation that Judd tells Albert Abbadi that his explanations are doing more to tear down Orthodox Judaism than to build it up. I’m sure some in the Orthodox world would agree.
Well, Abbadi was a somewhat idiosyncratic expositor of Judaism, as he himself admitted. But the issues he talks about are real issues, even if some people would rather not hear about them. And he was also very smart—so I think his ideas are worth listening to.
10) You talk about him as if he were a real person.
He was, as I explain at the end of the book. And the young fellow, Judd, is in a lot of ways me at the age of 25 or so—though I’d like to think I wasn’t quite that dumb sometimes.
11) Your book begins by explaining the history of religion from primitive man to polytheism to monotheism; why did you start that way?
Isn’t that the way that the Rambam begins? Adam in the Garden of Eden didn’t need to have God explained to him: He was right there, and Adam heard “the sound of the Lord God walking in the Garden.” But beginning with Early Man was important for another reason. Human beings started off small; for them, the presence of God was overarching and overwhelming. People in the modern West have lost this sense of their own smallness, so we have to learn how to get there again. I think that’s what Abbadi was out to explain.
12) What’s the “kingly sanctuary” exactly? Why did you call the book that?
The central image in my earlier book, On Being a Jew, was the mishkan, the portable desert sanctuary that the Israelites carried around with them for forty years in the wilderness. The central image of this one is the great Jerusalem temple, built by King Solomon—hence, the Kingly Sanctuary. It represents a way of conceiving of Judaism that is different from the one associated with the mishkan.