Critique of Kugel #1

“Open my eyes so that I may see wonders of Your Torah” (Psalms 119).

I have a few observations on Kugel’s book that I have not written up because I expected someone to get there first. But neither the Orthodox or Conservative critics went in this direction. I knew people were writing reviews so I naturally assumed they would cover these points. I am not writing from the perspective of a Biblical scholar but as a theologian. I am not looking to reiterate what has been said already but I also cannot guarantee that I have seen everything out there on the web. I write this as notes for a first draft of a summer essay, so I am willing to correct anything that is overstated in this contextual understanding.

When Kugel’s book first came out, it was reviewed by the NYT (David Plotz Sept 16, 2007) as having rejected literalism and that “He also seeks a safe haven for rationalist believers. In other words, having broken all the windows, trashed the bedroom, stripped the wires for copper, sold the plumbing for scrap, and jackhammered into the foundation, Kugel proposes to move back into his Bible house.” Well, look at this review. The New York Times does not have a problem with the documentary hypothesis and it rejoices in daring works like the Book of J. So why was Kugel seen as trashing and stripping the Biblical house? My major point is that Biblical criticism is not the message of Kugel. And the problem with Kugel is not per se, the Biblical criticism. The problem is loss of the Biblical enterprise. Yes, the book is an important book and a great read. But I do not think that the critics of his work and looking at the right aspects.

1] Kugel’s concern with the possible Iron Age meanings and his not seeing any moral teaching in the Bible has little to do with the documentary hypothesis. One finds similar statements of the lack of morality in the Bible in Voltaire and other 17th-18th critics of the Bible as well as by early 20th century free thinkers who wrote books with titles like “The Bible Unmasked,” which showed the immorality of the Bible. Many of Kugel’s readings that Sommers argued against are offensive even without any Biblical criticism or separate documents.

2] For Kugel, the Bible has no moral lessons or theological ideals. He has a materialistic skeptical sound to him. There are no grand ideals or religious claims in the Bible. Contradiction and parallel texts in the text do not teach anything. Kugel’s position at this point is similar to Freidrich Delitzsch in “Babel and Bible”. Delitzsch maintained that many Old Testament writings were borrowed from ancient Babylonian tales, there is no unique ethical message or religious message. In fact, the Bible needs to be unmasked as immoral. Delitisch was the rare voice that the Bible has nothing to teach theologically and should be treated as part of Babylonian and Canaanite religion. In later years, Deliitsch saw Christianity as the moral solution, so those parts of his thought are not to be impugned to Kugel, but the implication of ancient near east parallels is similar. I do not think he is as extreme as Delizsch, but he is heading in that direction.

2] In the context of Kugel’s writings I am surprised that no one mentioned Peter Enns, a student of Kugel, was dismissed from Westminster Theological Seminary. The problem at a Protestant seminary was not the human element or the weak theories of revelation. Enns however even quotes and accepts, the anti-documentary hypothesis works like Kenneth Kitchen. The problem was that Enns says that the morality of the Bible is that of the Iron Age. He advocates accepting the moral critiques of the new atheists – that the Bible is not a moral exemplar. Kugel’s method takes the sanctity out of the Bible. There is something very skeptical about the method. Furthermore, Biblical texts are depicted as not knowing the original meaning of a story. The human part of the Bible is all too human. So human that it strips the ability for a more theological-literary-document reading. I am surprised that the Enns debate did not come up in the discussion of Kugel.

3] Why did the Introduction to Bible written by Marc Brettler not create the same stir? Why did Jon Levenson’s work create the same buzz. Both use Biblical critical methods, and both were in the broad sense of Orthodox culture. The answer is that there is a skeptical voice in Kugel. Brettler concludes his book that the Bible is great. He writes that he likes the Bible and here is how we moderns use Biblical criticism. Levenson sees the Bible as teaching Torah and mizvot, a covenant at Sinai and the giving of the land of Israel. Kugel’s tone is bursting myths and slaughtering sacred cows. Kugel reads more like Freud’s Totem and Taboo.

In his recent post, Kugel’s clarified his position from his earlier response. Kugel rejects all of the prior Jewish names in the field who use theological, integrationist, and canonical methods.. Certainly Kaufman, Sarna and Greenberg who were more theological about the virtues of Biblical religion over the pagans may be too theological. But also integrationists, that seek to combine the best of both worlds- Weinfeld, Zakovitch, Milgram, Knohl, Tigay, Fishbane, Levenson, and most other professors with whom Jews do graduate work- are too theological. Kugel has a clear disjunctive between the Bible and the Scribes of the Oral Law. There is no integration of the critical and the traditional. Kugel denies any attempt at synthesis or integration. Many of Kugel’s readers mistakenly thought that since the integrationists used Kugel’s work on Second temple period interpretation to justify their own integration of the Bible and the interpretation that Kugel would agree.

4] The Bible as the sacred scripture of Judaism in a canon needs to be seen as special, as moral, and as a religious guide. Those who reject that are usually skeptics not Biblical critics. The four qualities of later Biblical interpretation are usually assigned as qualities of the Biblical documents themselves. These four points (1) The texts are cryptic and symbolic. (2) The texts are prophetic and homiletic. (3) The texts are consistent. (4) The texts are divinely inspired/given. Most of the Jewish scholars who see Biblical criticism and the documentary hypothesis as helpful also assume that the Biblical authors themselves already ascribe those qualities to earlier Biblical material. They study topics like Intertextuality and literary prophecy that assume these points.

5] In addition, Kugel rejects literary approaches to the Bible. Already in his work on the Biblical Poetry, he presented literary methods as a modern construct based on human subjectivity having little in common with a fixed Divine meaning. Kugel based himself on Herder studies of the primitive Hebrew approach. Since Kugel’s own doctorate is in modern literary criticism and his immense sensitivity to the literary voice of a text, many people mistakenly thought he was an advocate of literary approaches to the Bible. Most scholars not only find the Bible a great work, but also the epic of Gilgamesh is fine literature. Kugel’s rejection of literary methods is the innovation, not his use of Biblical criticism.

5] The last chapter on the potential for revelation did not alleviate anything because it did not understand revelation. Theories of revelation answer how a Divine can reveal in a naturalistic order. But acceptance of revelation is not pixie dust to magically wave over a human document. Traditional theories of revelation assume a Divine in the content – that there must be a supreme content greater than other books, a verbal content, a historical transformative content or an experiential moment of communion with God. Even the most liberal Protestant theories of revelation such as Tillich assumes that the Bible is not counter to reason, rather the Bible is revelation since it offers answers to our ultimate concerns and presents models of highest ideals. For Tillich, it may be written by humans but the revelation is the model of our highest ideals. One cannot treat the Bible as primitive and then call it revelation. Revelation must transcend its context. For Rosenzweig, revelation is our love relationship with God that transcends our finitude and teaches us that “love is stronger than death.”

6] Most scholars who teach the Akkadian documents and archeology together with the Bible call themselves scholars of “Israelite Religion.” They do see a disjunctive between Israelite religion and later Judaism but they in turn respect their boundaries and do not offer up advice on Judaism or the Hebrew Bible.

I am not sure if this is completely analogous but those who teach Icelandic sagas and their use in English literature are not considered Shakespearean scholars.

7] Finally, to return to the NYT article. If one is unmasking the Bible then one is not teaching how to read it and if one is teaching the Bible then it is within a context of history, theology, and culture- from liberal to fundamentalist. The NYT called out that he wants to be both skeptic and defender of the Bible in the same breath.

Another question: why did this book wake up Orthodoxy from their dogmatic slumbers more than other works? Why are Orthodox still interested in the book?

1] It could be that just be that he speaks in Orthodox synagogues whereas Levenson and Knohl do not.

2] Or it could be that Kugel is tapping into a skeptical streak in the community, that appreciates his message. An audience with an inner skeptical voice that does not know or have patience with liberal theology. His slaughtering of sacred cows is the zero sum dichotomy that the community understands.

3] Another element is that since Modern Orthodox intellectual types have not read Brevard Childs, Fishbane, Levenson, or most canonical approaches defended by Ben Sommers, Kugel is closer to what they think is over on the heretic side. Kinda like the Chussid who goes off the derekh and eats in McDonalds but never considers Modern Orthodoxy. The Modern Orthodox who gets tied up in Biblical criticism does not consider liberal approaches but wants the skeptical approach.

4] It could just be another parallel with the evangelical world that is now trying to open up to Biblical criticism
See Kenton Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words
Enns, Sparks and the others all have blogs and post on each others blogs

5] It could be that Kugel’s rejection of literary interpretations hits home. It is right now fashionable in the Modern Orthodox world of educators to think up a novel literary interpretation in a weekend and then return on Monday to the classroom and teach that this novel interpretation is what it always meant, it was the original intention, and QED it solves all critical problems with the text.

6] The attraction could be the radical perspectivism in Kugel’s writing’s. Kugel has the Bible and the Midrashic interpretation as a complete disjunctive. At an AJS – fifteen years ago, may of the elders saw his choice between modern criticism and ancients as somewhat post-modern. Truth is perspectivism Orthodoxy may like his perspectivism. Everyone is entitled to absolute and exclusive non-foundational acceptance of one’s own view.

Even though his reply also mentioned the objective facts of archeology If the goal was irrefutable facts then he should have started with Biblical History and shown the progress away from trusting the Biblical account. Rather, he frames things as “this is the critical perspective.”

7] It could be that since he does not seem to be theologically coherent and his own religious views may be those of his book On Being a Jew Sometimes vague or ambiguous works can generate more heat because everyone can project on it.

8] Finally, this book may be important because Modern Orthodoxy has built up a confidence level that orthodoxy can handle all scholarship or at least has been inoculated to have a rejoinder to all scholarship. This book explicitly shatters the assumptions on which this rests, whereas most books on the Bible just present the critical perspective without needed to reject the Orthodox view.

Any others?

If you comment, please help me think though the issues to a more formal presentation.

I could have loaded this post with links, but I didn’t. I might make them separate posts.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

19 responses to “Critique of Kugel #1

  1. Dr. Brill, I didn’t read the book(s) so I miss many references, but there is a theme in your writings that there is a natural connection between an ideology and the lifestyle. Isn’t Dr. Kugel the best example of the opposite? Orthodoxy in my opinion is a study in ethnography, but you insist that it is defined by the doctrinal principles or presumed doctrinal principals. I find this very core argument a suspect. And the proof is that people stake ground in opposition or support of Kugel based on the denominational leanings, not Kugel’s logic.

    You also define modern orthodoxy too broadly. There are two modern orthodoxies today (not counting the Israeli branches). There are black hat modern orthodox that are merging with hareidim and then there are anything goes ideologically or otherwise modern orthodox. Dr Kugel will have a different reception in each of the camps, naturally.

    P.S. This post looks like notes for a lecture. Many references are in your head, this are just the reminders, as you said, hopefully you can open up some of the points.

  2. Ben, I dont insist that it is ideology not ethnography. I just dont teach ethnography or sociology. I do indeed think he is read and rejected based on denominational reasons but why him? Why his book?

    I actually count 5-8 different Modern Orthodoxies in the US and regional differences. In this case, I was limiting myself to a certain not black hat group that would invite Kugel as a scholar in residence. I know there is lots of ethnographic variance but I tend to only comment on those narrow provincial elements that I come into contact with.

    I do hope to open up the points. Any one particularly interest you? I will come back to it next week.
    One of the functions of my blog is to pitch first drafts with journal editors. That aspect has been a success. those are usually entirely theoretical or ideological.
    Another aspect of the blog, the ad hoc social observations are not really done with any expectation of a follow-up. They are just done to keep note of what attracts my interest. I was more than surprised to find the interest in those posts.

  3. I can’t say for sure why Kugel attracted attention without actually reading the book or comparing. I would never hear about Kugel if not for the five professors who decided to say that he is totally wrong. It’s only human to take notice then. But generally speaking no one ever was able to explain rationally why a hit becomes a hit.

    I have another question and it’s a bit off topic and you don’t even have to answer me here, not to embarrass me, etc. I have written thousands of post in my blogging career. Some of them are pretty good, even groundbreaking, I got a lot of compliments from really serious people but no one ever was interested in highlighting or publishing any of it. Why, just because I don’t have a phd?

  4. Most bloggers and most articles in journals are not written by PHD’s.
    One editor once told me that 90% of it is just showing up. Pick your journal, know the tastes of the editor, know the required word count, and be prepared for rewrites. Have you submitted 100o words to the appropriate journal? Or given the editor a choice of three blog posts to be converted into 900 word articles? Think about which journals would be appropriate, ask around about their quirks, and shoot them an email with a pitch (s).

  5. What is a theologian? Lets say the bishops got together during the Council of Nicaea. One says I will interpret Jesus such and such because I am a theologian, the second, no I look at it from the perspective of a philosopher, etc. There have to be a common ground here that even a commoner would appreciate.

    P.S. There was an article in the globe about Corpus Coranicum:

    No one is going to whack Dr. Kugel, at least till someone in Mea Sheorim learns how to read.

  6. I actually went to the library on Friday and picked up the book. I read about 150 pages so far. What can I say! I have the same feeling comparable when I read Der Nister. You can feel that Der Nister was the most significant Jewish writer in centuries. There is a quantitative leap. From now on the world would be divided in people who read Kugel and people who didn’t read him. And this brings me to the point. The second worst feature of the internet after quoting is that people speak about books they never read based on the comments to the posts about reviews… So you should make it clear to your readers that it is pointless top talk about the book without reading it. At least this book.

    Finally who cares what NY Times writes about it. I mean Dr. Brill pick someone your own size please. I don’t know how you feel about Kugel, its different with a colleague, its hard to judge or like a colleague. But clearly this is not just another book. This the kind of a book that I say shechihianu on with the shem hamefurosh!

    • Great, so why this book greater than the many other great critical works on the Bible? Is it just that the internet pointed you to this one and did not point you other works? Or is it that he actually was directly head on critical of the literary, canonical, and religious readings? I do think it is an important book but its innovation is not as just another work of Biblical criticism. Can you describe why it is a qualitative leap and so moving?
      I was disappointed by the critiques as not catching the rhetoric of the book. I was not saying it was not a great read.
      Now, if only the web would be filled with discussions of Der Nister.

  7. I actually wanted to say that I am rather ignorant about biblical criticism. At some pointed I started reading Harold Bloom but never actually read a book that speaks about the biblical alphabet soup. But this book for me is not about criticism, there is a poetic quality about Kugel writing that resonates with me strongly.

    For me God resides inside a creative expression. I feel kinship with the authors and I don’t feel that Kugel denies this key aspect to the biblical authors. Moreover his own inspired writing is an example of it.

    I want to finish the book and will write about it then.

  8. A couple points. One is that he knows hazal and traditional parshanut — he’s not an am haaretz, so therefore he’s an apikores. That’s why the last chapter was so disappointing for believers — he promised to solve all the problems but where they thought they might meet the second coming of Hertz….

    A question: How did it come to pass that Modern Orthodoxy abandoned traditional parshanut — Kugel’s Four Assumptions — and embraced the literary approach?

    As you say, Kugel is not a theologian, and his final chapter is weak: It simply peters out. Had he simply said, “I believe that part of my service to God is by following the tradition of my ancestor, and looking to the sacred anthology of Iron Age documents for meaning, knowing that the process of that search will itself create meaning” — he could have opened a door for a certain liberal Orthodoxy. Unfortunately, Kugel evinces no awareness of Talmud Torah as practiced around the Shabbos table or in the classroom.

    Perhaps instead of a critique, you should write a piece of constructivist theology, reframing Kugel in a more sophisticated and practical manner.

  9. >Another question: why did this book wake up Orthodoxy from their dogmatic slumbers more than other works? Why are Orthodox still interested in the book?

    How could you not mention the interwebs? Brettler’s book was published in the Paleolithic Age (2005). Also, Kugel has been or is called, or he calls himself, Orthodox (as you allude to by noting that he speaks in Orthodox synagogues, but of course the reason why he is asked to speak is because he is considered to be at least Orthoprax, something which cannot be said of Conservative or Masorti associated scholars). Also, his credentials are seemingly greater than someone like Brettler (Harvard being a more magical word than Brandeis). In short, the perfect storm.

  10. I am still immersed in the this book and now I see your questions in a different light. What do you mean by point 5 about the “literary approaches”. Would like to see you expand on this.

  11. Reb Yudel,
    You said over yom tov that Kugel separates Talmud Torah from the Bible.
    Since one cannot teach Kugel to kids or at a shabbos table:
    1] How much history are you willing to give up to make a usable Torah both critical and as Talmud Torah?
    2] How much are you willing to defend an ethical message in the Bible despite historical origins?
    3] What needs to be added to Sommers to make it useful for Orthodoxy?

    Look at Herder on “theory of interpretation,” which was used by Kugel in his book on Biblical Poetry. For Herder, literary interpretation is a product of modernity. The Bible is not literary in the modern sense.
    Herder was the one who innovated the idea that every book must be read in its historical context. And Herder specifically mentions that the Bible must be read as a secular historian, not as a theologian, philosopher, or literary critic.
    Herder thought romantic style was modern and the Biblical style of parallelism was primitive.
    Kugel’s idea of Biblical Poetry (1981) was read by many as implying that the Bible was literature in the modern sense, but he never said that. Kugel always separated modern literature from the principles of ancient literature. His readers did not.

  12. moshe shoshan

    Unfortunately I dont have time to really get involved in this conversation. However, AFAIK, Kugel’s PhD was his “Idea of Biblical Poetry” written for Twersky z”l.
    The techniques of strangeness in symbolist poetry, by James L. Kugel.
    Published: New Haven, Yale University Press, 1971.
    was I beleive, Kugel’s undergraduate thesis

    • BA Yale in literature. His PHD was CCNY also in literature 1977. He studied with Twersky after BA before PHD.

  13. James Kugel makes the Orthodox very uncomfortable because of one simple reason: his arguments are sound and based on solid scholarship. Orthodoxy has not really confronted modern scholarship in any meaningful (read satisfying) way and usually attempts to either ignore it or brush it aside (“it’s a dead theory”, “Hoffman demolished it”). Of course, most folks – like Reb Yudel above – will usually begin with the ad hominum “he’s an apikores” in an attempt to co-opt the discussion.

    What one DOES with Kugel is another matter entirely. I think that most people will not reject Orthodoxy outright regardless of the challenges to TMS, simply because the community bond is so strong.

    For those who honestly question and don’t shun works that challenge core beliefs, Kugel – and others of his ilk – will remain relevant until other authors present a more convincing alternative.

  14. > 1] How much history are you willing to give up to make a usable Torah both critical and as Talmud Torah?

    I’m certainly willing to give up the scholarly agnosticism over things that are unknown and cannot be proven. Kugel ignores redactional history, presumably because it’s all hypothetical. I’m willing to assume a redactor, and throw R into the mix. I’m willing to assume that J played a redactorial role, collating and creating etiological folk tales. As a result, I can preach the moral growth of Judah, as cited by Sommers. Talmud Torah, unlike academia, does not require absolute proof.

    > 2] How much are you willing to defend an ethical message in the Bible despite historical origins?

    That’s really the wrong question. The real question is, when did Modern Orthodoxy decide that Torah was ethical (and then when did it more recently renounce that view)? I don’t want unethical texts taught to my children, regardless of whether they were composed in the Iron Age or the Ipod Age. If Kugel makes it easier to remove Joshua from the 4th grade curriculum, so much the better.

    (There’s a related question: When did Modern Orthodoxy abandon Hazal in favor of pshat? Why does Rashi’s division of characters into Righteous and Evil (following Hazal, of course) seem less appealing than the grays of peshat?)

    3] What needs to be added to Sommers to make it useful for Orthodoxy?

    I don’t think Orthodoxy — which we can now define as the portion of Judaism which rejects the ordination of women — is impacted by any epistemology of Torah other than that which attributes absolute Divine Revelation to its current leadership. (Sort of like Mormonism, except without the transparency). Grant R Daas Torah, and then the whole thing works.

    For Conservative Judaism, which took the claims of academic Rabbinic scholarship as a lesson in the plasticity of Rabbinic halacha, the Sommers approach works fine: Torah SheBaal Peh simply goes back to [the putative date of] Sinai, to the tales and ballads that accompanied the evolution of our people.

  15. Yosef Fajtlowicz

    I also find Kugel’s idea of how the Bible ‘became’ a divine document to be very interesting. It seems rather strange altogether to envisage a God who reveals himself via an interpretive revolution of a text which was previously political propaganda, and who mandated (Kol ha’omer … ein lo cheleck la’olam haba), due to this very revolution, a false belief regarding the authorship of the Torah text.
    The biggest problem with the book, as noted by Dr. Brill, is that Kugel doesn’t tell us about that nature of the historical evidence that has lead contemporary Biblical Scholars to where they are now. I once tried to engage Kugel in a discussion as to why I should take his reading of the historical data more seriously than than of say Kenneth Kitchen, but I didn’t get very far.
    If he would have started with, say, the archeological studies which argue that Jericho didn’t exist at the time of the conquest, explained the evidence, and proceeded from there, I submit that the discussions we are currently having about his work would be much more productive than the wheel-spinning that we are currently engaged in.

  16. I am reading this in amazement as to how the BTs were lied about by your culture. People rejected the secular vision in search for the truth and Orthodoxy doesn’t care about the truth, they only care about the habit and the community and the sacred task of perpetuating the dysfunction forever.
    You people can use a prophet to shame you about your predicament.
    P.S. And what about people getting worked up about the Chabad idol worship. If your text and tradition is flawed about the central characters including Moshe himself, what difference would it make if RAMASH is consider a mashiyach but an equally stubborn and misguided bunch? Really?

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