Since nobody had any clarifying comments on the Kugel post and it just got 600 hits in a day, let’s try a different approach.
Here was one of the useful comments by Reb Yudel- any thoughts for an Orthodoxy?
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 why 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 literary pshat? Why does Rashi’s division of characters into Righteous and Evil (following Hazal, of course) seem less appealing than the grays of literary analysis 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 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.
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..