Prof. Kugel has accepted to answer some of the questions that I received on the prior conversation about revelation. Do not expect a third round. So if you are qualified and want to continue the conversation, then contact me about a guest post or email me a draft.
Prof. Kugel reiterates his approach to the challenge of modern biblical scholarship and again asserts that Orthodox Jews need not be afraid of it. He also formulates a theory of prophecy, with content somewhat similar the medieval commentaries on the Guide of the Perplexed; a prophecy that is above our comprehension and above the historical details. (This is my take, he avoids the medieval language.) The goal of revelation was to teach the people of Israel the service of God in their daily lives. This is the religion of mitzvot.
In Kugel’s reply, he compares the human apprehension of divine revelation to the human faculty of sight, specifically, our perception of colors, whereby different wavelengths of light reflected off of objects are turned into different colors inside our brains. “The wavelengths are indeed ‘out there,’” he writes, “but the color happens inside our brains.” So too with divine speech: it indeed starts “out there,” but it acquires the form it ultimately has inside the human brain. (AB- think of medieval theories of the agent intellect for prophecy.)
In saying this, Kugel does not address directly the matter of the Documentary Hypothesis or the presence of doublets, repetition, and other apparently human elements in the text, as do other scholars. For example, Rabbi Mordechai Breuer holds that the Torah exhibits different aspects (behinot) corresponding to the different “sources” in the Documentary Hypothesis, but these are all part of a single, divinely authored text and no proof of human intervention. Prof. David Halivni holds that the Torah is a Divine text, but that it became earthly and then was tragically broken and needed to be restored in the time of Ezra, so that the final product does indeed show signs of historical wear and tear and the presence of different voices. In contrast, Kugel does not try to accommodate the historical reconstructions and multiple authors of the Documentary Hypothesis the way Breuer and Halivni do.
Kugel writes in a style both captivating and convincing, but expresses surprise that his Orthodox readership did not understand that his book How to Read the Bible was not intended specifically for them. He did not expect an Orthodox audience who are too rationalistic for his Jewish approach and preferred the critical approach once they heard about it. They found Second Temple stories and Midrash too fanciful. He remarks: “I don’t see how they can be Orthodox if they can’t accept the traditional Jewish approach.” He may have misunderstood how some of his Orthodox readers sought to keep literature and psychology free of doubtful material or how insular they were raised. The audience to whom he wishes to teach modern criticism once they can tell the difference “between Torah and Pentateuch” may be much smaller than he thinks.
Kugel does not answer why there are so many doublets, contradictions, tensions, etc. in the Tanakh, since he believes that the critical approach is completely incompatible with the traditional Jewish approach.
At this point, it may be need to bring into the Jewish discussion through selctive adaptation ideas from theologians who emphasize a second nativity or reading the Bible as part of a community’s exegesis such as Paul Ricoeur, George Lindbeck, Hans Frei or Cardinal Ratzinger. One can only push Biblisists so far, and no further, for philosophic formulation
Commenters please do not comment without having read the books. Also skeptics: your affirmation that you “Aint buying it” does not add to the discussion.
I’ve been somewhat overwhelmed by all the email generated by our motza’ei Shabbat conversation. I’m grateful for your invitation to expand on it a bit here (though I’m pretty sure I won’t get to answering all the questions raised). But I should also mention that I hope to have a little book coming out soon that addresses a lot of these issues. It’s Part II of a book I wrote some years ago called On Being a Jew, which took the form of a dialogue between a young man just discovering Judaism and a more knowledgeable, older fellow, who leads him through a series of basic issues and concepts. I had always intended to have that book followed by a Part II: it begins four years later, the younger guy having spent the intervening time in yeshiva in Israel. Now he has a different set of questions, some of them the same as, or at least related to, the questions raised in our earlier conversation and those subsequently sent in to your website. So, if I don’t get to everything in this writing, let me put in a plug for Part II, which is called The Kingly Sanctuary.I should have it out in some form pretty soon, and as soon as I know when, I plan to announce it on my website, jameskugel.com.
Now, here are some answers to questions:
1) Why did Kugel bother writing a whole book about modern biblical scholarship if he thinks it’s irreconcilable with traditional Jewish belief?
I think a lot of your correspondents don’t realize that How to Read the Bible was not written primarily for Orthodox Jews, in fact, not for Jews at all. The book was aimed at any educated reader interested in the Bible, which includes an awful lot of Christians, plus some Muslims, Buddhists, etc. as well as people with no connection to any particular religion.
What I wanted to show to all these readers was the great gap between the Bible as it was generally understood by both Jews and Christians in earlier times and the Bible as it is understood today by modern biblical scholars. So that’s what I did, contrasting the two approaches in chapter after chapter. The point of this, apart from teaching about both ancient biblical interpretation and the basics of modern scholarship, was to raise an important question: hasn’t this whole modern approach seriously undermined the role that Scripture used to play in Judaism and Christianity?
Most Orthodox Jews don’t have any troubling answering “yes” to that question (in fact, some of them would answer, that’s why we don’t want to hear about it). But lots of other people found my question very disturbing, or else it just made them mad—among them, not surprisingly, many of my colleagues, people who teach modern scholarship in universities and Christian seminaries. Some of them wrote pretty negative reviews: “Kugel overstates the case, the Bible is alive and well,” “Modern scholarship only enhances our knowledge, which can’t be bad,” etc. etc. Actually, not all of these reviews were written by Christians; at least one of the nastier ones came from a Jewish Bible professor eager to denounce my book as too “Orthodox” in its whole approach.
So I ended up alienating people on my right (Orthodox Jews who somehow concluded that I was endorsing the modern approach) and people on my left (who attacked me for not endorsing the modern approach). You might say that this is the true mark of success, proof that I hit it just right. But actually, in terms of what I set out to do, I would have to judge the book a failure. I may be wrong, but I think a lot of my Christian colleagues read one or two of the “too Orthodox” reviews and never even bothered to look at the book or consider its argument, while a lot of Orthodox Jews looked at the table of contents and dismissed it for exactly the opposite reason.
2) Isn’t Kugel being inconsistent? On the one hand, he says that modern scholarship is irreconcilable with tradition Jewish beliefs, and on the other he says Orthodox Jews who don’t want to know about it are “hiding their heads in the sand.” Which is it?
Actually, I don’t find these two things to be contradictory. As I explained last time (no need to repeat here) modern scholars and traditional Judaism don’t even agree on what the “text” is: the former take it to be strictly the words on the page, the latter to include the whole Oral Torah (torah she-be’al peh). This is no minor disagreement: it represents two completely opposed notions of how to read the Bible. But precisely for that reason, I don’t believe Orthodox Jews need to hide from modern scholarship: its Pentateuch and our Torah exist on two different planes. Of course, I know that there are people who nevertheless feel quite threatened by the whole approach of modern scholars; I’ve always said I’d never compel anyone to study this material. But for me, in any case, I really wanted to know about it, and I think there are a lot of Orthodox Jews like me. So to them I would say: if you truly understand the difference between “Pentateuch” and “Torah,” then go ahead. (But maybe, for some people, it should be like studying the Zohar: age forty and up.)
3)Why doesn’t Kugel say anything about medieval parshanut and medieval ideas about Torah—Abraham ibn Ezra, Rashbam, the Rambam, Ramban, etc.?
The story of the rise of medieval parshanut has been told many times and the various contributory factors are well known: the entrance of Greek philosophical ideas into the Arabic-speaking world and their impact on Jewish biblical interpreters from Se’adya on; the fierce Islamic critique of Judaism; the rise of Karaism; the development of Hebrew grammars and Hebrew lexicography; and yet others. All these things combined to cast traditional Jewish exegesis into doubt, indeed, to make Jewish Scripture itself look silly. That’s where the whole movement of medieval parshanut started, and who could blame its brilliant practitioners?
But these are different times now. We now know full well where the approach of the pashtanim ultimately leads, and you can’t start down that path today without going all the way; the search for peshat didn’t end in the Middle Ages. So if it’s peshat you’re after, then eventually you have to consider not just what Rashbam wrote in the twelfth century, but what is known now about the historical circumstances in which this or that text was uttered, since this will certainly illuminate the peshat. You’ll also have to concern yourself with the archaeology of the ancient Near East and what it has revealed about biblical history, as well as with all the ancient Near Eastern writings that parallel biblical passages and what these may teach us about peshat—what, for example, ancient Mesopotamian law may show about the straightforward meaning of this or that legal passage (as well as the implications of the Mesopotamian law codes’ historical priority to the biblical texts in question).
You’ll also have to consider questions of the authorship of various books and parts of books (since you really can’t talk about peshat and ignore all that scholars have concluded about the chronology and the unity of different biblical books and passages). Eventually, you’ll have to start looking at the Big Questions—the origins and nature of Israel’s God as reflected in Ugaritic epic; the whole of Israelite cultic practices, i.e. sacrifices and holy days and tum’ah and tahorah, in the light of Mesopotamian cultic worship; likewise, the origin of the people of Israel as currently understood by scholars and the impact of this understanding on the peshat meaning of the Bible’s account of same—in short, you can’t start down the road of peshat and stop once you get to the eighteenth or nineteenth century because it becomes inconvenient after that. So I’m altogether a follower of Hazal (the rabbinic sages of the opening centuries of the common era) and the approach to Torah that they championed. That is the true theological significance of the doctrine of the torah she-be’al peh.
4)What does Kugel really think went on at Mount Sinai? How much of the Torah as we have it—if anything!—was actually given to Moses? If he accepts the idea of scholars that the Torah was put in its final form in the Persian period, does this not contradict the plain historical statement that Moses was given the Torah at Sinai?
I tried last time to address the significance of the Torah’s own narrative of mattan Torah by contrasting the theme of Torah min ha-Shamayim with Torah mi-Sinai. With regard to the latter, I alluded to what is said in Sifrei Bemidbar (Beshallah 112), “Anyone who said, ‘The whole Torah was spoken by the Holy One, except that this one thing/word Moshe said on his own (mippi ‘atzmo amaro)’—this is what is meant by ‘He has spurned the word of the Lord’ [Num 15:31].” In other words, Hazal insisted that Moshe was strictly the conduit for God’s words; in their view, he himself had no role in establishing its contents.
As for Mount Sinai, it was so significant to them that no one today has any idea where the real Mount Sinai is. (The place that tour-guides take you to, called in Arabic Jebl Musa, is simply someone’s wild guess of where Sinai might have been. The only ancient Jew I know of to have expressed an opinion on the mountain’s location said it was “in Arabia,” which would put it considerably to the east of the Sinai peninsula.) Actually, it seems that Jews lost sight of Sinai’s geographic location fairly early in biblical times. What was significant in the Sinai narrative was the fact that the Torah came from God; it is not, as others would have it, a “human reaction to the ineffable.” But equally important is the fact that it was given into human hands.
I can certainly imagine a holy book of some other people claiming (somewhat Platonically) that its words are but a pale reflection of the true text, which remains in heaven. That’s not Judaism. So, if one considers these two central principles of the Torah’s own narrative—that the Torah came from God and that the Torah was given over to human beings—then Torah mi-Sinai will itself be seen to embody what I said is the crucial teaching, Torah min ha-Shamayim.
But perhaps I should repeat here something that the older fellow in my forthcoming Kingly Sanctuary says (which is not too different from I have been saying for quite a while): The whole purpose of the Torah is to teach ‘avodat ha-Shem. In fact, the Kingly Sanctuary’s protagonist (“Albert Abbadi”) goes on to describe the Torah as “Volume One of a multi-volume work entitled How to Serve God”; it is followed by other volumes, the Mishnah and Tosefta and the tannaitic midrashim and the Talmud and the medieval codes and so forth. This is certainly not to equate all of these, but to assert that they all constitute a single trajectory. That trajectory began with the Torah, and its divine origin is no insignificant circumstance. But believing in Torah min ha-Shamayim does not imply that the Torah is the last word (otherwise, why do we have these other books?). Rather, it is the first word, and its literal text never was equated with the whole Torah.
Indeed, as I also tried to say as clearly as I could last time, a central doctrine of Judaism is that what starts in heaven is eventually handed off to human beings. That’s the meaning of lo ba-shamayim hi, “It’s no longer in heaven.” Somewhere, at some point in this trajectory, it comes down to earth and human beings take over. Considered from this standpoint, I don’t think much is theoretically at stake in where that line is drawn; it has to be drawn somewhere. I’ve heard people say that every word of the Babylonian Talmud was divinely inspired, and every word of Rashi’s perush to it was divinely inspired, and the Shulhan Arukh was divinely inspired, and all the teshuvot of R. Moshe Feinstein ztz”l were divinely inspired, and so forth. I think this is to miss the whole idea of this divine-to-human handoff, which is so central to Judaism.
5) How can the Torah come from God if it contains elementary mistakes in physics or biology or history?
If we really understood what it means for God to speak to human beings, we would know just how much of a part the human mind plays in the process. But we don’t. Let me mention, by way of analogy, something about our own faculty of sight. Neuroscientists know full well that the objects that we see with our eyes really have no color. Nothing is blue or red or whatever. Rather, what happens is that light (from the sun or an electric bulb or whatever) is reflected off objects in different wavelengths. These wavelengths in and of themselves might be altogether insignificant, but long, long ago, brains developed the capacity to sort them into colors in a process that starts, in humans, with those wavelength-sensitive “cones” in our retina. But that’s only the beginning of a long journey, which moves next to the optic nerve and from there to the optic chiasm, at the base of the hypothalamus; there the information from both eyes is combined and eventually passed on to something else called the LGN (lateral geniculate nucleus), which in humans is a six-layered sensory relay nucleus that further processes and sorts the information until it is forwarded to the visual cortex, way at the back of the brain above the cerebellum. (The visual cortex is actually the largest system in our brain and the one responsible for ultimately making sense of all the input deriving from the previous stages.) What does this mean? It means that there is nothing essential, nothing inherent in the object viewed, to connect it to the color that we perceive. The wavelengths are indeed “out there,” but the color happens inside our brains. Someone could take a computer and program it to assign quite different colors to various wavelengths and so produce a very different picture of what is seen. (This is somewhat similar to what scholars have done with some previously unreadable parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, causing the black letters of the scroll to emerge from the parchment on which they were written, despite the fact that, to our eyes, both the letters and the parchment are indistinguishably black.) The nimshal is this (and its implications go even beyond the matter of divine speech): we simply don’t know the beginning of the process we call prophecy, i.e., God speaking to a human being. All we know is what comes out the other end, after the intervention of a human brain.
.6)Does Kugel accept a version of Halivni’s corrupted text theory? If that’s not his explanation for imperfections in the text, what is? Does he expect us to adopt the “solutions” suggested in the Book of Jubilees and the like?
I guess I’ve answered some of this in the above. And although I am a great admirer of Professor Halivni, I don’t think his idea of a corrupted text is the way to go. But I would like to say one thing in this connection. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as from the close textual analyses undertaken by scholars over the past century and more, that our biblical texts were not static. You give to someone, an ancient prophet or sage, a text of the words of God as transmitted to the prophet Isaiah or Jeremiah, and what does he do? He changes them. He moves this over there, he puts some material that came after the beginning of the book and makes it into the new beginning, he glosses and explains and elaborates. Sometimes he does this on a very large scale. We know from Qumran that there were two “editions” of the book of Jeremiah; one version, attested in the Old Greek translation of the Bible as well as in some Dead Sea Scrolls fragments, was about ten chapters shorter than our Masoretic version of Jeremiah (also attested on some Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts), and the chapters were arranged somewhat differently. It appears, though not irrefutably so, that the shorter version was expanded (rather than the longer version having been abbreviated).
With regard to all such changes—and there are a lot more—you want to ask that meddling scribe or sage or prophet: How dare you? Someone gives you divrei Elokim hayyim and you start switching things around and adding to them? How dare you?! And the answer is: he dare. And although changing the actual text ceased at a certain point, ancient biblical interpretation continued to accomplish precisely the same thing without changing a word. The endless refrain of those interpreters—people who otherwise had little in common with each other, Philo of Alexandria and ben Sira and the author of Jubilees and so forth—is always the same: “The text says X, but what it really means is Y.” In this sense, I think, there is a direct line leading from text alteration to biblical interpretation: they look like two completely different things, but viewed from a distance, their similarity is unmistakable. And this way of viewing sacred texts, in one form or another, has been there from the very start.
Do I expect people to accept the “solutions” found in Jubilees? I expect Orthodox Jews to accept, to champion, the solutions found in the writings of Hazal (although, as my earlier remark about Rashi versus Yalkut Shim’oni was intended to convey, midrashic collections generally present multiple solutions to the same textual problem, and these frequently contradict one another). Then why am I bothering with Jubilees? Because the earliest texts of Hazal were written down four hundred years after Jubilees. Jubilees and other writings from the same period thus afford us a glimpse of part of the Torah she-be‘al peh at an earlier stage (though I don’t mean to equate the two)—that’s how I got interested in pre-Hazal midrash in the first place. But quite apart from this, the reason I used Jubilees and other pre-Hazal sources in How to Read the Bible was that I did not want my Christian readers to think that midrash was strictly a Hazal-ic (that is, rabbinic) operation: it was there long before, and is as much a part of what Christianity inherited from earlier Judaism as the books of the Bible themselves.