Tag Archives: james Kugel

Q & A with James L. Kugel, In The Valley Of The Shadow

James L. Kugel just published a new book containing his general thoughts about religion-IN THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW (Free Press; February 1, 2011). He posted an online interview and here are some excerpts.

Our community alternates between having a variety of images of God all based on the modern Western self, a personal kitchen god to turn to with prayer for everyday problems, a Oprah god in the heart that wants you to actualize yourself, or a Neo-Hasidic feeling of closeness. Kugel distinguishes between this modern self and the traditional self that was embedded in a cosmos and surrounded by God/ gods. Kugel offers us a great big God to contrast with the smallness of man. According to Kugel, most people’s relgion is about feeling the need to feel useful and in control of the situation, what the great anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski considered magic. Modern religious people have forgotten the greatness of God before man’s smallness.

Kugel believes that much of religion is innate in our brains.Life is complex but relgion consistently makes things black or white. Or with more theological terminology- saved or damned, vision or blind, found or lost. His conclusion is that we need to open our eyes to the human condition of smallness, frailness, and contingency. There is not a word in the interview about his Judaism. The book seems to have Schleiermacher’s sense of dependence meets the Ancient Near East and neuroscience. There is no mention of revelation or reward and justice, but I will wait to read the book before commenting.

The backdrop to this book is Kugel’s own battle with cancer. Here are some quotes about the nature of relgion from the Q and A.

To put it simply: believing in God or the gods or the supernatural seems to begin with how you conceive of yourself, how you fit into the world.

My book isn’t about turning to God in your hour of need. It’s more about the essence of religious faith and what it’s based on. You know, anthropologists and psychologists have studied what they call the “sense of self” that people have in different parts of the world, and it’s surprising how different our own “sense of self” is from that of most of the people on this earth. They are quite the opposite of the Western individualist. They typically see themselves as part of some larger entity – a family or clan – and that entity is, in a way that’s hard for us to understand, who they really are. But that’s only one part of their “sense of self.” The space around them is filled up in a way that ours is not. God, the gods, evil spirits, or beneficent ancestors are everywhere, and so they are constantly being taken into account. They fill up the space. I’m not talking just about so-called primitive cultures or peoples.

One of the things I discuss in the book is religion in traditional, Arab society. Anyone who spends any time in an Arab country comes back with the same impression: these people are always talking about God. That doesn’t mean they’re more moral or better than other people – my impression is that people all over the world are pretty much the same. But it is true that Arabic speech has built into all sorts of obligatory references to God. You can’t mention your own plans – “I’m flying to Paris next week” – or reasonable expectations, “After the baby’s born,” without appending the phrase Insh’allah, “If God wishes.” I admit it becomes automatic after a while. But the underlying idea is that it would be presumptuous and arrogant to talk about the future as if God did not have the final say.

People might chalk this up to the influence of Islam, but I think that’s really getting it backwards. Anyone who has studied the writings of ancient Mesopotamians can’t miss the continuity between their mentality and that of later, Islamic culture. They all have this common starting point: God or the gods are very big, and you are very small. .

Q: One of your chapters is called “Man Stands Powerless Before Elevator.” What does that have to do with your subject?

A: It’s an example of what I called “the need to do something,” which is also connected to religion. It all goes back to something I noticed at my first job after graduate school. I had an office in a building that was very tall – maybe 20 stories. So of course it had an elevator – state-of-the-art for the 1970s. There was a button you pressed, and the button would immediately turn orange after you pressed it. But the elevator rarely came right away, so a small crowd of people would usually form on the ground floor, waiting for the elevator to come. That’s when I noticed something funny. A new person arriving and seeing the button already illuminated would nevertheless sometimes go up to it and press it again. Nothing would happen, of course: it was already orange. Now these people were for the most part graduate students or professors, and so probably not idiots. But they kept on pressing that button, sometimes more than once. I know, because sometimes that person was me.

I talk about this in the book because I think it’s a model of some people’s idea of what religion is all about, “the need to do something.” People say prayers, go to churches or temples, offer sacrifices or slip a dollar bill onto the plate – but deep down they’re like the people waiting for the elevator. They know it’s not going to do any good: the elevator can’t register any more than one press of the button, it can’t feel their desperation or hear their pleas, and it can’t deviate from what it has been programmed to do: make all its intermediate stops until it gets to the bottom floor. But people keep pressing the button just because they feel they should do something.

Q: But you don’t agree with this view of religion?

A: No, I think it really misses the whole point. “The need to do something” may be there, but people don’t pray because they definitely believe they’re going to get what they ask for. They certainly hope that might happen, but in the end it’s more a matter of what the French proverb says, “Man proposes, but God has the final disposition.” In fact, the Bible said it a long time before: “Many are the plans in a person’s mind, but God’s decision is what prevails.” So we’re really back at “Man is small and God is very big.” In a sense, the very act of praying is an acknowledgment of our smallness, you might even say, an enactment of our smallness. Of course, that’s not why a person prays; a person prays to get help. But in so doing, he or she is also expressing that great truth of human smallness, the one we mostly have forgotten nowadays.

Q: You mean religion is just innate?

A: Well, the word religion covers a lot of territory. But at least some of it – and especially this way of seeing – seems in a sense to be built into the human brain. This might sound fishy, but nowadays we know that there are lots of things that we know are simply in our brains when we’re born: our minds are no blank slate, as scientists used to presume. I suppose the best known example of this is language. Nowadays we know that little newborns come equipped with brains designed for language acquisition: they are born with, so to speak, little boxes in their brains that help them to sort those sounds they hear from grownups into nouns and verbs and to make sense of them, no matter what language is involved. So, scholars today think that it’s not only language that human brains are set up for, but all sorts of other things – including some of the things that belong to the area of religion.

One day I happened to hear Judy Collins singing her a capella version of “Amazing Grace,” and I was struck by the all-or-nothing, black-and-white quality of the words. “For I was lost and now am found, was blind and now I see.” Religious poetry often has that same quality – whether it’s in the Bible or in other religious traditions. Of course that’s not how people usually see things, no matter what society they live in. Life is not usually either-or, black-or-white, lost-or-found, But it’s precisely that way of seeing that’s all over religion.

Q: What’s the message that you want people to take away from this book?

But all this leads me to talk about something that is rarely discussed. I believe that the reality of religion – the reality of God – is something that a lot of people in the modern West have trouble seeing nowadays. It’s hidden because of us, because we have lost the old, small way of being that humans had for thousands and thousands of years. What I try to do in the book is give readers some sense of what that smallness was, and the stark reality that it can open up before our eyes

Interview with James Kugel in il Sussidiario

In your book On Being a Jew you make an argument in support of the value of orthodoxy. What is orthodoxy? What value does it have for contemporary people and societies?

I suppose orthodoxy in general can refer to all sorts of things – sticking to tradition (and, hence, a reluctance or unwillingness to change); fundamentalism or literalism, especially in regard to Scripture; a devotion to established doctrines and rituals, and along with this a certain mistrust of spontaneity or the lack of framework. Any of these can be valuable or harmful in contemporary societies – sometimes both at the same time. I think one of the things that orthodoxy in religion provides is a feeling of stability and continuity, and of belonging to something ongoing that is bigger than oneself.

Speaking in particular of the Jewish situation: Jewish orthodoxy is a broad topic. What is it? Who are the authors of the official line? Who are your points of reference?

Strictly speaking, Orthodox Judaism is a modern invention. This term was first used in the early nineteenth century as a rallying cry against Reform Judaism and the other forces that threatened traditional Jewish ways of worship and Jewish self-definition. But in a broader sense, Orthodoxy today sees itself as the heir to centuries and centuries of earlier tradition; it is the form of Judaism today that most directly and meaningfully continues the Judaism of the ages.

In this sense, its “authors” are the classical texts of Judaism: the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, and later codifications of Jewish law. Since Judaism is all about serving God and occupying oneself with doing the things that God commanded, these texts are crucial for Orthodox Jews. They try to keep all the laws of ritual and ethical behavior scrupulously – this is sometimes a point of distinction between them and other Jews.

But the “who” of Orthodox Judaism is not an easy matter to define.

Today, the old Orthodoxy (sometimes styled “modern Orthodoxy”) continues, but the line between it and the Haredim has been somewhat blurred. What is more, the rise of the state of Israel, along with the entrance of non-European, Sephardic Jews into the broader religious picture in Israel, has made this matter of “who” far more complicated than it used to be.

Critics of organized religion assert that religion has been a cause, at least ostensibly, of war and division. Indeed, much of the world is involved in a war now that is, in many ways, a religious one. How do you think orthodoxy stands up to this charge?

It depends whose orthodoxy you mean. I do not think that there are many conflicts currently going on that could be blamed on Christian orthodoxy. Jewish orthodoxy, I am sorry to say, is not an entirely innocent bystander in the current crisis in the Middle East, but I hardly think that it is a main factor.

What do you think of Zionism as a project, and what does that have to do with your view of orthodoxy? Do you see the Jewish state as a Messianic project and expression of orthodoxy?

Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. It began in earnest in the nineteenth century. Its original aim was to allow Jews to settle in the multi-national, multi-cultural Ottoman empire, along various tracts of land purchased in parts of Palestine, the Jews’ historic homeland. This movement soon came to focus on the hope for a Jewish state,

As for the role of Jewish orthodoxy in Zionism, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was rather negligible; Zionism was an overwhelmingly secular movement. As its goals came closer to realization, however, religious Jews found it more congenial, and especially following the Six Day War in 1967, many such Jews saw Israel as nothing less than the fulfillment of biblical prophecy and even the forerunner of Messianic redemption.

I personally support the state of Israel – I am an Israeli citizen and have lived there for more than twenty years – but I am a bit uncomfortable with the identification of the state with any eschatology, Orthodox or otherwise. I’m glad Israel exists, but I await somewhat nervously the judgment of history.

Full version here

dont forget h/t

Marilynne Robinson and James Kugel 2 of 3 posts

Several months ago, I posted a critique of Kugel.

Well lo and behold Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind has a similar critique in her book pp 24-29. I was not expecting to find it here. Robinson had the same sense that I did that Kugel’s book was equally non-humanistic.

Robinson’s version of the critique is that Kugel assigns “primitively” on the Bible, “this most seminal text”  Kugel states that all meaning in the book is eisegetical and that any lessons for our life would be greeted by the Biblical authors with incomprehension. The book is not even religion but etiology for political and social realities.

In contrast, Robinson declares that no one would be reading the Bible today if it did not have what to teach.

Kugel states that books from Mesopotamia like Gilgamesh written 3000 years ago has no messages-so too the Bible has no messages

Robinson writes that: on the contrary, Gilgamesh is one of the great stories of human civilization and its quest for immortality is eternal. There was brilliance to Babylonia. “The low estimate of Babylonia becomes the basis for a lowered estimate of the Hebrew Bible – the modernist declension.” Gilgamesh is not part of a religious canon and does not have exegesis and is still a great contribution to civilization

Robinson says that China, India, and Greece all have ancient works that allow us glimpses into how humanity deals with theodicy, anthropology, and catastrophe. If the Upanishads, Gilgamesh, and Homer have what to teach then so does the Bible

In this case, Robinson claims that we can learn from the monotheistic changes to the story. We cant assume Gilgamesh was just patched into Genesis and no one noticed the plagiarism- It was reworked to teach a specific message.

She thinks that Kugel assumes ancients had no culture and he has a low estimate of their creativity.

Kugel backs himself into the same false dichotomy as the fundamentalists and the new atheists. For Kugel, if the Bible is not that of the Scribes and their midrashic traditions, where texts are read intertextually and contemporaneously, then it is not religion.

Robinson also points out the conceit of moderns to think they are first to notice the ancient near east background in the bIble and the use of Gilgamesh. Grotius used Biblical similarities to Gilgamesh to argue for truth of Bible because they provided external confirmation!! She says, of course Moses used the fables and religions of antiquity – so what?

She concludes that Kugel’s claim that anyone who disagrees with him is dishonest is a modernist goal of showing others wrong. His need or anyone’s need for debunking the past as an urgent crusade without concern for the wealth of pre-modern knowledge, she rejects simply as a conceit.

Walter Brueggemann (more Kugel and Criticism)

Walter Brueggemann is the William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia
He has devoted his life to a passionate exploration of Old Testament theology, with an emphasis on the relation between the Old Testament and the Christian canonical works, and the dynamics of Jewish-Christian interactions. He has published more than 59 books.

Brueggermann criticizes Brevards Childs as being too Christian and not pluralistic enough (Jon Levenson in turn uses the same arguments on Brueggermann). Walter Brueggemann is the standard mainline Protestant approach. He is the Reverend Lovejoy not the Ned Flanders. He is the standard approach now in seminaries that locating meaning in Documentary History is so 19th century skepticism and positivism, on the other hand he rejects fundamentalism or apologetics as anti-intellectual and repressive. Does he have anything to teach about moving beyond the false dichotomy?
He thinks history removes the theological sense of the text. We lose God and Sinai with criticism. We also cannot create an ethical approach with historical criticism. He is also willing to question parts of historical criticism. But on the other hand, he questions the fundamentalist approach as more concerned with external dogma and affirming an external event rather than accepting the revelation of the text.

Passages from: Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1997. (pp.726-29) Old Testament Theology in Relation to Historical Criticism

No doubt Brevard Childs is correct in his contention that the relationship between Old Testament theology and historical criticism is of crucial importance to any advance in Old Testament theology. Thus I take it as a truism that Old Testament theological interpretation must be seriously engaged with criticism, and any serious student of Old Testament theology cannot retreat into a “safe” fideism because he or she fears the results of critical inquiry.

The conclusion to which I am drawn is that the enormous apparatus of high historical criticism that reached its zenith in the nineteenth century and continued its dominance well into the twentieth century is not, in the first instant, of primary relevance to theological exposition at the end of the twentieth century. By such a conclusion, I do not intend any appeal to an anti-intellectual fideism; I appeal rather to criticism that is congruent in the two ways suggested. In drawing this conclusion, I only reflect what in practice has turned out to be the case for a great number of responsible scholars at the present moment, namely, that scholars have moved well beyond the critical categories that have come to represent historical criticism.

In my judgment, historical criticism (by which I shall refer to the entire Enlightenment enterprise that came to be associated with Julius Wellhausen and that now seems to reappear as neo-Wellhausianism) was committed to a Cartesian program that was hostile (in effect if not in intention) to the main theological claims of the text.

Thus what is required in a new, antipositivistic intellectual climate is a criticism that is not thinly positivistic, but that is open to the density of social and rhetorical processes that generate social reality beyond our “realism.”
I suggest that in a new settlement still to be worked out between criticism and interpretation

Serious energy needs to be given to discern what of the older historical criticism is to be retained and how it is to be used. There is much in the history of the literature and perhaps in the history of religion that still needs to be valued, even though almost every old “consensus” opinion is now under heavy assault. The challenge in retaining learning from the older historical criticism is to do so without a hidden commitment to the theological skepticism that seemed endlessly to accompany that criticism, but was not a necessary part of a critical perspective. There may be a place for skepticism, but it should be explicit along with its grounds, and not surreptitiously taken along with critical judgment.

The real issue in the relationship between interpretation and criticism is to be aware that fideism and skepticism are twin temptations, and that criticism is an effort to be thoughtful in a way that does not permit fideism and that does not require skepticism. In much “scientific” study of the Old Testament, it is generally assumed that skepticism is much more intellectually respectable than is fideism. With the demise of positivism, that unstated but widespread assumption might well be reconsidered. Skepticism, often voiced as hostility to theological claim, is in fact not a given element in responsible intellectual inquiry. What passes for uncommitted objectivity in Old Testament study, moreover, is often a thinly veiled personal hostility to religious authority, which is displaced on the interpretive task as though such hostility is an intellectual virtue. No doubt an oppressive fideism and a hostile skepticism endlessly evoke and feed each other. We may now be at a moment when totalizing fideism is exposed as inadequate and when skeptical positivism is seen to be equally inadequate, when a genuinely thoughtful criticism can engage the density and depth of the text, which is available neither to fideism nor to skepticism.

Or a more technical plea to look at the text and not behind the text. The social world of a text does not explain the meaning of a text. For example, the social world of the Talmud does not explain the logic and meaning of the Gemara.

A mere excavating of the social world behind the text, as if the text, itself, did not enter into the social construction of reality and provide an alternative “social” world of negotiation and definition, is a species of positivist reductionism. As Clifford Geertz once argued, this short-circuits the autonomous process of symbolic formulation. Geertz claims that such symbolic reductionism usually stems from theories whose “psychology is too anemic and whose sociology is too muscular” (Geertz 1973: 202). How what is said is crucial to what is said.

The Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, has recently eloquently argued that rhetorical criticism is an indispensable complement in biblical studies to sociological analysis. Echoing Geertz’s strictures, he deplores forms of historical criticism (of which the sociology of the Bible is a sub-set) which explain away literary cunning such that “what is interesting and dense in the text has been often forfeited” (Brueggeman 1997: 103). As he puts it, historical criticism “runs the risk that the methods and assumptions to which it is committed may miss the primary intentionality of the text” (Brueggemann 1997: 104).

Brueggermann reviewed James Kugel’s 2003 The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible and thought that Kugel agreed with his seeking theological meaning as more important than history. But Kugel’s recent book sings a different song.

On the other hand, Kugel refers to “The Project” by which he seems to mean a theological investigation into the “realness of things” that lies deep beneath the appearances that are so taken for granted among us: “They [the texts] can indeed come back to life, and their world, their way of seeing, can let us in to take the measure of things that are strange” (p. 3). At the end, Kugel concludes: “It is important to glimpse how things once were otherwise; certainly we then may better understand where the present came from. And perhaps also for another reason, somewhat more sublime: to remember that that ‘otherwise’ is, for all that has intervened, not unrelated to what exists in the fullest reality of today” (p. 199).
Thus in the most restrained and almost whimsical way, Kugel’s ultimate concern is not historical but contemporary.

So what can be used from Brueggermann for an Orthodox approach? What cannot be used?
(Since my proportion of hits to the blog compared to click to links is so small, less than 1/100, I left the links out).

Reb Yudel on Kugel or Kugel #2

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..

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

Kugel responds to his critics again

I am surprised that this is not generating discussion

The current issue of JQR has a critique of Kugel by Benjamin Sommer, “Two Introductions to Scripture: James Kugel and the
Possibility of Biblical Theology,” Sommer advocates an approach like Moshe Greenberg, AJ Heschel, Michael Fishbane, or Jon Levenson and he has sympathies for Mordechai Breuer’s position.
However, Kugel wrote an online response to Sommer, where all the ambiguities about Kugel’s position are finally cleared up. Kugel rejects all of the aforementioned names. Biblical study does not contribute to Judaism or religion. For Kugel, the Bible has no moral lessons or theological ideals. There are no grand ideals or religious claims. Contradiction and parallel texts in the text do not teach anything. And there is a clear disjunctive between the Bible and the Scribes-Oral Law.

Here is the response.