Is Modern Biblical Scholarship A Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 2)

Me with James Kugel!

Me with James Kugel!

Picking up where my last post left off, I’m going to write down some of the notes I took on Dr. James Kugel’s talk at Lincoln Square Synagogue the other night. Dr. Kugel, beyond being an eminent scholar in the Bible and its early ancient interpretations, is a charming speaker with a subtle sense of humor (the same goes for his writing). He clearly enjoys the topics he writes about, and as a reader and listener, I find his attitude infectious.

Entertainingly, he began with a “PG13” warning. Biblical scholarship is not for everyone in his opinion. In fact, when asked to speak more loudly after he had listed some of the challenges that modern scholarship poses to traditional faith (he must have listed somewhere between 6 to 9 examples in quick succession), he joked that we were better off for not being able to hear him.

Some of the challenges arising from biblical criticism strike right at the heart of Jewish belief; the Torah implies (and later tradition asserts outright) that all of the Torah was given at Sinai, but the Documentary Hypothesis and its derivations argue there were many authors, who lived in different time periods. They also make this claim about several other books in TaNaKH (the Bible), and question whether or not King Solomon really wrote proverbs or the Song of Songs, and whether or not many stories in the Torah are historically accurate, including the Exodus, the conquest of Israel, and King David’s dynasty. (He mentioned that while some elements of the Exodus story have been affirmed by archeology, the evidence doesn’t seem to point to the Israelites having been there when the Torah implies.) And so on, and so forth.

In Dr. Kugel’s opinion, there are 4 ways for the faithful to approach modern biblical scholarship.

1) Dismissal of archeological evidence: Kugel thinks this is too hard to do, and he also mentioned that most Bible scholars are not out to disprove the Bible. The exception, he quipped, was in regards to the children of ministers who later become scholars. I think he really meant this though.

2) Some choose to accept what goes well with faith, and to ignore the difficult parts. Thus, we might say Isaiah has 2 authors (Ibn Ezra says this, after all!) but to say this about the Chumash itself is too hard, and we draw a line. Kugel doesn’t think this is a good idea, and he thinks if you accept the basic approach of the critics, then it is very hard to draw a line denoting when you no longer accept their conclusions.

3) To say “it’s right, but I don’t want to know”. It seems obvious to me why such an approach really doesn’t work. Kugel confessed that he is unable to live like this, and that he couldn’t hold himself back from studying research which is vital to the things he believes. In fact, he told us, it was the things that bothered him which brought him to the road he’s on now, and led to his career.

4) The fourth option isn’t hard if you think about it, or so Dr. Kugel told us. Or at least, it didn’t seem hard to him, since he’s adhered to this option for some 40 odd years.

The way Kugel phrased it, modern scholarship is NOT the truth about the Bible. Rather, it is the truth about a certain kind of way of looking at the Bible. As he explains it, modern scholarship is born in the Protestant Reformation when Protestants attacked Catholic readings of the Bible, which consisted of many oral traditions. This tactic served to undermine Catholic power and influence. The argument between the Catholics and the Protestants could be rephrased as follows: do the words of the Bible tell you the whole story? If yes, as the Protestants believed, then traditions which deviated from it should be ignored. If no, as the Catholics believed, then extra-biblical traditions were a vital part to understanding the words of the Bible. The Protestant motto was sola scriptura, “just the words (on the page) of the Bible”.

Of course, even with just the words on the page, interpretation was hard to pin down, and some people were being sentenced to death by Protestants for not keeping the Sabbath! Pinning down the objective meaning of the text being the goal, they sought to learn more about the text from just the words themselves.

What do they tell us?

If we just look at the words themselves, we’ll naturally have many questions about historical accuracy, since verification (as well as many details) is not included in the word economical Bible.This serves as the basis for modern scholarship, which to this day seeks to learn about the text from itself.

Jewish tradition, however, has a different perspective. Jews have never thought the Bible was just the words on the page, and we have always had an Oral Torah, with commentary and meaning clinging to every word. “An eye for an eye” now means money, and there are 39 categories of prohibited creative labor on the Sabbath, etc. Our Torah is incomplete without the oral traditions which came down with them.

But how old are these traditions?

Quite old, in Kugel’s opinion. Jubilees (c. 200 BCE) talks about Abraham’s 10 tests 400 years before the Mishnah does, and the Dead Sea Scrolls similarly contain many traditions which weren’t written down in Rabbinic writings until later on.

“This is no minor disagreement” in Kugel’s opinion. Modern scholarship is not interested in these traditions, but Judaism doesn’t think the Bible can be read without them. Because modern scholarship doesn’t focus on the Bible with its traditions, it should not be considered the objective truth about the Bible. Rather, when the scholarship is good, it is the truth about a certain conception, the “just the words on the page” conception, of the Bible.

As for us, we’re obsessed with the Oral traditions, which basically tell us how to fulfill the most basic idea of the Bible: How do we serve God?

If it seems the literal text of the Bible contradicts this goal, then the Sages informed us how to reread the verse. Why? Because the Oral tradition and the goal of serving God come before the literal text of the Torah. This may seem like a radical idea, but in truth, those of us who study Talmud know that the phrase “Don’t read it this way; rather understand it to mean…” is quite common.

The Torah serves as the first word in how to serve God, but this mission is continued and embodied in the Oral tradition, later written down in the Mishnah, Talmud, etc. Our oral tradition continues, and in Kugel’s opinion, now includes the prohibition of using electricity on the Sabbath. All of this in order to better serve God, in the most exact way possible.

When we stop to think about Kugel’s conception, Rabbinic Jews will probably find it easy to understand. Abraham is not the first monotheist in the Torah. Esau doesn’t really seem so bad. But the Sages read the literal words in light of Rabbinic theology, and we don’t read the Torah without the captions written in by the Sages.

In regards to the divine origin of the Torah, Dr. Kugel echoed Rabbi Leibtag’s point that modern scholarship simply cannot shine any light on this issue. We don’t know the rules of how God communicates with man, and the Torah doesn’t contain markings that tell us exactly how prophecy works. While scholars can help us understand the historical context of the Torah, in the end divine origin is beyond their purview.

However, Kugel asked, if divine origin can’t be proven (and if it can’t be disproven, it can’t be proven either), then why believe it? A rabbi once told Kugel that he thought the Torah is man’s response to the ineffable (too great to be expressed in words) God. In Kugel’s opinion, this approach is far from the truth. In fact, “ineffable” is the opposite of God’s policy. God is “extremely effable” in Kugel’s words.

What this means is that Judaism believes it is God’s policy to talk to man, and a lot. He comes into our world, and He interferes in it. A man made Torah is impossible in Judaism. Rather, God, who constantly speaks to man, comes down and gives it to us.

While we hold that God comes into our world, and that the Torah came from heaven, it is important to note that God has given it to us. There was a “hand off” (his phrase) from God to us, and now we’re in charge, and we’re responsible for interpreting the Bible.

Kugel concluded his speech by telling us that his words were basically plagiarized from his forthcoming book “The King in the Sacntuary”. I cannot wait to read it.

I’ll finish this section with Dr. Kugel’s quote of the night. He told us that a teacher in an Orthodox high school remarked to him that they were using his book, “How To Read The Bible”, to teach seniors about biblical criticism. “Don’t do that!” he responded. “It wasn’t written for people in 12th grade!”

The teacher,however, retorted that Kugel is fooling himself if he thinks seniors don’t know what biblical criticism is, and if they don’t know in high school, they’ll be in for a real shock when they get to college. At least with proper instruction, they will not find it so threatening.

I’ll finish off part 3 with some of the questions the crowd asked to Rabbi Leibtag and Dr. Kugel, and the answers they gave to them. I’ll also just mention here that after he was done speaking, Kugel twice said that he really had a lot more he wanted to say, but he didn’t have time. Some of what he wanted to say will be in his forthcoming book, and if I recall correctly, he told us at least one point he wanted to discuss is in his book on Jubilees, “A Walk Through Jubilees“. If you’re interested in it, go to a library, because it is prohibitively expensive.

Part 3 will also make explicit the disagreement between Dr. Kugel and Rabbi Leibtag that I mentioned in the last post, but if you’ve read both of them, you’ll be able to figure out what it is before I tell you.

If you’d like to submit a guest post or response, please contact me on Facebook or Twitter.



Filed under Miscellaneous, Tanakh/Bible

11 responses to “Is Modern Biblical Scholarship A Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Is Modern Biblical Scholarship A Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 3) | ThinkJudaism

  2. ruvie

    “However, Kugel asked, if divine origin can’t be proven (and if it can’t be disproven, it can’t be proven either), then why believe it? ”

    does he really answer this question? if we take modern biblical scholarship seriously then the dating and original text does not agree with anything chazal maintains. doesn’t this question the whole enterprise of revelation and kol ot v’ot (and some rambam’s principles). he doesn’t seem to square these issues (unless- i am religious therefore i believe there is divinity in the text and follow chazal interpretation of what one has to do to “serve hashem”). the question remains why be so strict and exacting if not all has been dictated by hashem. or am i missing something?

    btw, thank you for posting this excellent summary.

    • Hi Ruvie,

      I want to apologize in advance for the level of speculation in my response. I don’t think I had another way to go about this. Additionally, I thought you were asking a few questions, so I tried to get to each.

      I think Kugel hinted at his reasons for belief, but no, I don’t think he really answered the question here. I haven’t analyzed his epistemology in any significant way, but I think he gets into it most in “Great Poems” and “The God of Old” besides for “In the Valley”, where obviously he tries to go into a little more depth.

      I think if we read those books we will not come out with the impression that Kugel believes we can sit down and prove Judaism (let alone a Deist God, or something like that) with some kind of iron clad linear proof. He seems to get involved in very personal and subjective areas, and without a doubt, those interplay with tradition and reason for him.

      The truth is, I don’t think Dr. Kugel would think very highly of a religious method which tried to prove Judaism from an objective linear perspective. I may be wrong, but he might find that process to be foreign to Judaism, which is tied up in what it means to be human, and with the Jewish people in particular.

      This being the case, even if he had the time to begin explaining why he believes what he believes, I don’t know how truly satisfying you would find it. Anyway, I’m speculating a lot here on what he thinks, so I wouldn’t take anything I just wrote to the bank.

      In terms of the specific contradictions and questions you raise, I guess I’ll continue to speculate what Dr. Kugel might say to you, though if you go on his website and email him, he might answer you, which is pretty cool.

      As he says in the question and answer session, chazal are not trying to write a history. They are trying to tell us how to serve God. So Kugel isn’t saying “ignore history”, he’s just saying that we don’t read the Bible as a history book. What’s the point of that, from the Jewish perspective? (you might say it’s important from a “secular studies are important perspective, and I think he’d admit that, but at any rate, he wont’ see it as important to “square” our beliefs with criticism.)

      This being the case, now we’ll assume that man has a tremendous role in Jewish law: I think I can say pretty confidently that Kugel has no problem with how many of our laws and customs are man made. He said later in the night that Chazal celebrated what he calls “the hand off” from God to man. God gave us the beginning of the law, and it’s now our job to manage, maintain, explain, detail it, etc.

      So I think he might tell you yes- we’ve had a giant role in our law. We should celebrate this and continue to serve God in as an exact way as we can.

      I’ll speculate here that he might be trying to say something similar to the Rava quote that “it’s all gzerot” in the way Rambam explains it: The many things we do can go in one direction or another, and just because we light chanuka candles in one way doesn’t mean it’s innately superior to the way Bet Shamai suggested. It’s a man made decision to light the way we do, and Chazal are excited (and presumably assume that we should be too) about it.

      In Kugel’s opinion, men made the decision regarding many things like this (muktze, shmitat kesafim, take your pick) and we’re 100% excited about it, and we make it as detailed as we can. (It seems to be taken as axiomatic that more detailed is better, but obviously certain aspects of halakha are less formal, and there are logical reasons why we can apply it in some places and not others. So maybe it isn’t axiomatic, and the system needs more explication than we usually give it.)

      So based on the assumption that there was a “hand off”, and that we were commanded to serve God, Kugel would tell you yes: we’re strict and detailed about it, because we think that’s the best way to do it.

      Also, thanks! 🙂

      • ruvie


        I do not think he really ever answers the question. he’s a great tap dancer on this issue – the best i have seen in person.i think the question i have to kugel is why does – or what compels him- to believe the last paragraph in your comment. i believe since he is religious he backs into it to justify where he stands religiously – which i understand. he really thinks that chazal is winking all along about this issue (that they know). my only point is that i think most of religious jewry would have an issue of no matan torah/revelation to be as medakdak as we are today. yes that “hand off” – what was it and when ? – silence. i think he needs to stand this ground otherwise everything crumbles for being orthodox – its the minimalistic you can be since he does believe in many of the works of modern biblical scholarship.

        he believes what he believes because of faith – nothing else. that is okay as long as your hoest about it. or did i get it wrong?

        • Hi Ruvie,

          To add to speculation that Kugel’s views on tradition, faith, and reason, interplay with each other (since I don’t have much to add on those points, sorry):

          “Rabbinic Winking” (a term for use in only very specific contexts) may possibly be explained in a very Kugelian way. He may simply suggest that we should view the Bible and Talmud with different glasses/axioms, and that this is the old way of looking. He actually described a “funnel” in regards to certain matters in our faith later on in the evening, and I think he accepts that we are quite close to the narrow bottom, when change and innovation are difficult.
          This acceptance means that in practice, we can no longer change things, even in his opinion. However, he may believe that theologically we should remain aware of the fact that we were once at the top of the funnel. It isn’t so much winking, then, as the fact that we have forgotten about the funnel.

          I don’t know exactly why he believes in the “hand off”, because I really do think whenever he discusses faith, he’s discussing something that is intensely subjective, and very difficult (if not impossible) to properly put into words so that they could be properly understood by another person. I do think he’s being honest though, whether or not we’re impressed with his suggestions and descriptions.

  3. Pingback: Was the Whole Torah Given to Moses at Sinai?: Rabbinic Sources That Say No | ThinkJudaism

  4. Pingback: Is Modern Biblical Scholarship A Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 5): Dr. Nahum Sarna | ThinkJudaism

  5. Pingback: Revelation, Tradition and Scholarship: A Response | ThinkJudaism

  6. Pingback: Modern Orthodoxy and Modern Bible Study | ThinkJudaism

  7. Pingback: How Many Biblical Authors?: Rabbi Emanuel Rackman | ThinkJudaism

  8. Pingback: Torah Misinai | World of Truth

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s