Monday, April 20, 2009

Kugel at the JTS

James Kugel, author of "How to Read the Bible," spoke last month at the Jewish Theological Seminary, on “Can The Torah Make Its Peace With Modern Biblical Scholarship?” A description of the lecture with a link to the podcast, as well as a list of all of JTS's podcasts are both online. This is a lecture worth listening to

Kugel is a well-respected academic Bible scholar who taught Bible at Harvard for many years. He believes in the documentary hypothesis and is an Orthodox Jew. Given current understandings of both, these two positions are seemingly inconsistent and difficult or impossible to reconcile. At his JTS lecture (unlike his recent YU lecture), Kugel directly addressed this issue and addresses this problem. His lecture was thoughtful, very funny, and largely persuasive.

As a preliminary matter, Kugel sharply separates between the original meaning of a text and the meaning ascribed to it by any particular interpretive community. He also distinguishes between the divinity of the text and its historical origins. Let's see how this all plays out.

Let's start with the history. Kugel argues (both in his book and in shorter form in this lecture) that the Torah was written after Moses by multiple authors with very different perspectives and was later compiled and edited into its current form. Its original understanding was very different than its later understanding. Starting two or three centuries before the common era, interpreters started reading an understanding the text in a very different way. They were implicitly and perhaps subconsciously guided by four interpretive principles:

1) The text is cryptic. The text might mean something other than its plain meaning. For example, "an eye for an eye" does not mean that, but instead means monetary compensation for an eye.

2) The texts is prophetic. The text might be referring to future events. For example, Esau and Edom refer to Rome.

3) The text is consistent. So apparent contradictions, like the first two creation stories, can and should be reconciled.

4) The text is divine.

Given these implicit interpretive assumptions, these early interpreters and the people that followed, like the rabbis of the Talmudic era, created a large set of interpretations, stories, and laws based on the Torah and other biblical texts, but with meanings that were very different than the original meanings of these texts.

Kugel gives an interesting example in his lecture that was not developed in his book: Rosh HaShanah. In the Torah, this holiday is never called Rosh Hashanah. It is called Yom HaTeruah or Zicaron HaTeruah (day of blowing the horn, or a remembrance of blowing the horn). Nowhere in the Torah, the rest of the Bible, the apocrypha, or pseudepigraphical works before about 100 CE is it referred to as either the beginning of the year (in fact it occurs in the seventh month) or a day of judgment. All ancient authors seemed to think of it as simply of a day of sacrifice accompanied by shofar blowing. It was not until the time of Philo and of the early Tannaim that Rosh HaShanah seemed to take on its current meaning. (Of course, it is possible that it always had this meaning and no one --- from the Torah to the Mishnah --- seemed to think this was important enough to mention.) Kugel understands these early interpreters to have expanded and modified the original meaning of Rosh HaShanah, and in doing so created what we now think of as Rosh HaShanah.

Thus, Kugel separates between the original meaning of text and the later meaning ascribed to it from about 200 BCE to 200 CE. He also separates between the history of the text and its divinity. The traditional Orthodox understanding is that these two are the same: the Torah is divine because God wrote it. Kugel breaks this historical link: the Torah was written by many people over a long period of time, but it is divine for other reasons.

The traditional Orthodox explanation, if accurate, would be compelling. That is, a neutral person who accepted the factual claim that God literally wrote the Torah would be compelled to accept its divinity. However, that Orthodox claim is difficult (impossible?) to maintain in light of modern bible scholarship.

Kugel takes a jujitsu-like approach to modern Bible scholarship. He fully accepts the historical claims of modern scholarship regarding the origins of the Torah, but then argues that these historical claims are irrelevant as far as the Torah's divinity is concerned. This approach has the advantage of not pitting a religious Jew against modern scholarship. (Since Galileo, religion has lost pretty much every battle it has fought from that very position.) However, the disadvantage of Kugel's approach is that the religious explanation is no longer compelling. That is, a neutral person who accepted the historical origins of the Torah may, but need not, accept its divinity.

And that requires a radical rethinking of much of Orthodoxy. A reasonable Jew might be Orthodox (as is Kugel) because one accepts the divinity of the Torah on some ground other than that God literally gave the Torah to Moses and the Jewish people. Given contemporary Orthodox mores, that is not a position one wants to discuss loudly at an oneg Shabbat.

Alternatively, one might note that if the early interpreters could understand the text of the Torah in a radically different way, then so can we. After all, we need not accept the four interpretive principles that Kugel notes. And we might be guided more strongly by some contemporary mores and traditional Jewish mores (both to varying degrees).
In fact, if traditional Jewish ideas on (say) the social role of women or the status of gays and lesbians was based on social conditions that existed 2000 years ago, but no longer exist today, than a modification of these traditional beliefs would be warranted. All this moves one towards Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, or some other type of Judaism. And given this understanding of the Torah, there is no compelling argument that one should remain Orthodox. One might, but one might believe that other branches of Judaism are better.

All this might ultimately be a very good development for Orthodoxy. Leading Jewish thinkers have often welcomed new scientific and scholarly developments, and Judaism has changed as a result. (Maimonides moved Judaism squarely into the middle ages.) But the Orthodox approach to recent scientific and scholarly developments (evolution, geology Bible scholarship, etc.) has often been to circle the wagons and counter-attack. This leads to silly spectacles, such as Orthodox rabbis with no training in evolutionary biology explaining why the central basis for much of contemporary biology is flawed. Detailed pseudo-explanations of reptilian DNA, or the bombardier beetle, or the evolution of the eye, followed by "QED --- the whole thing is worthless." This sort of thinking is not only poorly-reasoned, but it is more likely to backfire and turn people (especially more intelligent or knowledgeable people) away from Orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy might be much better off it if focuses on its real strengths: a highly cohestive and caring community, links to tradition, seriousness and extensiveness of learning, etc. It is much worse off it it focuses on its weaknesses: disagreements with science, scholarship, and compelling and good contemporary social mores.

It seems to me that the proper response of Orthodox Jews to the compelling conclusions modern Bible scholarship is not to denegrate or dismiss them, but to develop a better theory of revelation. Kugel, to his credit, has done so.

blog comments powered by Disqus