Tuesday, October 02, 2007

James Kugel and the New York Times' Mistake

TOTALLY REVISED (and with apologies to Prof. Kugel for the original, misguided version):

The New York Time recently ran an understandable but unfortunate error in reviewing a new book titled How To Read The Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now by James Kugel, a professor emeritus at Harvard and director of the Institute for the History of the Jewish Bible at Bar Ilan. After receiving a number of inquiries about the book, I felt that I had to obtain it and read it. The book is a popular and widely available manifesto of a belief that Prof. Kugel has previously taught in his very popular Harvard class: the conclusions of modern Bible scholarship are incompatible with traditional Judaism. His views were so well known that he was mentioned in a pamphlet about the religious dangers to Orthodox students at secular colleges (link). He has now made them available to the reading public along with his many insights.

In this book, Kugel goes through a large portion of the stories in the Hebrew Bible and explains them according to the "ancient interpreters", generally Apocryphal, Christian and pre-Rabbinic (Second Temple era) explanations, and modern critical scholarship. He seems to give more credence to the latter, which led me to wonder why he bothered to include the ancient interpreters but exclude all explanations from the Middle Ages and beyond. I found the answer in his last chapter, in which he discusses the theological implications of modern scholarship. His first suggested approach to this is (p. 681):
Click here to read more

What Scripture means is not what today's ingenious scholars can discover about its original meaning (and certainly not about the events and persons it describes), but what the ancient interpreters have always held it to mean. A more theoretical version of this answer--and more in keeping with what we have seen in the previous chapters--might go like this: The texts that make up the Bible were originally composed under whatever circumstances they were composed. What made them the Bible, however, was their definitive reinterpretation...
His second suggested approach is that the general theme of the Bible is serving God, which is a Divine message even if most of the Bible itself is not (p. 685):
Viewed from this perspective, the sometimes disturbing insights of modern scholarship must necessarily take on a different aspect. In Judaism, Scripture is ultimately valued not as history, nor as theology, nor even as the great, self-sufficient corpus of divine utterances--all that God had ever wished to say to man. Judaism is not fundamentalism, nor even Protestantism. What Scripture is, and always has been, in Judaism is the beginning of a manual entitled To Serve God, a manual whose trajectory has always led from the prophet to the interpreter and from the divine to the merely human.
And here is where the error of the NY Times comes in. While Prof. Kugel is somewhat vague about his own beliefs, and they are not particularly relevant anyway, the strong even if unintended implication given by himself (p. 45) and the NY Times (link) in calling Prof. Kugel an Orthodox Jew is that his suggested reconciliations of tradition and modern scholarship are acceptable to Orthodox Jews. I have no interest in being the Orthodoxy Police or interrogating people about the details of their beliefs. However, as is clear from both the review and the book itself, these approaches contradict one of the fundamental principles of Judaism. Even if one observes Jewish ritual according to Orthodox standards, one cannot be accurately called Orthodox if one does not accept certain basic beliefs, Torah from Sinai being one of them. Kugel's suggested approaches go beyond the Conservative belief of Torah from Heaven but not Sinai and simply relegate the Bible to a collection of unoriginal and politically motivated human stories that were later interpreted as having a Divine message. That isn't Orthodox by any stretch of the imagination. Even Marc Shapiro, whose book on the fundamental principles of Judaism argues for a broad definition of Orthodoxy, would agree--in the unlikely event that he would agree to publicly comment on this matter--that there is no way to fit Prof. Kugel's suggested approaches into Orthodoxy. I'm not saying that there should be any practical repercussion to Prof. Kugel or that people should start picketing his home or banning his book. I'm just suggesting that, in the interest of honest reporting, he should write a letter to the NY Times and explain that the beliefs about the Bible suggested in his book are distinctly non-Orthodox. And in the future, he can refer to himself as an observant Jew, like Sen. Joseph Lieberman does, so as not to even accidentally mislead people about Orthodox Judaism.

One thing I found throughout the book is the confidence in the methodologies of literary scholarship. Perhaps I am biased because of my background in math, but I find that the liberal arts are taken way too seriously by their adherents. They are full of assumptions and guesses, and in the end cannot actually prove anything. Folks, this isn't science. Stop pretending that it is.

On another subject, I found the appendix to his book, which is titled "Apologetics and 'Biblical Criticism Lite'" and is published only on his website, to be quite a comment on his mindset on these matters. In this appendix, he basically says that anyone who disagrees with him on these issues is an apologist. He says it nicely and relatively respectfully, but in such a way that it is impossible to argue with him. Anyone who says anything to the contrary is understandably influenced by outside factors, such as his emotions, and unable to think clearly about these issues. This is a technique used frequently by skeptical bloggers as well. Not very impressive and, frankly, not very respectful either. Just say that you disagree and don't try to read minds. Maybe, just maybe, you have some hidden biases as well. (Here is a link to his appendix but be forewarned that the views there are quite non-Orthodox: link.)

And on another subject, I found it interesting that Prof. Kugel seems to accept the arguments of James Hoffmeier et al against the Biblical Minimalists that there was an historical exodus from Egypt, albeit smaller than the one described in the Bible (pp. 207-208).

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Favorites More