Thursday, January 01, 2009

Considering Kugel

I wrote this last night and then took it down, because I was not yet convinced that this issue could not be ignored. I am now convinced that it cannot, so I am bringing it back up.

Here's the question: Should Yeshiva University, an Orthodox Jewish institution, invite a speaker to discuss a topic that contradicts a fundamental ideology of the institution? It's not an easy question to answer.

A few weeks ago, a YU student organization had Prof. James Kugel speak to students. Prof. Kugel, you might recall, recently published a book which makes the case that the Bible is a collection of ancient myths and propaganda (link). Under the title "Yeshiva University Gives Platform To Famous Apikores", the website VosIzNeis reported today about this lecture (link; and see Stern College's The Obsever: link).

Click here to read moreShould an Orthodox university invite him to speak on this, or any, topic? Or, as a YU alumnus and supporter (like many readers of this blog), should we be embarrassed by the VosIzNeias headline and the chatter it is generating? (Things would have been easier if the YU undergraduate newspaper had not written about the event, particularly in such a positive tone.)

Since Prof. Kugel was not actually invited by YU and did not speak about a controversial topic, I think that in the end this is nothing to be embarrassed about. The subject is nuanced, which understandably not every media outlet is going to recognize. Even if you would have objections to this lecture, it is worthwhile to consider the other side and recognize that reasonable people can reach a different conclusion.

Here are some issues to consider:

  1. As a university, YU is supposed to challenge students and open them up to different ideas. I think that this is probably the most significant issue. Is a lecture like this part of letting Orthodox students know what other people are saying? Or is it essentially allowing non-Orthodox proselytizing in the school? Is it acceptable for graduate students, rather than undergraduates, because they presumably (hopefully) know where they stand on these issues and are not easily convinced by a visiting professor? On the other hand, there is a difference between having an Orthodox Bible scholar teach multiple viewpoints and having a non-Orthodox Bible scholar teach his non-Orthodox approach.

  2. As an Orthodox institution, YU has a responsibility to promote Orthodox views. There are plenty of schools that represent a wide spectrum of viewpoints, although usually not the Orthodox. If students want to hear such speakers, they can go off-campus.

  3. I consider Academic Jewish Studies to be a part of the mitzvah of Talmud Torah (see this post: link), and I think that this is an important aspect of the Torah U-Mada ideology. If so, the teaching of it (and those teaching it) should be infused with Yiras Shamayim.

  4. It doesn't matter if someone calls himself Orthodox. If he is going to teach non-Orthodox views then it doesn't matter what he or anyone else calls him.

  5. It seems from the article in The Observer and from private conversations I've had that there are students for whom this event strengthened their support for Prof. Kugel's entire approach, including (especially) his recent book. I think this is significant.

  6. I can't think of any halakhic permission to allow the teaching of heresy by someone who accepts it. The Maharal (Nesivos Olam, Nesiv Ha-Torah, ch. 14) permits reading such books but is careful to distinguish between learning from his writings and from him personally. If calling the Bible a collection of myths and propaganda that is full of mistakes is not heresy, then we must not be speaking about the same religion.
Here are some other issues regarding this particular lecture:
  1. It was not on a topic on which Prof. Kugel has particularly non-Orthodox views. I don't think many would object if he had come to speak about the economics of falafel prices. Should we object when he comes to speak about unobjectionable issues regarding rabbinic Bible commentary?

  2. It is important to note that he was not actually invited by the university or any faculty member. He was invited by students.

  3. I think that objecting to his lecture at that time would have led to his becoming somewhat of a martyr. Let's try not to discuss him personally. Assume the premises of this post and discuss the larger issue of inviting such a speaker to lecture on his controversial topic.

  4. There is also an issue of who in YU has the authority and responsibility to decide which speakers are acceptable and which are not. There is no likely candidate for that.
In the end, I lean strongly towards not inviting him to speak on any issue related to Bible. But I see where reasonable people can conclude differently.

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