James Kugel – Heretic?

Dr. Kugel, Bible scholar, was the target of a well-received (in Orthodox circles) pamphlets warning Orthodox parents about the dangers of sending their kids to secular universities.

Anyone who thinks that Modernity and Orthodoxy are compatible is not Modernity and Orthodoxy seriously.

Dr. Kugel maintains he is Orthodox, not just Orthoprax, but almost all Orthodox rabbis would regard his latest book — How to Read the Bible — as heretical.

I first met Dr. Kugel at Young Israel of Century City. I told him I was the son of a Bible scholar and I did not know how to reconcile Orthodox Judaism with critical scholarship. He said that was what he was going to talk about. Then from the bima he advised Orthodox Jews to ignore critical scholarship. He said that many Orthodox Jews want to study critical scholarship so they can disprove it but it usually ends up messing with their faith.

Dr. Kugel is a gracious man and speaker. He’s very difficult to dislike. Perhaps the vulnerability of being heretical in the insular world of Orthodoxy produces gracious people. I’m also thinking about scholar Isaiah Gafni who walks a similar line to Dr. Kugel. Dr. Gafni was very upset when I blogged about him (accurately) in 2005.

Here is how I deal with this topic when I talk to Orthodox Jews who want to remain Orthodox Jews but are disturbed by the findings of critical scholarship.

You want a relationship with Orthodox Judaism? You want to belong to Orthodox Judaism? Every relationship has boundaries and limitations. This is a price of belonging to Orthodox Judaism. You can’t deny its fundamental beliefs publicly. Every friendship has its price. Sometimes, to be friends with one person means you can’t be friends with another person. In almost every relationship, there are things you can not talk about. A relationship with Orthodox Judaism is no different.

Think of Orthodoxy’s belief in the divinity of the Torah as akin to a man’s belief that his wife is the most beautiful woman in the world. Sure, the evidence seems indisputable to you that these beliefs are not factually true, but they have beautiful results.

When people play a football game, they need to believe that what they are doing is the most important thing in the world or they will not play to their potential. Is a football game the most important thing in the world? Of course. But to get certain results, you sometimes have to believe things that are against reason.

My favorite forum for reading Modern Orthodox discussion is Hirhurim, where writes: "Many people are put off by Kugel’s very nuanced (and somewhat cagey) responses to questions regarding his personal beliefs (vis a vis Orthodoxy vs Orthopraxy, the nature of TMS & revelation, etc) but this should not detract from the fact that he is a GIANT in Jewish Biblical scholarship."

HAGTBG writes on Hirhurim:

1. Q: Is YU an Orthodox university or a secular university in collaboration with a religious school(REITS/MYP)? If there can be a gay club how can they prohibit a particular position on an intellectual discussion? For financial reasons – not ideological ones. But those financial reasons have consequences.

2. Who cares of he’s a martyr – it would have made biblical criticsm vis a vis Orthodoxy a big story and that would have been bad because I think Orthodoxy has benefited by the non-discussion of bliblical criticism and its prevalence in academia.

YU made the right call. It did not invite him; it did not prohibit him. By doing so it minimized the event and can say it is academically open. Life moves on.

A brief review of my own inbox confirmed to me that Dr. Kugel has in the past year spoken at more then one Orthodox synagogue at speeches either moderated or approvingly mentioned by Orthodox rabbis (better-known ones at that). These rabbis had to have already known about his views. Because now the knives are out I will decline to name those insitutions or rabbis though it was certainly no secret at the time.

What’s interesting to me is that I know a rabbi considered LW MO (certainly deemed a more LW rabbi then the rabbis I discussed above) who strongly advised people not to take Kugel’s class (no matter who they are). Then again, a class and a speech are not the same.

I went to a speech of his once having not read his book but having read a summary online. I’d have to say that the fact that he still believed in halacha as obligatory (as opposed to being for praxist reasons) was for me personally more beneficial then the harm of any examples he cited (which I can not now even recall anymore).

Perhaps the issue that can not be ignored is that a lot of people who want to be frum and are members of the Orthodox community appear to be disatisfied with the Orthodox position concerning Biblical authorship and are seeking additional (traditionally heretical) rationalizations to stay faithful.

Chakira writes:

I certainly have no objection to the invitation of a distinguished professor to our YU campus, ?? ????. I must say that I do find the focus on these authorial issues in the bible to be a bit much. The idea that the bible as we know it is subject to both high and low criticism is basically uncontroversial even among many religious groups. Only in the ironic context of YU, where we read Bibles as requirements and Talmud as religion, does this somehow become such a fraught issue. There are many ways to reconcile such criticism with our views of the Torah as somehow divine and possessing authority; but honestly, who cares? The idea of Bible as palimpsest is only ????? according to a very old view of ????? which has no clue of DH or any other modern Biblical scholarship. Furthermore, issues of authorship and authority have been incredibly dissociated during the latter half of the twentieth century. Finally, the devices which connect the Bible to our tradition, which we really care for, are basically left undisturbed by the DH. I think that if we are looking for forbidden knowledge to tickle our fancy we might as a community want to get some real knowledge first. The obsessional neurosis over DH is not justified and certainly in 2008 we cannot call someone a famous apikores who espouses the consensus of scholarship. More like "boring, tweed clad guy with a leather kippah."

My viewpoint is apathy towards bible criticism, the fact that I am aware of different approaches does not mean I endorse them. My point was that Kugel is basically espousing a consensus and one which is neither particularly pernicious nor exciting.

YU Bible professors have to pass certain doctrinal tests before being hired.

ANON posts: Gil, can you imagine any sort of scholarly proofs that could force you to say that the Orthodox approach to the origins of Torah needs to be revised? Is it that the current proofs are not strong enough, or NOTHING could ever change your mind?

If the latter, would the Rambam have had such an approach.

Gil responds: Maybe if Moshe Rabbenu would tell us that we are wrong…

Dr. Solomon Schimmel writes: The motto "Torah U’Maddah" is a vacuous expression if it does not include the serious study and consideration of perhaps the most important area of "madda" that is relevant to understanding the Torah -the critical biblical scholarship and archaeology of the past two hundred years. If such study results in the conclusion that the traditional orthodox doctrine about authorship of the Torah needs to be revised or even rejected, why should modern orthodoxy insist on clinging tenaciously to an unreasonable belief? To retain the traditional belief in light of overwhelming contemporary evidence and argument againt it is like the ostrich that sticks its head in the sand out of fear of engaging that which it finds threatening. YU and its students should not only be inviting Kugel to speak but scholars from the whole range of Jewish denominations, to engage in honest and open discussion and debate about fundamental Judaic beliefs, and their implications. The process of re-evaluation of deeply held and deeply felt beliefs, values, attitudes, and lifestyle is often existentially painful. But the price of not doing so in our contemporary academic environment (and YU students are in academia) is to continue to affirm as truth what is most probably not true, at least in the propositional sense of that term. For an extensive treatment of this issue see my homepage which will take you to my recently published book "The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs: Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth".

Chakira responds: Solomon,
thank you for trying to impose a hermeneutics of suspicion on people who would be happier not to be bothered. I am happy to see that in your zeal for a theory about some text, you would destroy other people’s deeply felt religious experiences. In the end your reduction of piety and deep feeling to fundamentalism and lies shows a lack of commitment to the decency and humanity of the other side you are debating. Despite my non Fundamentalist tendencies I would also probably not want to have you as an interlocutor, given that you cast aspersions of moments and experiences that are beautiful and numinous to me.

Nachum Lamm posts:

I was at the lecture, and one thing that impressed me (apart from Kugel himself, in his subject, presentation, and general menschlichkeit) was how packed it was, and not just with students. I’m not a current YU student myself, and I saw many others who clearly weren’t-two undergrads, male and female, were there with their father. It was clear that lots of them had read and enjoyed Kugel’s books.

So you have to face facts: Those people were there for a reason. There are people who *need* to hear Kugel. Like it or not, just like there are people whose brains forbid them from believing the world is 5769 years old, there are people whose brains forbid them from believing that every letter of the Torah was written by one person at one point in time. And yet they want to stay frum. And so they read Kugel, a man who keeps taryag mitzvos.

And I don’t want to seem harsh here, but those people don’t have to be told off by someone who is somehow able to ignore or dismiss (for good reasons or not, don’t get me wrong) the issues that they- yes!- agonize over.

Let me pound home the comparison to the whole Slifkin matter once again.

By the way, I find it a nice irony that the same group sponsored an event that included Avi Shafran a few days before. I wonder if he knows.

Rabbi Gil Student responds:

Nachum: The argument over Slifkin was not over whether we have standards but what those standards are. Kugel is not even borderline. He’s way over.

It’s great to sympathize with the underdog but if you say that anything goes then… I’m sure you can do the reductio ad absurdum yourself.

If you are going to agonize over these issues, it should be with a teacher who believes in Orthodox Judaism.

ML posts:

Even Slifkin is coming around to this; notice that in his latest essay he explicitly raises the inevitability of the challenges of archeology and bible scholarship to those who attempt a synthesis, two subjects he mostly avoided previously.

From page 4, bottom paragraph, of Slifkin’s essay:
"Furthermore, the rationalist approach innately involves dangers. It opens a Pandora’s Box; while issues such as evolution and Talmudic science can be resolved, other challenges, such as those from archeology and academic Biblical scholarship, are vastly more problematic."

It’s naive in the extreme to think that the only science that needs be faced by Orthodox reconcilers (professional or lay) is biology and geology. And as Nachum said, the massive size of the crowd proves it.

LOGICIAN POSTS: I’m tired of people trying to have it both ways. Either you accept factual evidence, (not as a worldview mind you but as an input), or you don’t.

I pray to God that I never have to be in the business of covering up lies and making up ex post facto rationalizations that I know to be false just to be considered a Jew.

KUTCZ writes: Rav Soloveitchik said "We Jews… have suffered a lot from the heresy of Biblical criticism…for many years we tried to ignore the evil…this method of indifference proved its utility over a long period…but times have changed" (Shiurei Harav, 61). Though perhaps his approach is unconventional, at least Kugel attempts to deal with the issues and maintain his religious faith, as opposed to all the people here, and especially on Vos Is Nonsense, throwing around the word "orthodoxy." Hiding behind the label "orthodoxy" is not praiseworthy; its cowardice.

Anon posts: This idea of YU being the model institution for such a forum – of bible critics, who deny the divine authorship of the Torah, is absolutely ridiculous. There are much safer ways to introduce YU students to the fact that there are FALSE opinions out there that credit human beings with the authorship of the Torah, for the purposes of academia. If at all, the context of such an invite should be a debate, where the opinion of mainstream orthodox Jewish thought is presented. Academia is hardly a valid cause to put impressionable college students at risk, by openly exposing them to heresy. Correct me if I am incorrect in my assumption that this perspective is utter herecy, in its rejection of #8 of the 13 principles of faith.

Anon posts: Gil, what am I supposed to do? Every academic scholar in the world rejects the Orthodox approach to the Torah. These are people who have examined the evidence, and many of them began as believers, but found the evidence too convincing.

I can believe the rabbis who know nothing about modern scholarship or the thousands of academics who are not tied to dogma. If you ask me to believe the rabbis, how is this different than the haredim saying we have to accept the idea that the world is 6000 years old even though this is rejected by every university scholar.

Modern Orthodox Jews are being asked to believe on faith something which is denied by every university trained scholar in the world, all of whom reject the traditional approach.

ML POSTS: It’s interesting that at least in the cases of sexual abuse and modern Bible scholarship, the Internet (and blogs in particular) played a large part in forcing the community to address it. It was not something that the community chose to deal with from the top down. In fact, the preferred strategy for both was to pretend it didn’t exist.

ANON POSTS: YU has already employed such a teacher who held and taught non-Orthodox views, including–by implication–that Moshe did not write the Torah.

He is out of bounds but Solomon Zeitlin, who taught there for many years, wasn’t?

I am sure Zeitlin never got up and said "I believe in J, E, D & P [and R)"–and perhaps he didn’t–but his views were Orthodox? Please. Not to check the tzitzis of the departed, but offhand I can think of an article he wrote in JQR about how the Book of Jubilees seems to have been written as an alternative to the Torah, being that it offers alternate perspectives on many topics in the Torah.

The idea is that Jubilees and Pentateuch drew on the same Israelite/ Jewish traditions about their ancient past, and Jubilees had a different take on that past and the way to practice that religion. It is obvious that this could only be possible were the Torah not in written form in 1300 BCE.

So how is this sort of thing new to YU? Zeitlin was teaching there already 90 years ago.

There are thousands of examples of traditional believers who end up being convinced by the academic approach every year. But you don’t [find] people who accept the academic approach being convinced by Aish HaTorah. It just never happens that way.

RABBI GIL STUDENT WRITES: If you don’t have an a priori reason to believe that Moshe wrote the Torah, I can’t imagine why someone would be convinced that he did. There are so many different possibilities. But if you do have an a priori reason, like we do, then it isn’t clear that is has been disproven by all of the speculation. Why do most academic scholars find this speculation convincing? Maybe for the same reason that most Women’s Studies academic scholars are feminists. They wouldn’t be teaching it for a living unless they accepted it. Those who don’t accept it generally end up teaching about historical Bible commentary (Parshanut).

ML POSTS: Nachum, no academic (or anyone else) can comment authoritatively on God’s relationship with Bible (or anything else). What can be said to be unanimously held is the Torah is not the work of a single person from the time of Moshe. The reason for that is that no matter how bad you might think the arguments and evidence for the specifics of the DH is, the evidence and arguments against the Torah being a unified work from the time of Moshe is essentially unimpeachable–and from numerous branches of knowledge. That’s why it is, as you (almost) said, unanimously held among those who are the most knowledgeable. It’s not a conspiracy.

ANON POSTS: My shul has at least 3 Bible professors who are Orthodox. All three believe in the Documentary Hypothesis. I can email you names if you like. You know at least one of them.


1. Shortly before the speech (I came early) Kugel casually asked those of us standing around a question about availability of kosher food in the area. Would you have answered the following?

"Professor Kugel, you are a kofer. Therefore, there is no point in your eating kosher. There are plenty of treif areas nearby."

It seems as if "anon" and "shmuel" would have said that. Would you? Would you say that to the many Orthodox Jews (yeah, I know, not really "Orthodox," whatever) who believe as he does?

Come to think, you never answered me what *you* believe.

2. If Kugel poured you a glass of non-mevushal wine, would you drink it?

3. If you were one of nine men in a room and needed a minyan and Kugel walked in, what would you do? (I know what the theological experts at VIN would do- they do it already to people whose headgear isn’t right. But I’m asking about you, the publisher of works condemned as kefirah by others.)

I’m honestly curious. And let me remind you that there are many Jews out there whose kashrus you’ve trusted, whose wine you’ve drunk, and who’ve you counted for a minyan whose beliefs are "questionable."

Or maybe not. But it pays to make sure. I’d start by calling the witnesses to your kiddushin and kesubah and grill them. Are you a bechor? Better redo that Pidyon Haben, just to be safe. Etc. etc.

Remember, words mean things. So do beliefs. That’s halakha.

Forgive a touch of anger here, please. I just am not happy with your words here and both honestly want to know answers as well as remind you of some facts.

Also, once again, I’d like to know your belief about who wrote what of the Torah and when. Just for the record.


Nachum: 1. Shortly before the speech (I came early) Kugel casually asked those of us standing around a question about availability of kosher food in the area…

I would direct him to kosher food, as I would to any Jew, even one who converted to Christianity (I use this example not to compare people but to make my point strong).

Come to think, you never answered me what *you* believe.

Moshe kibel Torah mi-Sinai.

2. If Kugel poured you a glass of non-mevushal wine, would you drink it?


3. If you were one of nine men in a room and needed a minyan and Kugel walked in, what would you do?

Trick question. I follow the Rambam’s pesak and would include any Jew who believes that there is an obligation to pray.

But it pays to make sure. I’d start by calling the witnesses to your kiddushin and kesubah and grill them.

Absolutely not. We have every right to assume that a Jew is entirely kosher until proven otherwise. There is no need to ask questions and I resent the idea that I am the only one who has religious standards.

Would you count to a minyan or drink the wine of someone who secretly does not believe in God (perhaps because of evil in the world) but outwardly acts like an Orthodox Jew? Do you believe that we have to start interrogating people about their religious beliefs? Do you ask every Lubavitcher about their beliefs in the Rebbe and God before trusting them? Or do you believe that there is no such thing as kefirah and all of those halachos are outdated? Is there no definition of Judaism or do you take upon yourself the right to define Judaism based on what you think is important? Are Messianic (Christian) Jews OK? Jews who don’t believe that there is a Kelal Yisrael? Jews who believe in a Jewish culture but not in God or the Torah? Or do you just have to keep halachah and it doesn’t matter whether you believe that Jesus is God incarnate or that there is no God.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
This entry was posted in James kugel and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.