Reconsidering Bible Scholar James Kugel

From Hirhurim:

R. Dr. Moshe Bernstein, a Professor of Bible at Yeshiva College, writes a very eloquent (and surprisingly forceful) opinion piece on the Kugel incident (link) in the current issue of The Commentator (link):
Why Lines Need to be Drawn (and Where)

When a writer for The Commentator asked me for a brief reaction to the invitation to Professor James Kugel to lecture at the Beren Campus of Yeshiva University last month, my response was that the query was more complicated than it seemed on the surface, and that a "sound-bite" type of answer could not do justice to it. When the issues of ostensible "academic freedom" and that of the appropriate hashkafa to be expected of speakers on matters of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University are apparently in conflict, the one-liner and the bon mot do not suffice. So I am grateful to the editors of The Commentator for giving me the opportunity to react to their article somewhat broadly under this rubric.

James Kugel is a friend (and I hope that he will still be one after he reads this piece) as well as a professional colleague in the discipline of early Jewish biblical interpretation whose work in that area I admire (and assign in a number of my classes at YC). I should have welcomed his lecturing at Yeshiva on the topic of early biblical interpretation that he discussed at the Beren Campus recently, were it not for the views that he has expressed in his recently published How to Read the Bible.

Click here to read moreJames Kugel is a friend (and I hope that he will still be one after he reads this piece) as well as a professional colleague in the discipline of early Jewish biblical interpretation whose work in that area I admire (and assign in a number of my classes at YC). I should have welcomed his lecturing at Yeshiva on the topic of early biblical interpretation that he discussed at the Beren Campus recently, were it not for the views that he has expressed in his recently published How to Read the Bible. I am not going to discuss the question of whether the views that Professor Kugel espouses regarding the composition and authorship of the Torah are acceptable within Orthodox tradition; I take it for granted that there is no source in the masorah, no matter how broadly we define it, which will allow for the denial of Torah miSinai and the assertion of composite authorship for the Pentateuch. ("The belief in the unique divinity of Torat Mosheh is the only one adopted by the Jewish people, accepted by all sages." [M. Breuer, "The Study of Bible and the Fear of Heaven," in S. Carmy, ed., Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations, p. 169]) So the point at issue is not whether someone who holds a minority view within the tradition should be addressing our students, but whether one who holds a view which is antithetical to the tradition on this very significant point should be speaking. The fact that he self-identifies as an Orthodox Jew, and his lifestyle is in consonance with that self-identification in terms of shmirat hamitzvot, probably makes his speaking to our students on campus on a topic which is Torah-related that much more hazardous.

The dilemmas faced by Orthodox Jews who engage in the discipline of biblical scholarship are well-known, as are the theological boundaries that Orthodox Judaism sets down in this area. This leads to the well-known phenomenon of Orthodox Jews in this field (myself included) specializing in "safe" areas, whether they be the Dead Sea Scrolls or medieval parshanut or biblical philology (cf. my remarks in Torah u-Madda Journal 3 [1992] 20-25). Professor Kugel, however, has ventured beyond those constraints in his acceptance of the composite authorship for the Torah. He is indeed far more conservative in his approach and conclusions than almost all critical biblical scholars with whom I am familiar, since he believes in divine revelation in some sense (but not in Torah miSinai) and in the binding nature of mitzvot. He has actually been attacked by a number of biblical scholars for not being radical enough in his conclusions (cf. the review of the book by Richard E. Friedman in Biblical Archeology Review January/February 2008 who accuses Kugel of excessive "Orthodoxy"). He is not by any means a garden variety Orthopractic source critic (and he very explicitly dismisses the notion of Orthopraxy in the following citation from his website: "As you know, Judaism is notoriously long on deeds and short on doctrine; still, I can’t imagine that any such "Orthopraxy" can be pursued in the long run by someone who doesn’t have some basic belief in H’ and in the connection between that belief and all the "deeds" of his or her Orthopraxy."). He is a "believer," but not quite in the same way that most of us are. As I said above, however, the question under discussion is not whether Kugel is right or wrong, pious or heretical, but rather whether someone who has publicly espoused the views that he has should speak at Yeshiva.

The topic of Professor Kugel’s talk at the Beren Campus is also not the point at issue. Although it is quite clear that the students extended an invitation to him only because of the celebrity or notoriety of his most recently published volume (as The Commenator’s article noted, "it is hard to imagine that number of undergraduates attending a James Kugel speech in years prior to the publication of How to Read the Bible"), he was not asked to speak on the subject of that volume. But it would be quite disingenuous to suggest that he would have been invited regardless of that publication since, in point of fact, he could (and perhaps should) have been invited long before the book came out if the interests of those who invited him really focused on his work in early biblical interpretation.

My primary concern is for the message which is sent when someone like Professor Kugel speaks about a subject related to Torah on campus, regardless of the topic of his lecture. Whether we like it or not, whether we hide behind the motto of free inquiry and academic freedom or not, the message which is projected, willy-nilly, is that the position that he has espoused in his most recent book is acceptable within the parameters of Orthodoxy. My concern is actually not so much for students at Yeshiva College or Stern College who read his book or hear a lecture from him; they all hopefully have teachers to whom they can turn to aid them in clarifying issues which might trouble them. I am, however, apprehensive about Yeshiva University’s granting him and his views on the composition of the Pentateuch an implicit seal of approval in the broader centrist Orthodox community. If I am correct that those views are outside the pale of Orthodox theology as reflected in the classical sources, then we cannot be responsible for an Orthodox ballebos in Teaneck or the Five Towns, or an Orthodox college student in one of the Ivies presuming that belief in divine revelation and the binding nature of mitzvot, but not in Torah miSinai, is sufficient as Orthodox belief because Yeshiva University welcomed on campus a distinguished Orthodox biblical scholar who holds that view in his published work. (And I have the same concern about Orthodox rabbis who have Kugel speak in their shuls without disclaimer.) We do have a responsibility of that sort to our broader constituency, and I am not sure that "free inquiry on the college campus" is sufficiently weighty grounds to disregard that responsibility. There are times that "heightened intellectual discourse on matters of import" (to borrow the words of a student cited in the article) becomes a self-indulgent luxury when contrasted with its potentially negative consequences.

Dr. Bernstein writes:

"I take it for granted that there is no source in the masorah, no matter how broadly we define it, which will allow for the denial of Torah miSinai and the assertion of composite authorship for the Pentateuch."

What about the Ibn Ezra, Abarbanel and other sources that Dr. Bernstein teaches in his own classes that entertain positions that are more expansive than the position of chazal in Baba Batra? Were those positions regarding "post-Moshe" authorship based on the mesorah or their own analysis of the facts in front of them? Perhaps they would not be invited to YU either lest they corrupt the baalei batim in Teaneck or the Five Towns.

Dr. Bla Bla writes: James Kugel is a friend of mine, and if he had not written the things that he had, and did not believe in the things he believes in, and had not had the temerety to lecture at YU after being invited, I would not feel the need to take time away from my busy schedule to try and publicly shame and humiliate him in this written epistle. I am sorry that James made me do this through his actions because I consider him a great friend. I only wish he were a different person than the one he is.

NACHUM LAMM WRITES:

"This leads to the well-known phenomenon of Orthodox Jews in this field (myself included) specializing in "safe" areas,"

This looks to me very much like a concession that the Bible critics are correct, and that Orthodox Jews should simply stay away.

"he could (and perhaps should) have been invited long before the book came out"

a) The word "perhaps" negates his whole point about what a great guy Kugel is a few paragraphs above.

b) TEIQU was only founded a few weeks earlier.

"aid them in clarifying issues which might trouble them"

It seems like Dr. Bernstein means "to tell them what it’s acceptable for them to think."

By the way, I write all the above with all due respect to Dr. Bernstein, who’ve I taken and learned much from. In a "safe" field, of course, not that I believe there really is such a thing.

TZVEE WRITES: I would add after insulting his friend, do not overlook Bernstein’s insult to the students who invited his friend, "Our best and brightest students should have known better."

The real issue is the logic of "invited to speak" = "granted legitimacy." That’s garbage logic. When I spoke at Notre Dame about my research on prayer nobody thought even remotely that meant the Catholic Church granted me or my ideas any "legitimacy."

DF POSTS: Pace Dr. Bernstein, he takes an awfully long time to say nothing.

And I agree with Nachum that the reference to "safe fields" smacks of a concession that the critics are right.

And I think the reference to "the Kugel episode" sounds like something straight out of Woody Allen.

LOGICIAN POSTS: Why do so many people feel it necessary to judge others in a public forum in this manner. Rather than speak in the abstract this letter is a public rebuke of a person by a so called friend. There is so much of this stuff it makes me sick. Humility is a good trait no?

We should be as Joseph. When Jacob died his sons were worried that Joseph would take revenge upon them for the act of selling him into slavery as a young man. Can you imagine a worse evil than selling your own flesh and blood into slavery? So they ask forgiveness:

"Thy father did command before he died, saying: So shall ye say unto Joseph: Forgive, I pray thee now, the transgression of thy brethren, and their sin, for that they did unto thee evil. And now, we pray thee, forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of thy father.’ And Joseph wept when they spoke unto him.

And his brethren also went and fell down before his face; and they said: ‘Behold, we are thy bondmen.’

And Joseph said unto them: ‘Fear not; for am I in the place of God? "

In other words for even a personal affront as bad as being sold into slavery Joseph leaves the judgement to God. Why cant the self righteous among us just keep our opinions to ourselves and leave the judging to Hashem.

TZVEE WRITES: i bet logician is not a YU grad. at yu ad hominem is a primary mode of argumentation and insult is a major mode of communication. and those at yu do understand that the outside world is different – it’s where people answer substantive claims with substantive arguments.

MJ POSTS: It was in Dr. Bernstein’s class many years ago that I first fully experienced that particular Modern Orthodox intellectual stance: "everyone to the right of me is an idiot; everyone to my left is a kofer."

But what really struck me about his letter is that it buys into the fiction that he himself knows to be false that at YU there is really a discussion over these ideas. Perhaps there shouldn’t be, but it’s simply disingenuous to suggest that it is going on in some appropriate forum that shall remain nameless.

It is also ridiculous to suggest that now there is some kind of James Kugel stamp of approval that can be passed around in MO circles because he spoke at YU. If people have problems with certain theological propositions, then they can reject them or accept them anyway. How does JK change the equation? Is there a WWJKD bracelet that is being handed around that I don’t know about?

The real thing that scares Dr. Bernstein is the idea that exposure to Kugel undermines the naive belief that YU students more than likely have that if you are are committed to certain sets of theological propositions that you will self-exclude yourself from the Orthodox community. It is not James Kugel per se that undermines this, it is simply the idea that you could be davening next to someone in shul who believes in an alternate genealogy of our religion.

Perhaps JK instantiates this, but I assure Dr. Bernstein that this is something they will most likely figure out sooner or later.

LAWRENCE KAPLAN WRITES: Dr. Bernstein Chossid: Do you really believe that there is only a technical difference between saying that the last eight or twelve verses of the Torah or an isolated verse here and there were added onto a Mosaic Torah and accepting the documentary hypothesis?! As for your use of the slippery slope argument, perhaps next you will tell me that since the halakhah allows abortion in certain instances there is only a "technical" difference bertween the halakhic position and that advocating abortion on demand.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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