Is Bible Scholar James Kugel A Heretic?

Daniel writes on Hirhurim: Some comments seemed to indicate that Professor Kugel is Shomer Mitzvos. However, if he does not believe in Torah min HaShamayim, then I do not see how he can fully believe (if at all) that the Mitzvos are binding. Part of being a Shomer Mitzvos is to perform the Mitzvos because G-d commanded us to, not simply for cultural reasons, to fit in, or out of the goodness of our hearts.

(Please don’t get me wrong. If someone keeps Mitzvos, but has issues with Emunah, the solution is to work on his/her Emunah, not to give up fulfillment of Mitzvos).

SHADES OF GREY POSTS: R. Elcahanon writes that disbelief is illogical, but he also writes that that the source of disbelief is desire or bad character traits. Lev Eliyahu in Chayei Sarh writes of the primacy of character traits, even more than fear of Heaven, as a building block for Judaism. Derech Emunah Ubitachan in Yisro(R. C.P. Sheinberg) quotes Sefer Hayashar L’Rabbeinu Tam that emunah is one of "kochos hanefesh".

All of the above sources need to be explained in depth and with nuance, but the point is that there is a moral, spiritual, and emotional component to belief; otherwise, you are left with R. Elchanon’s question of holding Aristotle responsible(or a bar mitzvah bachur), and you don’t have his answer, if you argue with his simplification of faith(see Derech Emunah Ubitachan, above, quoting Chasid Yavetz).

Someone like Dr. Kugel is exposed to a different intellectual system, and I don’t think will be convinced by a kiruv seminar, or attempts to put the Kuzari in quasi-mathematical terms. In perhaps a less problematic case, "frum-skeptics", are also exposed to a different system of thought, and "Project Inspire", aimed at the insular Bal Habos in Flatbush, might not help them(although anyone should keep an open mind, if they consider themselves an intellectual).

I think such people should work on the experiential parts of belief. At this point in their "nekudas habechirah", they can at least work on not mocking Judaism. As per R. Elchanon above, the middos element(along with other acts of Judaism) is a component of kochos hanefesh of emunah, and "meor s’hbo machazirin l’mutav".

They can also take a break from their questioning, although obviously if one is a Bible professor for a living, that is part and parcel of one’s life’s work. However even in the latter case, I would not reject "goodness of one’s heart", because it could lead to something better in the future; the Seredei Aish communicated with certain Maskilim–obviously he held out hope for them at their level.

CHARLIE HALL POSTS: "Why do so many people feel it necessary to judge others in a public forum in this manner."


When I publish something professionally — and my name is attached to over sixty articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals — I am inviting others who are knowledgeable to respond. On occasion the journals that have published my work have published the comments of others, and I have also written comments to the work of others that have been published. Prof. Kugel is an academic and should welcome fair criticism of his work.

"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"

You should see some of the comments I’ve gotten from reviewers of the articles I’ve written that have been rejected for publication. I don’t think what you describe is unique to YU!

"The Pope has no problem attending a Jewish synagogue"

That is relatively recent. Catholics did not enter non-Catholic houses of worship until Vatican II.

"The RW are makpid on halachah, the LW eat out (dairy, fish whatever), and generally are much more lax."

I belong to what is generally acknowledged to be a LW shul, and nobody I know there who self-identifies as observant (there are indeed a number of non-observant members as well) eats cooked food in non-kosher restaurants.

"The RW will go to YU, KBY, Gush etc, the LW won’t."

I know a number of folks from that LW shul who have sent their kids to YU for high school and/or college.

DODA POSTS: Gil-I notice Dr. Bernstein concedes there are real questions based on historical inquiry. He does not dismiss the field (obviously) or say that since he has studied this, these are not strong difficulties. Gil, he is an expert and cannot dismiss. I wonder why you, who are very smart, but clearly do not have such a background, feel qualified to dismiss it as silly speculation.

[Gil Student replies: "I do too. But I don’t accept every question as valid."]

As far as Kugel, what I heard him say at the lecture was equivocal. But basically, I think he means he believes in the Divinity (at some level) of authorship, and this is not something that can be proven or disproven by study. I do not get the impression he believes in all of Torah Missinai. And I think he wishes he could, but with what he has learned at this point, he cannot honestly believe it.

JLan-Haredim are shomer negiah, and MO are not. And that’s the difference? Maybe in public. Still I know some MO who really are. And I know Haredim who privately are not. Of course, the longer one is single, the less realistic it is to expect that, no matter what one’s background is.

Man Dehu writes: As to questions, Kugel writes in his book that there are words in Koheles which are Persian, so Koheles must have been written post Churban Bayis Rishon. Does anyone know of any Orthodox scholars who refute this?

GIL STUDENT REPLIES: I don’t recall that from his book and I haven’t seen any scholarship on this at all. But is it really so hard to believe that Shlomo Ha-Melekh knew at least a few words of Persian?

ANON POSTS: There’s another problem too. For better or worse, there is such a thing as a history of the Hebrew language. Even Orthodox scholars such as Bernstein concede this. And they (him included) will tell you that if Koheles was written by Shlomo then, in fact, there is no history of the Hebrew language. While you may be fine with that, it also means there is no history to other languages as well, since the linguistic method does not discriminate in languages.

GIL STUDENT RESPONDS: As Kugel makes clear, this is based on the assumption that it takes a long time for words to assimilate from one language into another ("Loan words enter a language when two different civilizations have some ongoing, sustained contact." – p. 513). This is nothing more than a generalization that proves nothing. There can easily be exceptions to it and we don’t even have to go to Shlomo having contact with people from all over the civilized world (which he did, even if every country with which he had contact is listed in the Bible).

ANON POSTS: But if your kid needs speech therapy, hopefully not, you will rely on the field which developed out of linguistics. however soft a field you believe it to be.

NACHUM LAMM POSTS: You fail to see what you’re getting into, Gil. By stubbornly sticking to such an indefensible (and theologically unnecessary) position about Neviim and Ketuvim, you make people wonder if your positions about the Torah are similarly untenable.

GIL STUDENT POSTS: "These are perfectly defensible positions. I consistently reject any conclusions based on speculative historical methodologies. It’s all theories with no proof."

ANON POSTS: That’s what gets me, how anti-intellectual people suddenly become when it isn’t in the Beis Midrash. Since when are theories (which, obviously, are based on evidence, reason and analysis and are meant to be chewed over and not ignored) something to shrug at?

ANON POSTS: Do you really think there is a chance that at a later date the scholarly consensus will become that Koheles was written by Shlomo, or at least that it dates in whole or part from the period in which he lived?

Be that as it may, are you really so disinterested in the question of who wrote Koheles? I’m afraid I don’t believe that. Hirhurim is the work of a man who has broad interests in Judaica. True, it is obvious that there are areas that are especially of interest to you, and others that are less so. But I can’t believe that this entirely disinterests you, as opposed to it being something of a third rail that you simply don’t want to touch.

GIL STUDENT POSTS: "I’m not interested in these kinds of theories because I don’t take them seriously. Did you know that there’s a theory that it was originally written in Aramaic and then translated into Hebrew? I don’t believe in treating holy writings so cavalierly and making judgments about them based on speculative, unprovable theories."

ANON POSTS: Very well said. So you wouldn’t ever dare to say that God was the author of a book, based on speculative, unprovable theories, right? Right?

Dr. Bernstein does not believe that Shlomo wrote Shir Hashirim. No Orthodox Bible scholars believe this. the only thing they insist on is that Moshe wrote the Torah. Nothing else is an ikkar emunah.

NACHUM LAMM POSTS: The Gemara doesn’t say that Shlomo wrote Koheles. Or Shir HaShirim. Or Mishlei. (Heck, Mishlei itself says that Shlomo didn’t write it.) It also says that Moshe didn’t necessarily write Iyov, and that Yechezkel didn’t write Yechezkel, and that Daniel didn’t write Daniel, and that Esther and Mordechai didn’t write Esther, etc. etc. And yet if I were to say all this in certain circles, I’d be shouted down as a heretic. (Ditto if I wondered aloud why Ruth or Eicha or Daniel are in Ketuvim and not Neviim, and so on, let alone if I wondered whether Yishaya *really* named Koresh in a Nevuah, or Daniel *really* nailed the history of the Seleucids so accurately.)

"Did you know that there’s a theory that it was originally written in Aramaic and then translated into Hebrew?"

I have heard this theory. (Similar theories exist for Iyov, the Hebrew parts of Daniel and Ezra-Nechemiah, and Divrei HaYamim.) I have no idea if these theories are true. But I do know that if someone who knows Hebrew and Aramaic a lot better than I says it’s a possibility, then it’s a possibility. (And if others say, as some have, that it’s impossible to prove, then that may be true as well.) He doesn’t even have to be frum (or Jewish) for me to pay attention to what he has to say.

ANON POSTS: There’s a tradition that little Jewish children during the time of the Hasmoneans played with dreidels when Greek soldiers came and could discover them learning Torah. So this tradition began in the 18th century, but I bet your son’s rebbe transmitted it to him as the historical truth.

MAN DEHU POSTS: Gil, do you believe that a global flood occured in the time of Noach? If you don’t then you are throwing thousands of years of mesora out of the window. (If you do you’re denying the possibility of scientific knowledge about anything). Do you believe that ‘Al naharos bavel’ was written by David Hamelech? If you don’t then you are rejecting an explicit gemara (Gittin 57b)? Where do you draw the line?

DR. SOLOMON SCHIMMEL POSTS: Professor Bernstein writes:

"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."

This avoidance of biblical scholarship by many modern orthodox scholars as well as laypersons is fueled in part, by many fears, some based upon reality, others more imagined than real, of which I will note the following:

Fear of social ostracism.

Fear of the loss of existential meaning.

Fear of the shattering of one’s core self-identity.

Fear of hurting family members and disrupting family relationships.

Fear of betraying the Jewish past – how can I reject TMS when so many of our heroes and martyrs sacrificed their lives in defense of it and the religious life on which it was based.

The fear of moral anarchy. Giving up TMS will result in permissiveness and moral relativism.

Fear of professional or financial loss (this applies to orthodox rabbis and educators whose positions assume acceptance of TMS as a cornerstone of their religious commitments).

These fears trump the pursuit of truth which is no longer a serious value in the world of modern orthodoxy. The OU, for example, recently distributed a timeline of the Tanakh in which it asserts with certainty that the world is less than 6,000 years old.

If truth were important how could it be that modern orthodox academics and other highly intelligent and educated individuals in the modern orthodox world refuse to honestly grapple with the most important premise of their religious world view, the dogma of TMS, and that which flows from it? In the debate between modern orthodoxy and non-orthodoxy it is almost fruitless to address the alleged "arguments" in defense of TMS that are presented, and to attempt to refute the highly developed apologetic "reconciliations" between doctrinal claims and empirical and logical challenges to them, because we are not dealing with logic, rationality, or a sincere desire to ascertain truth. We are dealing with psychological and emotional issues, not cognitive ones, even though these real issues are masked in cognitive language.

There are at least twenty factors which induce people to give up cherished religious beliefs and commitments, and rational persuasion is only one of them. It is not particularly effective because some religious beliefs, such as in TMS, are being sustained by non-rational factors.

Unfortunately, the failure of Professor Bernstein and others of his orientation to be sufficiently aware of what motivates them in their defense of TMS results in many negative intellectual and moral consequences, not least of which is the perpetuation of falsehood in the educational institutions where they teach, insofar as they claim to be teaching truths about the history and development of biblical religion when they teach Tanakh.

MAN DEHU POSTS: Gil-you cleverly avoided my questions. How do you differentiate between the authorship of Koheles and the authorship of Psalm 137? Or do you not? How do you differentiate again between Koheles and a global flood, if indeed you do? If you do maintain that David Hamelech wrote ‘Al naharos bavel’, do you believe that this psalm was recited by Jews for centuries, all the while not knowing what it referred to, or was it hidden away somewhere until, after the churban, it was whipped out by somebody who had a mesora that it had been written by David Hamelech? Or perhaps you can suggesty an alternative mechanism?

The fact is that even with Krochmal’s explanation you’re disregarding the mesora. The point is that once you disregard the mesora – where do you draw the line? Gil makes reference to the changing consensus in Biblical studies over the past 50 years. This implies that were the consensus to remian static for a long enough period, Gil might change his mind. How long would this have to be for? If you would go to all the scholars in the world, Kitchen included, and they tell you that there is no way that the words pitgam or pardes were part of Hebrew in Shlomo Hamelech’s time, what would you do? (I personally have no idea whether this is the case). At what stage do you stop saying Tzarich Iyun Gadol and start saying that perhaps I need to change my perspective? I have no easy answers to these questions, but I don’t see how a reference to Plantinga’s foundationalism helps you very much.

ANON POSTS: Gil does indeed make reference to changing consenses in biblical studies in a half century, but he doesn’t mention that there are any number of consenses in biblical studies that haven’t changed in three centuries and show no sign of changing.

SHADES OF GREY POSTS: Professor Schimmel,

"Unfortunately, the failure of Professor Bernstein and others of his orientation to be sufficiently aware of what motivates them in their defense of TMS"

What is wrong with conceding that the motivations of a human being are complex?

Musar, in concert with psychology, tells us that a person can have many motivations for religion, which may be refined to higher levels of "lishmah" through awareness and the conscious exercise of "bechirah chofshis".

I don’t know Dr. Bernstein, but I don’t think his approach is that of some Kiruv people, to present evidence for Judaism instead of dealing with Maskilic challenges in depth. I assume he’ll acknowledge the strength of a question, on a both intellectual and emotional levels. Now, what is wrong with that in terms of psychological honesty?

Dr. Nathaniel Branden, whose philosophical and psychological orientation is that of a secular humanist, is a strong advocate for free-will, at least to a certain degree. Rabbi Israel Salanter is described by Rabbi YY Weinberg as having "koshered" elements of Haskalah; in this sense, perhaps the "Haskalah" involved is humanism and psychoanalysis.

At the same time, the non-believer, as a human being, is similarly structured of reason and emotion, and may have dual motivations in critiquing the believer. Acknowledging the depths of our intellectual and emotional makeup, strengthens, rather than weakens us as human beings and as religious people.

Dr. Bernsetien himself concedes that he considers the axioms of Torah Misnai exceedingly precious–what in the world is wrong with that?

To wit,

"On the other hand, we have axioms more precious to us than those of scholarship (pg 24)…The Orthodox graduate student or young scholar… must be prepared… to conclude zarikh iyun gadol, or the equivalent and to step back spiritually whole(pg 25)".

DODA POSTS: I have yet to find one in academic Bible or Talmud who does not take these as serious questions. And I cannot accept your dismissal of linguistics. We can sometimes see how words come from other languages, and we know something of when there was contact with these cultures. It’s not just words; it’s also structures, formulae, ideas. It’s like there was a world around them (!) rather than everything being created in a vaccum.

Re: Other traditions, like what? And why take our cues from rishonim when there is a time gap and they had an agenda? Historians actually go back to sources, many of which rishonim did not have. They have archaeological evidence rishonim do not. And they know languages rishonim did not. Incidentally, rishonim define what traditions are fundamental. And we take these definitions from them. It’s a little circular.

SHADES OF GREY WRITES: I recall one of RIETS Roshie Yeshivah say that his orientation to Academic Bible is "more in the Beis Midrash than not", and he conceded in the questions that he’s not analyzing the subject as a purely objective observer, but rather as a believing Jew. Of course that doesn’t mean that he’s not trying to put his beliefs in a logical, self-contained system of thought.

When you move to the Charedi world, it’s probably much easier to show a partial reliance on faith. Certainly from a Charedi point of view(and perhaps even MO), there are challenges beyond Bible theory, the latter which is easier to dismiss.

A Mishpacha story noted that R. Reinman was given the go-ahead by a Gadol to debate Ammiel Hirsch only because R. Reinman was convinced prior to that that he could prevail. That’s seems to point to a partial reliance on faith.

I don’t have first hand knowledge for Charedi Kiruv seminars , but I get the impression, that they are proposing that they’ve defeated Haskalah(talks of "evidence") ; perhaps that might eventually morph into a more humble claim of presenting a coherent alternative system of belief.

R Schwab writes,

"History" is either true or false. There is no middle ground. The events described in a history book have either happened or they haven’t. The most ingenious theories which may have their place in philosophy or as a working thesis in the exact sciences have no meaning in the pursuit of historical evidence, which is a search for facts and
which accepts no conjectures. A chronological time table is the backbone of any book on history which expects to be accepted by intellectually honest students.

R. Schwab concludes:

It is because of all these gnawing doubts that I have decided to put a big question mark after the words "Jewish Chronology." Let somebody with greater knowledge come and pick up the threads where I left off. Our traditional, universally accepted Jewish way of counting the years from Creation is sacred territory which only fools do not fear to tread upon.

This may be a disappointment to some, but on the other hand I muster the courage to belong to those who rather wish to be honest to themselves than to be "right". I would rather leave a good question open than risk giving a wrong answer. And I follow the teachings of Rav Shimon (Pesachim 52b) who said "Just as I was awarded for the research, so shall I be awarded
for the retraction".

The historic material which I have assembled may still be somehow useful, even for those who will doubt whether there can ever be a Jewish chronology which would satisfy the non believer in the wisdom of our Sages. So I fall back into the ranks of all shlomei emunei Yisroel. And to me l’berias olam means what it meant to our fathers. It is as simple as that. And while we may keep on searching for the answers, we pray that Hashem may enlighten our eyes. "And G-d should enlighten the eyes of all those who wait for the coming redemption quickly in our days amen" vo…11n030.shtml#06

FKM POSTS: This plausibility question really boils down to a question of looking at Kisvei Kosdesh and Chazal from a religious versus secular perspective.

From a secular perspective, Tanach is not divine, not prophetic nor inspired by any higher wisdom and can have no special pleading based on this quality.
The text is analyzed like any other human text. So any attribution of unusual qualities to the Tanach–like advanced references to empires, events, or in this case, languages, is just not as plausible as positing later authorship.

But if you have a religious perspective on Tanach and Chazal, then the realm of what is plausible is vastly increased. Kisvei Kodesh are not ordinary texts written by ordinary people. None of the standard rules of analysis are necessarily valid.

The tragic problem is that Orthodox people trained in doing textual analysis on an academic level simply cannot employ their religious perspective to Tanach. It’s not how you play the literary game.

These Orthodox people nebach have to pretend the Tanach is a secular one, and gradually over time, this perspective becomes their second nature and forget that the text has unique religious qualities.

As if that’s not bad enough, they then start to complain about "dogmatic views of the bible" and start demanding that an "intellectually open and sophisticated Orthodoxy" needs accommodate their religiously neutered approach! What chutzpah!

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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