Shortcomings of Metaphysical Minimalism: James Kugel
Beyond this small circle of intellectuals, however, Leibowitz's metaphysically muted approach has not succeeded in captivating the minds and hearts of most rank and file believers. This has partially to do with his terse, polemical language and propensity for stark, paradoxical aphorisms that turn conventional views on their head without cushioning the blow. But aside from matters of style, this failure also boils down to the fact that a theology which grounds the divinity of the Torah merely on the voluntary decision of the Rabbis leaves many religious believers cold.
Deciding that one is obliged to serve God via the Rabbinic interpretation of the Torah simply because that is what the Rabbis decided adds up – after all is said and done – to no more than formalistic double-talk, or a tautology. To put the objection another way, if Leibowitz is not prepared to allow for any revelation of God's will on theological principle, why should rabbinic fiat be granted any privilege in determining the divine nature and meaning of Torah?
A sense of the inadequacy of Leibowitz’s theological position can be discerned even amongst some contemporary Orthodox scholars who appear at first blush very close to his view of religion as man-made. While concurring with the suggestion that the sanctity of the Torah derives primarily from the decision of the Talmudic Rabbis to view it as such, rather than anything inherent in the text or in the circumstances of its transmission, most of these individuals are nevertheless not satisfied to leave things at that.
A notable example is biblical scholar James Kugel. Although unencumbered by Leibowitz’s philosophical baggage regarding God’s utter transcendence, Kugel appears – like Leibowitz – to view the Bible primarily as a by-product of Israel’s acceptance of "the supreme mission of serving God" and the fleshing out of this obligation via its interpretation. Nevertheless, in expanding upon this notion in a theological epilogue to what is essentially a scientific work tracking the evolution of the earliest biblical sources into sacred Scripture as we know it today, Kugel continues as follows:
Divine inspiration is not, at the bottom, a matter of conferring a seal of divine approval on this or that passage of Scripture, or on Scripture as a whole…Rather, as some rabbinic texts themselves intimate, it has all to do with the great, single revelation that inaugurated (and on which was predicated) Israel's changed perception of God. Scripture reflects the real moment in the history of the human apprehension of the divine that occurred back in biblical times…the moment when Israel first stood before God as His familiar servants, eager to carry out His will in myriad particulars.
When referring to "the great, single revelation that inaugurated (and on which was predicated) Israel's changed perception of God", Kugel's phraseology leaves us guessing: is he making a metaphysical statement about God's activities or referring solely to what he himself terms a "human apprehension of the divine?" But Kugel then goes on to say: "While I could not be involved in a religion that was entirely a human artifact, it would, in theory at least, be enough for me if God said what He is reported to have said in Exodus and Deuteronomy: "Do you want to come close to Me? Then do My bidding, become My employees."
Here it would seem that despite the formal authority of the Rabbis, Kugel is indicating  that some appeal to the supernatural that extends beyond human initiative is still required in order to render compelling the Rabbinic interpretation of the biblical text, and their fleshing out of this interpretation in a myriad of legal particulars. In other words, divine revelation must refer to “some objective occurrence in the real world.”
For all his awareness of the decidedly human character of the biblical text, an entirely man-made religion is not for him. Kugel carefully avoids offering neat definitions of what the original divine message consisted of and when and where it took place, but does not take issue with the doctrine of Torah mi-Sinai to the extent that it refers to an original revelation that was once addressed to a particular person(s?) at a particular time. He rejects viewing the contents of that revelation as merely “a human reaction to the ineffable divine”, insisting that the idea that “God can communicate with human beings” is indispensable to Judaism.
Another shortcoming of Leibowitz's approach is that his narrow view of the biblical message diminishes its significance in religious life. Can the total import of the Torah be reduced to normative statements regarding the obligation to serve God through God’s commandments? Surely generations of believers have found greater meaning in the Torah than this! 
This aspect of Leibowitz’s thought might be viewed as philosophic expression of the need of contemporary Jewish Orthodoxy to define its religious world in terms of accepting the yoke of mitzvot as compensation for loss of the palpable sense of God's immediate presence which typified pre-modern believers. (Ironically, the criticism of diminishing the biblical message has been leveled even more sharply against what has been termed Kugel's "excavational" approach to the study of biblical texts. Kugel, unlike Leibowitz, is not involved in any systematic project of re-interpretation of the biblical text itself. This has led some of Kugel's protagonists to fault him for relating to its original contents as outdated Iron Age fragments, devoid of intrinsic merit, which became sanctified only by virtue of their subsequent canonization and interpretation).
At first blush, one might contend that the discontent of bible scholars such as Kugel with Leibowitz's metaphysical minimalism in grounding the sanctity of the Torah is merely a repeat performance of the objections to Kaplan's naturalism raised by proponents of revelation-as-inspiration after the fashion of Buber. Kugel's approach is particularly reminiscent of Rosenzweig, who characterized revelation mainly as the experience of a sense of commandedness, regarding all further textual expression as commentary. The fact that the people involved in the current controversy are more identified with Orthodoxy sociologically, or in terms of their personal practice, is seemingly irrelevant.
Nevertheless, conducting this debate within an Orthodox framework does narrow its parameters, which are now bound by the willingness of both camps to regard subjugation to the yoke of heaven, and commitment to halakhic practice as traditionally defined, as Orthodoxy's core message. Moreover, the fact that this debate follows upon Leibowitz's post-Kantianism compels it to pursue a more philosophically rigorous track.There is no denying that there are grave philosophical difficulties in claiming that the voice of a transcendent God erupted into the natural world. Any such claim would render the hearing of such a voice an empirical observation, independent of how it is represented in the human mind.
Kugel is not oblivious to this obstacle. He acknowledges that ascribing divine origin to even the most minimal message is, in the last resort, an act of faith and not subject to proof. Perhaps for this reason he places far greater importance on the rabbinic understanding that all subsequent interpretations of God’s original missive are also encapsulated within it.
As for fallible aspects of this missive (elementary mistakes in physics, biology or history), Kugel attributes these to disparity between the original divine “handoff” and the ultimate form it takes upon reception. He likens human apprehension of divine revelation to the human faculty of sight, whereby different wavelengths of light reflected off objects are converted in our brains into different colors.
In a fashion somewhat reminiscent of Maimonides, Kugel declares:
We simply don’t know the beginning of the process we call prophecy – i.e., God speaking to a human being. All we know is what comes out the other end, after the intervention of a human brain
Nevertheless, reducing the scope of the problem simply by transferring the bulk of God’s message to rabbinic extrapolation and relegating the rest to faith does not overcome the problem in principle or abolish it. Neither does distinguishing between an amorphous “divine original” and its human depiction.
Epistemological thinking has not stood still since the time of Maimonides. There is a difference between medieval talk of God as a metaphysical factor which limited intelligences are incapable of grasping fully, and its amalgamation in Leibowitz’s thought with a version of Kantian skepticism that dismisses the possibility of speaking empirically of anything beyond the natural world. Such skepticism is based on what Kant described as his Copernican revolution in the theory of knowledge – i.e., the trading of the medieval notion that man’s perceptions revolve around some fixed reality, for the modern notion that this reality, far from being fixed, is filtered and shaped by the mind perceiving it.
This raises the question: can ascription of intentionality or deliberate communication to something transcending human experience (even when relegated to the realm of belief) ever be classified as reference to “an objective occurrence”, distinct from its representation in the human mind? Surely the very decision that any words, rather than others, stem directly from God and bear prophetic status is of necessity dependent upon human interpretation and cultural preconditioning.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
March 25, 2014
September 19, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Tamar Ross is Professor Emeritus of the Department of Jewish philosophy at Bar Ilan University. She continues to teach at Midreshet Lindenbaum. She did her Ph.D. at the Hebrew University and served as a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard. She is the author of Expanding the Palace of Torah: Orthodoxy and Feminism. Her areas of expertise include: concepts of God, revelation, religious epistemology, philosophy of halacha, the Musar movement, and the thought of Rabbi A.I. Kook.
Essays on Related Topics: