Not a Naïve Reading: An Interview with Prof. James Kugel
Professor James Kugel was the Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University for 21 years before moving to Israel in 2003, where he is now Professor (Emeritus) of Bible at Bar Ilan University. He is the author of some 17 books and nearly 80 scholarly articles on various topics in Hebrew Bible.
We’ve asked you on various occasions for a contribution to “The Torah.com,” but so far you haven’t sent us anything. Why not?
Let me start off by saying how much I like your site. Truly! If only it was called “ThePentateuch.com,” I wouldn’t have any problem contributing. But for me, at least, there’s a big difference between the Pentateuch and the Torah. The Pentateuch consists of the first five books of the Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy; “Pentateuch” (at least as I mean it here) is considered a religiously neutral, descriptive term, and, consequently, the one that biblical scholars use in their research.
The Torah, by contrast, is still a mostly Jewish term, and in Judaism it has always meant something more than just those five books. It includes not only the actual words of the Pentateuch, but likewise a huge store of interpretations and expansions that have accompanied those first five books since ancient times, as well as a set of assumptions about how those books are to be read. I think there’s still a lot of unclarity about this difference, so I’ve spent quite a few years hammering away at it. I think that, in this sense, the Pentateuch and the Torah are truly two different documents.
Actually, I don’t think you disagree with this. But from your website it appears that the founders of TheTorah.com and many of its contributors nevertheless believe that the study of these two books, the Torah and the Pentateuch, can be combined. I don’t think it can, and that’s the reason for my reluctance to contribute; to me, it seems that you’re trying to reconcile the irreconcilable.
If the Torah is, in your sense, incompatible with the Pentateuch, and if it’s the Torah that’s supremely important to you, then why should you ever have bothered with the Pentateuch—that is, why did you go into modern biblical studies in the first place?
I’ve always considered both pursuits important. What scholars have discovered about the Bible and ancient Israel has truly opened our eyes to a whole new world, and I was drawn to it right away. My doctorate and first book were about a specific item on modern scholars’ agenda, the nature of biblical poetry and how it works. Ever since, I’ve been exploring different aspects of modern biblical scholarship (let me abbreviate this phrase to MBS), and I’ve tried in various particulars to make my own contribution to the field.
But Judaism’s book—the Torah—was also of vital importance to me, and at an early stage I became curious about the gap that separates it from MBS. It didn’t seem to me that this gap was simply a matter of ancient ignorance versus modern discoveries. There seemed to be something deeper, as if there were a different set of rules for reading and understanding the Torah back then. And the Torah’s rules, I began to see, weren’t in any sense a naïve reading of the words on the page; they embodied a definite program and a definite ideology. So I began to focus on when and how this program came about.
It didn’t start all at once; its slow emergence during the Second Temple period is evidenced in passages from late biblical books like Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles, and Daniel, as well as in books that were ultimately excluded from the Jewish Bible (the so-called biblical apocrypha and pseudepigrapha): 1 Enoch, the Book of Jubilees, the Wisdom of Solomon, the Book of Judith, Ben Sira, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra and various others, including some of the texts preserved among the Dead Sea Scrolls. All these give evidence of the rise of a particular way of reading, and one that has proven extraordinarily long-lasting.
It became the mainstay of the rabbinic style of interpreting biblical texts, from the first to the fifth or sixth centuries CE, and even though Judaism evolved new schools of biblical interpretation—philosophical, mystical, linguistic, and so forth—the fundamental approach I’ve been describing has survived largely unchanged and unchallenged. It likewise played an important role in early Christianity and, with some modifications, was carried on in various ways throughout the Christian Middle Ages; in fact, a faint trace of it can even be detected here and there in MBS.
How exactly did this other way of reading come about?
I don’t think we’ll ever know this in detail. For a long time, if ancient sages felt that something in Scripture was no longer understood, or no longer relevant, or unacceptable for some other reason—well, all they had to do was change the text itself, eliminating or rewriting the offending passage. We have ample evidence of such rewriting going on as late as the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the second or first centuries BCE. But meanwhile, Israel’s ancient Scriptures were becoming increasingly fixed and resistant to change, so another strategy had to be devised. And it was. Instead of changing the texts themselves, ancient scholars simply began to promulgate new interpretations of the text’s words.
They said things like: “The word mirmah (falsehood) really means ‘ormah (wisdom) here”; “The apparently unnecessary mention that Simeon and Levi ‘took their swords’ before attacking Shechem indicates that they had been given special weapons, ‘weapons from heaven,’ and these are what allowed them to massacre the whole town”; “Jacob’s sons told the Shechemites they couldn’t allow their sister to marry an uncircumcised man ‘because it would be a disgrace,’ but this was no mere trick; it is a disgrace, and such marriages are utterly forbidden to this day”; “The words and it will not be thus (Gen 34:7) were not spoken by Dinah’s brothers, as they may seem to be, but by God, the ultimate author of Genesis.”
These specific bits of interpretation are all taken from ancient retellings of the story of Dinah in Genesis 34, but the existence of such interpretations in other places as well—in biblical narratives and laws and poetry—ultimately coalesced into a whole style of interpreting Scripture. I don’t think anyone ever formulated the rules and conventions of this style; they gradually came to be accepted, until they were just assumed by new generations of interpreters.
I’ve listed these assumptions in various books, along with further examples of each, so let me just mention them briefly here. There are four basic assumptions shared by all ancient biblical interpreters:
- The belief that the Torah is a fundamentally cryptic text, so that when it says A it often really means B;
- The assumption that the Torah is a perfect text, without any internal contradictions or even any unnecessary words;
- The idea that, although the words of the Torah were uttered in the past and in a specific historical setting, those words are nonetheless directed to us today, teaching us what to do and think; and
- The idea that the Torah is a divinely given text from start to finish—not just the parts that are explicitly labeled as divine speech, “And the Lord said to Moses…” and the like, but every single word.
All four of these assumptions might be described nowadays as counter-intuitive, in the sense that they are not what we generally assume about, for example, the laws of Hammurabi or the Legend of King Keret or other writings from the ancient Near East—and, more to the point, they’re not what modern scholars generally assume about the Pentateuch. But they are what people came to assume about the Torah, and ultimately this changed the meaning of the text as a whole. It also became a mark of the Torah’s specialness. The Torah was the Book, the profound, unitary, and eternally valid revelation of divine truth, and the fact that it was interpreted in these special ways only vouchsafed its unique standing.
So—not to put too fine a point on it—it’s quite impossible to synthesize the way of reading based on these four assumptions—which are certainly embodied in all of rabbinic literature, but which, as I just mentioned, are evidenced in numerous pre-rabbinic compositions as well—with the very different assumptions of MBS.
The Importance of Assumptions
We’ve read all this in your various books. But there’s one thing you seem to leave out: what about the truth? It may be that your ancient sages succeeded in persuading their contemporaries that their way of reading (which is basically the midrashic way) was correct, but in the meantime, we’ve found out a lot of things that make that way of reading impossible. All of modern scholarship is an attempt to read biblical texts in their original, historical setting. So we think we have a pretty good idea of how the Pentateuch came into existence, and when it came into existence, and what its various parts were originally intended to do. Are you saying that a serious student of the Torah can just dismiss all this?
Actually, what I’m trying to do is explain how this other way of reading came into being and came to make sense. Because the assumptions that people bring to the reading of any text are never unimportant; some sort of assumptions always exist in the reader’s mind (including the mind of the modern biblical scholar), and they ultimately determine a text’s meaning. That is to say, there’s never been a reader of a text who approached it without assumptions: the reader is never a blank slate, passively accepting what the words of the text must mean in some uniform and absolute sense. In fact, there isn’t even a default set of assumptions, some basic way of approaching all texts that any other way has to displace.
So, for example, literary scholars point out that we can read and understand Jonathan Swift’s bitter satire, A Modest Proposal… (in which he suggests that newborn Irish infants be killed and served up in a stew to indigent families, thereby helping to alleviate the Irish famine while simultaneously reducing Ireland’s overpopulation) because we know what satire is and consequently bring the intended assumptions to a reading of Swift’s text. But give that same text to a man from Mars who has no notion of satire and he will conclude that its author is a sadistic madman.
Now, you may say I have to admit that those four assumptions are no longer valid because of all that MBS has discovered about the original historical setting of biblical texts, but saying this in itself presumes an assumption about how the text is to be read and understood.
I don’t often evoke this analogy—it’s misleading in some ways—but there was, apparently, a certain legendary king of Denmark named Amleth, whose story is recounted in the thirteenth-century Gesta Danorum (History of the Danes). But we would be altogether wrong to read Shakespeare’s Hamlet as if it were intended as a historical account of this king’s life (in fact, even the Gesta Danorum version wasn’t that). In general, Shakespeare liked to take his historical source material and reshape and revise it in keeping with his own dramatic agenda, until he had created something else entirely.
So scholars are wrong to equate the Bible’s “true” meaning with all that we know about how it began and what it meant in its original, historical setting; that’s the equivalent of equating Hamlet with Amleth. For the same reason, it would be wrong to locate the Torah’s meaning solely in the words of the Pentateuch as understood in their original setting. That’s where it began, but not where it ended up.
It seems you’re saying that you can hold both sets of assumptions—those of what you call the Pentateuch and the Torah—in your head simultaneously. But once you accept the validity of MBS, how can you just forget what you’ve learned and go back to believing that what the text really means is what it says in the targums and midrash and the Talmud?
I’m certainly not denying the validity of MBS and the results of its research. But in Judaism, the Torah serves an overall purpose and function. It is the great book of divine instruction; its aim is to impart a certain way of life, which is called ‘avodat ha-Shem, the service of God. (Perhaps I should have added this as the greatest assumption.) As a result, its mitzvot are often interpreted in the broadest possible fashion, so as to govern nearly every aspect of what people do every day.
To be sure, this purpose is embodied in the words of the Pentateuch itself, but a lot of what Jews claim to be part of the Torah has no evident connection to the Pentateuch’s words. Where does the Pentateuch say anything about praying to God three times a day with a certain fixed set of requests and blessings? Where does it tell us the details of how to keep the sabbath—all those do’s and don’ts? And all the laws and practices of kosher food?
Then there are the holy days: Where in the Pentateuch does it say that Shavu‘ot commemorates the giving of the Torah, or that there even exists an autumnal festival called Rosh ha-Shanah? This name—along with the whole idea of it being a day of divine judgment, yom ha-din—appears nowhere in the Pentateuch, in fact, it’s nowhere in the Bible as a whole; it’s really only presented as such in the Mishnah. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea.
So the only truthful thing that can be said is that the scope of the Torah gradually widened; its mitzvot came to include more and more as time went on, and it is in this sense that the Pentateuch—the words on the page—became the Torah as we know it. Indeed, you might think of what I’ve been calling the Torah as a kind of second edition of the Pentateuch—not one that changed any of the Pentateuch’s words, but one that changed how some of those words were to be understood and supplemented.
Of course, Judaism holds that the Pentateuch—every one of its actual words—is the holiest text we have. But if the Torah’s ancient interpreters sometimes explained the apparent meaning of those words in such a way as to turn them into something else, this was done only because there is one thing that Judaism has always held to be even more sacred than the words themselves, and that is the thing I mentioned, the teaching of ‘avodat ha-Shem, how to serve God. This is the basic function of Torah in Judaism.
But can this higher calling, ‘avodat ha-Shem, justify changing anything in the text? Isn’t there some limit as to how far you can go?
Actually, I’m not doing any of the changing; I’ve just been describing how ancient interpreters (even before the rabbis) came to read the text in a certain way. What I have been saying is that those four assumptions turned the Pentateuch’s various parts into a unified whole, the starting point for all of Judaism. But I should also point out that the seeds of those assumptions are certainly visible here and there in the Pentateuch’s own words.
Biblical laws are notoriously terse and sometimes altogether cryptic, leaving it to the judges to build on its words and flesh out their unstated ramifications. Apparent contradictions, which are certainly not lacking in the biblical text (as any modern scholar knows), were likewise left to stand without explanation in the text that we have. Didn’t ancient editors realize that the laws covering the manumission of female slaves, or the rules of the paschal feast (to mention only two classic examples) are different in Exodus and Deuteronomy?
If they were left as is, wasn’t it because their contradictions had somehow been resolved but left outside of the text? And the assumption that the Torah’s laws, however long ago they might have been promulgated, are still binding and valid—even when this meant applying them to altogether new situations—is clearly the whole reason for the Torah’s transmission from generation to generation.
In other words, long before the emergence of the whole new style of interpretation that I’ve been describing, Judaism’s most sacred text seems to have presumed that at least some parts of it would need further explanation, and that such explanation would take place outside of the text itself.
You don’t seem to be troubled much by the question of authorship and authority (the two are obviously related). But what gave your ancient interpreters the right to change what the Bible means? If they truly considered the Torah to be sacred, the “word of God,” then how dare they come along and corrupt this divine speech with their own human ideas and human rewritings, turning it into a Bible that never was.
As a matter of historical fact, it’s the Pentateuch—that is, the words of the text alone—that is the Bible-that-never-was, I mean that long before there was a canonical Bible, the sacred texts that would eventually comprise it were busily being interpreted (and sometimes rewritten and rearranged) in a way that was quite out of keeping with the meaning of the texts’ own words.
And this raises an even more important question: If so, then what is the concept of Scripture that people had in, say, the second or first century BCE? Was it sacrosanct? The answer is surprising. People back in those days apparently saw the written words of Scripture as divinely granted but nonetheless malleable, given to creative editing, interpretation, and expansion. To us, this sounds contradictory, but those ancient sages simply had a different idea of what one can do with sacred Scripture, indeed, a different idea of what Scripture is.
The very fact that modern scholars have shown that nearly every book of the Bible came to be edited and supplemented and reworked in the process of transmission is the greatest proof that the word of God was not, in those early days, untouchable. This process of rewriting and rearranging sacred texts continued on into the closing centuries BCE, as the Dead Sea Scrolls attest. And even after the actual words of Scripture could no longer be altered, they could, as I’ve explained, be reinterpreted—so the malleability remained.
Perhaps this is why Judaism never assumed that its path consisted only of divinely ordained practices and rules. Quite apart from their acceptance of various rabbinic taqqanot, and before the formal distinction between commandments that were mi-d’oraita (derived from the Torah) and those that were mi-derabbanan (commandments initiated by the rabbis) was made, the rabbis themselves seem to have stressed that human authority may sometimes displace that of the divine. In this connection, people like to cite the story of the oven of Akhnai (see b. Baba Metzia 59a-b), but there are more basic illustrations of Judaism’s idea of authority.
The calendar is a good example. We know that there were different Jewish calendars in use during the Second Temple period. One of them, attested in the book of Jubilees and slightly modified at Qumran, was the “automatic” one, requiring almost no human intervention. Year after year, there were precisely 364 days in a calendar year. Invariably. Months were likewise automatic, consisting of 30 days apiece. So, 30 x 12=360; to these were added—again, automatically—four extra days at the four cardinal points of the year, so that 4+360=364.
By contrast, the “Hebrew” calendar (truly, Babylonian) required constant human intervention. Two human witnesses had to spot the new moon in the sky and then testify in a human court as to what they saw; every once in a while, but at irregular intervals, a whole month had to be stuck in after the month of Adar—on the basis of the intervention of human experts. And these human decisions had the greatest effect, since they determined not only when each New Moon would be celebrated, but consequently when every holy day would fall in a given month, including Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year.
Which calendar did the rabbis adopt? The human intervention one. And they gloried in this fact. Even today, at the beginning of each month we bless God for “sanctifying Israel and the New Moon,” or on festivals, for “sanctifying Israel and the festivals,” and “sanctifying Israel and the Day of Atonement.” Israel is mentioned precisely to stress the human intervention: God gave us the authority to determine when these festivals would occur. Because Judaism from the start was a hybrid, a combination of divine and human authority. As the rabbis said, characteristically reinterpreting Deut 30:12 (lo ba-shamayim hi), the Torah is no longer in heaven. It started out there, but then it came down to ordinary, or rather, extraordinary human interpreters.
You keep talking about ancient interpreters. But doesn’t Judaism always speak in terms of two Torahs, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah (torah she-be‘al peh), the latter allegedly having been given to Moses on Mount Sinai at the same time as the Written Torah? Do you really believe that?
I think everyone can understand how the doctrine of two Torahs developed. It was first and foremost an assertion of the equal authority of Judaism’s ancient traditions and interpretations—all the things that we first hear about in the Mishnah and Gemara—which were indeed transmitted orally for a time, hence the name torah she-be‘al peh. But the doctrine of two Torahs was essentially an affirmation of coequal authority.
I certainly doubt that the idea of two Torahs was intended to mean that Moses was actually taught the laws of Purim on Mount Sinai seven or eight hundred years before the events that Purim commemorates even took place. But in focusing on these interpreters, I’m trying to give an account of how things actually developed. The ancient interpreters were the ones responsible for the acceptance of a certain approach to the written text, one which included things originally unrelated to the actual words on the page (or parchment).
Traditional Torah Study
The rabbis say, תלמוד תורה כנגד כולם (“Torah study outweighs all the other commandments”). How do you define Torah and Torah study? What modern methods of study would qualify?
From what I’ve been saying, I’m sure you know my answer. The study the rabbis are talking about is the study of Torah, not of the Pentateuch. That doesn’t mean that MBS is forbidden—it’s just not what the rabbis meant by תלמוד תורה.
Ultimately, you might say that it all has to do with two different prepositions, learning about the Bible versus learning from it. MBS is learning about: When was this text written, and by whom? What is this phrase alluding to in Israel’s history or society or beliefs, and how did our current text come into existence? In these ways, the modern scholar comes to dominate the text, leaning over it like a surgeon with his scalpel, while the Bible lies on the operating table, utterly passive.
Traditional Jewish study, by contrast, is concerned with learning from, and in particular learning what Judaism’s ancient sages understood the Torah to be imparting in this episode or this particular verse. Their answers are found in targum, Mishnah, Tosefta, midrashic compilations, the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, and so forth. Here, the student’s posture is altogether different: the text stands above him or her, while the student crouches at the text’s feet. Learning from is what traditional Torah study is about, and it is a happy coincidence that learning from sounds an awful lot like learning fromm in German or frum in Yiddish (both meaning “religiously”).
Some of your scholarly work has been dedicated to “reverse engineering” midrash (ancient biblical interpretation), showing how it developed. Can traditional students use this approach or does it undermine the traditional study of rabbinic texts? Do you see this as different from critical Bible scholarship, religiously speaking?
I’m sure there are people who object to any attempt to figure out how midrashic interpretations developed, but I think that most people, including a great many of today’s Orthodox Jews, are just curious about what these traditions are based on, and they aren’t particularly bothered by finding such things out, at least as far as I have observed.
But I take your second question to be asking: If investigating the origins of midrash is okay, why isn’t investigating the origins of biblical texts okay? My answer is that it’s not a matter of what’s okay or not. What is crucial from a Jewish point of view is the recognition that learning about the origins of the Pentateuch and similar topics is not what the rabbis had in mind as sacred study. As I’ve been saying, it’s not only that the material that one studies is different, but the whole attitude that comes with it.
Given our modern knowledge of the world, its immensity, antiquity, and how it works scientifically, how is the Bible at all relevant or important today?
The Pentateuch, or more broadly, the Bible as a whole, says what it says, and sometimes it does contradict what we know nowadays about the earth’s rotation around the sun, indeed, all of astrophysics and cosmology, and so forth. So if that’s what you want to know, the Bible may indeed appear irrelevant nowadays; the world has certainly changed. But God hasn’t (Malachi 3:6), and what we have to learn from the Bible is, as I’ve been saying, ‘avodat ha-Shem, how to serve God, to stand in front of Him as His devoted employees day after day. I think that this is as relevant and fresh as ever.
In your Eshkolot interview from 2011, you say “we don’t worship Torah, we worship God” (at 4:48). What is your conception of God, and from what Jewish sources does it derive?
My conception of God in 25 words or less? No thanks. But I will say this: One of Judaism’s most striking ideas is that the way to know God is through the keeping of the mitzvot, the Torah’s divine commandments. This is, I think, the Torah’s answer to your question. In fact, there’s a certain mashal that I think states this point nicely; let me paraphrase it here:
There once was a little fellow who wanted to see the King. So he went to the royal palace and stood and waited at its iron gates, and after some hours the King emerged from the palace doors. The little fellow was thrilled: “I saw the King!” He hurried back the next day, and the next. But what started as a thrill soon turned to frustration. Sometimes the King would stay inside the palace all day; at other times he would come out, but the little fellow’s view would be obscured by one of the pillars. Frequently, the king appeared for only a second or two before being whisked away in the royal carriage. And then there were times when it rained or stormed and he couldn’t wait outside at all. In short, what had started as a thrill ultimately turned to disappointment. But then, one of the King’s advisors approached the little man and said, “I know what you are trying to do, but you’re going about it in the wrong way. Go to the royal employment office and get a job—as a guard or a sweeper or any other kind of employee—it matters little what. What counts is that working for the King will be your ticket to inside the palace, where you will see the King as a matter of course. Indeed, he will likewise see you and come to know you by name.”
This is Judaism’s answer to how to know God. And what I said in that interview is also relevant to our whole discussion here. Ultimately what matters is standing before God: the Torah is just how to get there.
Your latest book is The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times. Can you summarize it briefly for our readers and explain if this ancient encounter is relevant for today?
The question I tried to answer was simple enough: The Bible reports on how various people—Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Moses, Gideon, Manoah’s wife, Amos, Isaiah, and others—actually encountered God in some external, physical setting, often at first mistaking God or His angel for an ordinary human being. Later on, the form of these encounters changed; they stopped happening “out there” and moved “in here.” Along with this, other things changed: God’s physical being, His “body,” came to be conceived as huge, scarcely encompassed in highest Heaven, and then, finally, utterly limitless, omnipresent.
Prayer, which had once consisted almost exclusively of words uttered in time of severe distress (or sometimes in words of thanksgiving after divine help had already been given) now came to be a regular ritual act (as it is in Judaism today), recited daily as a set form of worship. Prophecy also changed; it went from being a message from God that was to be passed on immediately (to Israel, or to specific individuals, or to various foreign nations) to long-term predictions, often including some cataclysmic event in the “time of the end.” In tandem, God’s “kingship” was no longer perceived as a clear and constant reality, but something to be fully realized only in the future, or perhaps as a state of recognition within oneself.
How to account for this “great shift”? The answer seems to be connected to what scholars in various disciplines—anthropology, psychology, and neuroscience—have discovered about the human being’s “sense of self.” All humans have a sense of self, but that sense varies greatly from place to place and period to period. This variability is due to the somewhat startling fact (recognized, I think, by most scholars in the aforementioned disciplines) that what we call our self actually has no separate, physical reality in the brain.
That is, there is no particular part of the brain that acts as a central clearinghouse, synthesizing all our constantly shifting sensory inputs and memories and any other relevant material stored in our brains’ 100 billion neurons—there is no such physically distinct clearinghouse that unites all these so as to speak the word “I” on their behalf. Instead, the self itself is essentially a construct, and different societies construct it in startlingly different ways.
What happened in biblical times—a period of nearly a thousand years—is that the self gradually came to be conceived differently. But here I want to be very careful. This is not to deny the reality of those early human encounters with the divine as recounted in Genesis and Judges, where everything happens in the outside world, next to your tent or on a road somewhere. Nor is it to deny the reality of later encounters, which seem to start on the inside. The reality will always be represented in keeping with the person’s sense of self. And, I should add, this apparent migration from outside to inside that I trace in my book may not be the end of the story; there’s nothing necessarily real about our own, modern and Western sense of self.
Was there a time when you struggled with identifying yourself as Orthodox while at the same time teaching biblical criticism in your classes and your writings?
That hasn’t been a problem for me, though I admit that it has sometimes bothered some of my fellow Orthodox Jews. So why should I insist on that label? There are two reasons. First, that’s really what I am in terms of practice: I’m quite scrupulous about Shabbat and kosher food and tefillah and everything down to Ta’anit Esther and the other fasts; if, as many people have said, to be a Jew means belonging to a community, then the community that I’m comfortable with has to be one in which these things are important.
The other reason is that I’ve wanted to make the point that being an Orthodox Jew and studying biblical criticism ought not to be considered contradictory. Of course I know that there are Orthodox Jews who, for one reason or another, don’t want to study MBS, and that’s up to them. But what seems altogether problematic is saying that there are things that scholars know about the Bible, but that an Orthodox Jew has to stop up his ears to avoid hearing them. To say this is actually a rather precise example of what Judaism defines as ḥillul ha-Shem, a desecration of the name of God. We were given brains in order to use them.
In keeping with this, you say in your Eshkolot interview (at 3:40), “I would not want be part of any religion that says, ‘There are things out there that I know exist but I just do not want to know anything about them.’ So for me it was a kind of mission to combine the two, not necessarily to reconcile the two.” But aren’t you part of such a religion?
I’d rather say I belong to a specific subgroup thereof, the Orthodox Jews who, on one hand, are committed to the mitzvot and ‘avodat ha-Shem—indeed, to living a life that embodies yir’at shamayim, the looming presence of God—but who at the same time are not scared off by MBS. I hope I’ve explained why in the above. In fact, wouldn’t this describe a lot of your contributors?
If you had to point to one part of the Bible that you particularly appreciate and one on the flip side that disturbs you, what would they be and why?
I guess it depends on what you mean by appreciate. But one thing I am particularly glad for is the inclusion of the Song of Songs in our biblical canon. First of all, the language is so lush and beautiful; the author’s engagement with words, words, words is just endlessly stunning! And endlessly punning, too, since that was part of the poet’s art.
Right-thinking clerics have often wondered what this work is doing in the biblical canon, but they’re wrong to wonder. It’s not so much about love as it is about finding and losing, longing for and finding and longing again. Every sacred canon needs such a text.
As a practical matter, however, numerous commentators have pointed out that its inclusion in the biblical canon could have only taken place if the book was understood as an allegory—a love song between God and Israel (or, in early Christianity, the love between Christ and the Church). But this allegorical interpretation makes sense only if you already entertain certain assumptions about how Scripture speaks—that sometimes it operates on something other than a straightforward, literal level.
To accept that this is the case with the Song of Songs is to open the door to understanding Torah as I’ve tried to explain it here. No reader has ever approached a text as a blank slate. This is as true of the Pentateuch as it is of the Song of Songs, and it’s true of the rest of the Bible as well. Our learning from the Bible dictates what we will find within it.
Are there any rabbis, now or in the past, whose work interests or inspires you? How about Bible scholars?
I suppose I would have to say what everyone says, that the writings of Maimonides provide a unique rabbinical example of intellectual courage, honesty, and great learning. This is not to say that I agree with all his formulations and conclusions, but he is nonetheless an ongoing source of inspiration. As for contemporary scholars, I’d be afraid to name some at the expense of others, so let me just mention those with whom I had the privilege of working at Harvard over the years: my first teacher, Isadore Twersky, and his contemporaries, Frank Moore Cross and Bill Moran; then, in my own generation, Jon Levenson, Peter Machinist, and Bernard Septimus.
Critical Bible Study
Why did you write a popular book such as How to Read the Bible that introduces this material to the average reader? Is it valuable for lay people of all types to know these things?
I originally wrote that book out of frustration. I had previously written The Bible as It Was (which was, in its fuller form, Traditions of the Bible). I wrote it in part because I wanted the book to show my primarily Christian colleagues in MBS how Scripture was read and understood in the closing centuries BCE and the early centuries CE—to show them that our modern way of reading is completely out of sync with what Scripture had been back then and continued to be for centuries and centuries afterward.
But my book was, in this respect, a complete failure. People read it and liked it and even gave it prizes, but their own reaction was basically, “How quaint! Look at what those crazy ancient interpreters could come up with.” But as far as most of them were concerned, this had nothing to do with their Bible, and no implications for how we ought to think about the overall subject of reading the Bible today.
So I decided to try to bring the point home by spelling out in detail how, in case after case, our current MBS way of understanding the Bible conflicts with how the Bible was read for all those centuries when it was the great, divine vade mecum of Judaism and Christianity. So I showed that, for example, the story of Cain and Abel can either be an etiological tale explaining where the Kenites came from and why they have a reputation for lopsided revenge and overall cruelty, or it can be a tale of good versus evil, sin and punishment and possible redemption—but it can’t be both simultaneously. Ditto for the Great Flood and the Tower of Babel and Abraham’s departure from Ur.
You can read all these as a modern scholar does (Mesopotamian borrowings stuck into the opening chapters of Genesis; an explanation of the profusion of related but mutually incomprehensible Semitic languages and dialects; how invented family connections were used to explain relations between various ancient nations and tribes; and so on) or you can read them as an ancient interpreter might (human sin and divine punishment in this world, but also God’s mercy in going to any length to reward a good person; the Tower of Babel as an outstanding instance of religious hubris, the humans’ attempt to control heaven; Abraham as the first monotheist, and one who decisively acted on his faith in God), but you can’t have both approaches simultaneously. Surely, I thought, my book’s chapter-by-chapter contrast of these two sorts of reading will eventually get through to people.
I guess it did get through to some. But mostly my book seems to have been taken up by some Orthodox Jews as an indication that, just maybe, they could find enough room in their heads to read and think about MBS without losing the Torah. “After all, this Orthodox guy at Harvard says you can read that stuff, so why not?” In fact, more than one person has said to me that TheTorah.com might not have happened if it weren’t for Kugel’s How to Read the Bible. Talk about irony! But actually, I’m nonetheless glad that I wrote it. People are still sending me emails saying how much they like reading it. What more can an author ask for?
TheTorah.com just celebrated its fifth year. What are your thoughts on what we’ve accomplished, and what we should accomplish in the next five years?
As I said, I think you’re great, and as a pragmatist I have to admit that, despite everything I’ve said here, the immediate future belongs to you integrators and synthesizers. Why? I suppose it may have something to do with what I called “not stopping up one’s ears” to MBS a few answers back. Having to close your ears to something feels bad to many people, and trying to synthesize old and new seems like the obvious solution, despite the inconsistencies and contradictions I’ve mentioned above. (In general, what is often hailed as intellectual honesty is really just the impulse that pushes great thinkers to change only as much in their thinking as they find absolutely necessary in order to accommodate some new bit of information.)
But I do hope people will ultimately come to see things my way. Judaism and modern scholarship have two distinct programs and two very different ways of reading the Bible. Both are altogether legitimate, and they can certainly coexist in the same brain (as they do in mine), but you have to be able to shift gears (or maybe I should say, switch vehicles entirely), since the two are simply not given to synthesis or integration.
It’s also important to point out that the Pentateuch has always been accompanied by interpretive traditions and expansions, as I’ve explained; in other words, it was from the start on its ways to becoming the Torah. It may take a while for all this to sink in, but I’ve always been an optimist.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.