James Kugel: Professor of Disbelief
By Michael Orbach
When I was a teenager, there was a legend repeated in the Jewish schools of my hometown. If you somehow manage to get into godless Harvard, don’t go. But if, against your rosh yeshiva and rebbe’s advice, you actually go, whatever you do, don’t take biblical scholar James Kugel’s class. If you do, you’ll walk into Introduction to the Bible, see that the professor is wearing a yarmulke and assume the course is kosher. And, the story goes, you’ll walk out a heretic.
These days, Kugel, a professor emeritus of classical and modern Hebrew literature at Harvard University, lives on a quiet street off one of the main thoroughfares in the religious Baka neighborhood in Jerusalem. The front door of his apartment building displays his English last name and his family’s original Sephardic name, Kaduri. When we met late one Friday morning, the 68-year-old wore a rumpled blue shirt and light-colored khakis. In person, Kugel—who has called the Jewish food of his namesake “stomach-churning”—looks every bit the absent-minded professor, gray hair flopping down over a craggy forehead. On his left arm, I could make out the indentations of the leather tefillin straps that he had put on earlier for shacharit, the morning prayers. He welcomed me with a wan smile.
I had come with a specific purpose. After an unremarkable career at a private Modern Orthodox high school on Long Island, I spent a gap year at a very Orthodox yeshiva on an Israeli mountaintop and then attended another yeshiva not far from my parents’ house. Things didn’t turn out the way I thought they would. My yeshiva closed down and became a vacuum repair shop; I moved to a far more religious yeshiva that I left over philosophical differences. Eventually, my faith eroded. For me, the term “losing one’s faith” is a misnomer. My faith slipped away—as if I were holding on to a precipice and lost my grip, finger by finger. I couldn’t hold on, no matter how much I tried.
Kugel had an ancillary role in this drama. His mammoth 2007 book, How to Read the Bible, an encyclopedic study of the Bible from both a traditional and academic perspective, seemed a confirmation of what I had come to think but was afraid to say aloud: that the Torah was written by man and that all the laws and regulations that we, as Orthodox Jews, followed were simply constructions based around that. For someone who was raised to believe that the Written Torah and the Oral Torah that accompanied it were divine, the realization was devastating.
I was intrigued that Kugel could be both an Orthodox Jew and one of the most impressive biblical scholars of our time. Seemingly this means reconciling the irreconcilable: Orthodox Jews believe, as Maimonides articulated in his “Thirteen Principles of Faith,” that the “Torah came from God.” Modern biblical scholars, on the other hand, have spent the past century deconstructing it, putting forth various theories of the historical origins of the sacred text. According to one of the most widely accepted views, the Five Books of Moses were not written by the prophet himself, but are a compilation of four independent, parallel narratives assembled over several centuries. While non-Orthodox denominations have absorbed this scholarship into their theology, there remain Orthodox circles where this kind of analysis is considered heresy.
Kugel, however, seems underwhelmed when I ask him how he remains an Orthodox Jew. “The only way to square this circle is the traditional way,” he explains while furrowing bushy eyebrows. Kugel speaks in a congenial, self-effacing manner and has a habit of cocking his head while you speak, as if you were saying something particularly important. “Our rabbis didn’t say that understanding the Torah and interpreting the Torah was something that was up in the air. They established how to read the Bible in an Orthodox—I should say, Jewish—way, through the lens of rabbinic interpretation, and that in a sense is a whole new text.”
Or, as he wrote in the closing pages of How to Read the Bible: “My own view… is that modern biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are, and must always remain, completely irreconcilable. The whole attitude underlying such speculation is altogether alien to the spirit of Judaism and the role of scripture.”
Kugel was born in New York in 1945, the son of a religious businessman on Wall Street, and grew up in the suburban enclave of Stamford, Connecticut. He attended public school—but studied Jewish subjects under a private tutor—and in 1963, went on to Yale as an undergraduate when the university’s Jewish quota was about 10 percent of the student body. Becoming a Hebrew Bible scholar wasn’t something Kugel had initially planned. His first love was literature, and his debut book, The Techniques of Strangeness in Symbolist Poetry, which was published when he was an undergraduate, delved into the symbolist poetry movement. “I don’t really put it on my bibliography,” Kugel says. “It was a good book.”
After graduating, he struggled to figure out what to do with his life while receiving support from what he jokingly calls his “fathership.” In 1972, he was working as poetry editor for Harper’s magazine when he was selected to the prestigious Harvard Society of Fellows. For four years, the university funded his research into medieval Jewish poetry, without the constraints of a formal degree program.
From there, he went on to City University of New York, where he earned his doctorate in 1977 and, shortly after, published another book, The Idea of Biblical Poetry, which argued against the prevailing notion that biblical poetry was formulaic. Instead, Kugel put forth, its purposeful repetitiveness was meant to elicit an emotional response from readers. “A lot of people hated it,” he recalls. “People are always distressed when you tell them what they think—the way they’ve been thinking about it—was wrong.”
Kugel always began his courses by saying, “If you come from a religious tradition upholding the literal truth of the Bible, you could find this course disturbing.”
After completing his graduate studies, Kugel taught at CUNY and Yale before returning to Harvard in 1982 to teach Hebrew literature. It was at Harvard that he began to make his mark on the world of biblical scholarship. Prior to Kugel’s work, the discipline generally focused on the nuts and bolts of the Bible: how it was written, when it was conceived and what early historical periods it reflected. Kugel offered a different approach in two of his early books, In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretive Life of Biblical Texts in Early Judaism and Christianity (1990) and The Bible As It Was (1997), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. (Kugel published two versions of this book, one for a popular audience and another, re-titled Traditions of the Bible, for an academic one.) In them he argues that much of what is considered the Bible today is based on interpretations developed between 200 BCE and 100 CE. These interpretations came primarily from the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha—or as Kugel calls them in Hebrew, sefarim achi kitzonim, the Outside Books—texts preserved by the Christian tradition and not considered part of the Jewish canon, such as the Book of Jubilees, the Book of Judith and the Book of Enoch.
“Even more importantly, Kugel demonstrates that those early interpreters are the real authors of the Bible as it came to function in Judaism and Christianity,” says Benjamin Sommer, a Hebrew Bible professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. By dint of his encyclopedic knowledge, Kugel was able to put pieces together from sources as diverse as obscure midrashim and the writings of early Church fathers. “There’s a gap between the last pages of the Tanakh [Bible] and the first texts of our rabbis,” Kugel explains. “So much of what we think about the Bible is really dependent not on the Bible but what these ancient interpreters said. I tried to highlight that they were as important to Jews as they were to Christians.”
His emphasis on the importance of scripture to early Christians and Jews was well received by Jewish and Christian scholars alike. “It’s hard to overstate what Kugel’s work has brought about,” says Gary Anderson, the Hesburgh professor of Catholic theology at Notre Dame. “His deeper point is not always appreciated but bears repeating: The very notion of sacred scripture arises in this environment of early interpretation.” Anderson continues, “This is an argument that will wear well over time; it constitutes a lasting legacy to Kugel’s oeuvre.”
Kugel’s ideas cast a long shadow over academia and the public—even reaching into my relatively sheltered Orthodox world. This was due, in part, to the fact that Kugel is one of the rare academics who is accessible to a popular audience. At Harvard, he was wildly popular among students and even ran a friendly competition with an economics professor to see who could bring the most students into the classroom. One semester, when Kugel’s class had 975 students, compared to the economics class with 950, the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, ran the headline, “God Beats Mammon”—a reference to the New Testament’s false god of material wealth. (A 2004 profile in Harvard Magazine described his teaching style as “Woody Allen in a state of grace.”) Kugel always began his courses by saying, “If you come from a religious tradition upholding the literal truth of the Bible, you could find this course disturbing.” This is why the heavily trafficked religious Jewish news site, VosIzNeias.com, dubbed him “perhaps the most famous living controversial Apikores [heretic] in the world.”
Kugel and his wife Rachel, a French social worker (they met at Hebrew University in 1972), long wanted to make aliyah. In 1991, he received a phone call from Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv offering him a full professorship. When Kugel told his dean at Harvard about the news, the dean, unfamiliar with how little Israeli academics are paid, offered to match the salary. “I said, ‘Please don’t do that,’” Kugel recalls, laughing. So for the next 12 years, he taught a semester at Bar-Ilan and a semester at Harvard before leaving Cambridge for good in 2003.
At Bar-Ilan, Kugel authored several books in rapid succession, including The God of Old (2003), The Ladder of Jacob (2006) and How to Read the Bible, which won the National Jewish Book Award. The last received public acclaim, with The New York Times calling it an “awesome, thrilling and deeply strange book.” Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker used it as a key source for his 2011 bestseller The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. “I found Kugel’s book invaluable,” says Pinker. “It reported both traditional interpretations and the latest scholarship on provenance and historical fidelity of biblical narratives, and it was written with an appealing voice—respectful of the scholarship, but with frequent touches of irreverence and wit.”
Scholarly consensus on How to Read the Bible has been less forgiving, especially on the chapters that focus on Kugel’s approach to reconciling Orthodox Judaism and biblical scholarship. “James Kugel has written a stunning number of spectacular books and How to Read the Bible is not one of them,” Sommer, the JTS professor, wrote in The Jewish Quarterly Review. Sommer equates Kugel’s view on the irreconcilability of traditional Judaism and biblical scholarship to sticking one’s head in the sand: “A Jew whose intellect believes that biblical criticism makes valid claims, but whose religious self pretends otherwise…is rendering God service that is fragmented and defective.”
Despite his harsh review, Sommer stipulated that I could only quote him if I also included the aftermath of his article: Three days after the review was published, Kugel sent him a complimentary email. When Kugel responded in a post on his own website, he sent it to Sommer in advance to make sure he thought it was fair. Later, when Sommer spent the year in Israel, the two scholars met with their families several times and even went out for drinks. “He is truly a gentleman and scholar in spite of very serious critiques,” says Sommer. “He’s quite friendly to his critics, and especially to a younger scholar who has criticized him. He’s the real thing. He’s really a mensch.”
If the Torah truly is the work of some anonymous collection of authors whose names we don’t even know—shouldn’t that have some effect on Judaism, on what Jews think and do?
Kugel is not the first religious Jew to grapple with the concept of “Torah from Sinai.” Eleventh-century scholar Ibn Ezra, who posited that Joshua, not Moses, wrote the last 12 verses of Deuteronomy, is sometimes considered the first biblical critic. In the 13th century, Rabbi Yehuda ha-Hasid went further, claiming that entire passages of the Pentateuch were inserted later on by different writers. Nor is Kugel the only religious Jew in the field today, although most others are attempting to find ways of bridging Orthodox belief and academic scholarship.
One such recent effort is thetorah.com, led by an Orthodox Bible professor at Brandeis, Marc Brettler, and Zev Farber, a graduate of the rabbinic seminary Chovevei Torah in New York. Every week, the site publishes essays on the weekly Torah portion in an attempt to create “an observant and knowledgeable Jewish community empowered by an understanding of Torah integrated with scientific approaches and scholarly knowledge.” Even Yeshiva University (YU), the flagship institute of Modern Orthodoxy, teaches biblical criticism —although not without contention. Several months ago, in an article in Kol Hamevaser, a student journal at YU, entitled “Shut Down the Bible Department,” a student wrote: “I can think of no other class in YU that is as potentially damaging to one’s faith as Intro to Bible.” The professor, the student continued, “destroyed my core beliefs without replacing it with anything. He tore down my foundation and left me staring at the rubble.”
Jon Levenson, a Jewish studies professor at Harvard and a former colleague of Kugel, sees a way to cross the theological chasm: Just because the Bible has a human history, it does not logically follow that it has only a human history or that it lacks a transcendent source, namely God, says Levenson, who describes himself as a “somewhat unorthodox Orthodox Jew.” “What is needed is a more sophisticated model of divine revelation, one that can take account of the modern discoveries, for example, the complex pattern of composition in antiquity, without losing sight of the theological dimension.”
Kugel calls this “Biblical Criticism Lite.” Writing on his website, he explains: “Apologetics are a sign of an underlying anxiety….The anxiety in this case derives from the inescapable fact that, in the light of all that modern scholarship has discovered, the Bible necessarily looks very different from the way it looked only a century or so ago. Yet these commentators still want it to be the Bible in the old sense—divinely inspired (at least in some attenuated way), a guide to proper conduct and proper beliefs, a book of truth and not falsehood, as free of error and internal contradiction as possible, in short, despite everything they know, a book still worthy of being called the Word of God…Most of them are simply doing the best they can to have it both ways, to have their Bible and criticize it too.”
Kugel’s views on faith are evident in his 1990 book Being a Jew, a modern-day adaptation of the Kuzari, the fictional dialogue between a Khazar prince and a Jew, written in 1140 by Yehuda Halevi. In Kugel’s version, the Jewish scholar is a religious Syrian banker named Albert Abbadi and the Khazar prince is Judd Lewis, an assimilated American Jew about to marry a Presbyterian.
In the book, Kugel argues that Orthodox Judaism is a holistic experience and can only be understood from within the culture. “You want to understand everything before learning anything,” Abbadi lectures Lewis in one memorable passage. “It is somewhat analogous to passing suddenly from a very dark place, a sealed-off closet to which one’s eyes have become accustomed, into a brightly illuminated room. One is, of course, aware of the change in lighting, but to the room itself and what it contains one is temporarily blinded.”
This parallels Kugel’s thoughts about learning Torah: “It really is a way of entering a different understanding of the world, in which different things are important,” he says, “and even upon leaving it and returning to the humdrum world, we for a while take some of it with us, and everyday life is changed for it.”
In January, Kugel published a sequel to Being a Jew, entitled The Kingly Sanctuary: An Exploration of Some Underlying Principles of Judaism, for a Jewish Student who has Become Disillusioned, where he revisits the two characters of Being a Jew. In the second book, Lewis is disillusioned after spending several years in a yeshiva in Israel. In a surprising endnote to the book, Kugel states that while people have mistaken him for Abbadi, he based Abbadi on an old Egyptian Jew that he once knew. The character of Judd Lewis, Kugel explains, is himself at a younger age.
Kugel is a patient teacher, and as we talk he takes the time to offer two different responses to the dilemma I raise: how to reconcile being Orthodox and knowing too much about the history of the Bible. First is the one he points out in How to Read the Bible—that Orthodoxy, almost despite itself, isn’t really about the Bible. “Judaism has at its heart a great secret,” he writes. “It endlessly lavishes praise on the written Torah, exalting its role as a divinely given guidebook and probing lovingly the tiniest details of its wording and even spelling…Yet upon inspection Judaism turns out to be quite the opposite of fundamentalism. The written text alone is not all-powerful; in fact, it rarely stands on its own. Its true significance usually lies not in the plain sense of its words but in what the Oral Torah has made of those words.”
In other words, the Bible is not, and has never been, the last word in Judaism. Kugel can study the Bible and propose as many authors as he wants, because ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The rabbis have given their explanation of the text, and he abides by it; it’s a bifurcation between the historical reality of the Bible and the rabbis’ interpretation of it. “I consider the Torah as the first volume of a multivolume work about serving God,” he says—in his case the Jewish God.
I don’t find these answers particularly satisfactory—if the Torah isn’t the Word of God, then why bother? Or as Lewis asks in one early passage of The Kingly Sanctuary “Doesn’t the truth count for something?” Adding, “I mean, if the Torah truly is the work of some anonymous collection of authors whose names we don’t even know—shouldn’t that have some effect on Judaism, on what Jews think and do?”
To that, Kugel has another answer, something far deeper and more basic. He alludes to it in his 2008 book, In the Valley of the Shadow, his haunting meditation on his battle with aggressive cancer: His faith stems from something else, a way of seeing the world as being a small part of a larger world that includes God. “I wouldn’t call it belief,” he tells me more than once. “I would call it a way of fitting into the world.”
I wished that there was something he could tell me that would restore my faith. Kugel picked up on that, and he appeared to be sorry for what he had unleashed. I’m not the only former yeshiva student who has sought him out. Kugel explains that he gets emails from yeshiva guys around the world asking him about faith. When I ask him what they are like, he says, “like you.”
As brilliant as he is, Kugel has no answer for me. It takes a particular mindset to be able to believe in the words of the sages and, at the same time, know that they might be fiction. At first, Kugel’s position reminded me of pragmatism, the school of philosophical thought created by William James, which holds that a person can believe in something even if it’s not true, so long as that belief has real-world applications. But I found that Kugel’s belief isn’t like that; he’s a genuine believer, with a faith no different from that of a shtetl Hasid—though since he’s Sephardic, more like a shopkeeper in Aleppo, rushing home before the Sabbath begins.
As we shook hands and he escorted me down the path of his tree-lined garden, a quote from James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience came to mind. It’s from a section of the book in which he describes people who’ve had visions and sentiments of great religious commitments. James was mystified by the phenomenon. “The only sound plan,” James wrote, “if we ourselves are outside the pale of such emotions, is to observe as well as we are able those who feel them, and to record faithfully what we observe.”