‘Judaism is opposite of fundamentalism’

‘Judaism is opposite of fundamentalism’

Questions for Dr. James Kugel

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

James Kugel tells observant Jews they “can go into the tunnel” of modern scholarship and “still come out okay on the other side.”
James Kugel tells observant Jews they “can go into the tunnel” of modern scholarship and “still come out okay on the other side.”

Dr. James Kugel, retired professor of Bible, Second Temple literature, and midrash at Harvard University and Bar-Ilan University, will tackle the subject, “What Hath Modern Biblical Scholarship Wrought?” at Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell on Tuesday evening, Nov. 18. 

Kugel’s classes at Harvard were said to draw more than 900 students. While some of his writing is meant strictly for scholars, other works, like his most recent, In the Valley of the Shadow, and his most widely read, How To Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now, are intended for both academic and lay audiences. 

An Orthodox Jew, he is unfazed by the implications of his scholarship. The dust jacket of How to Read the Bible suggests that his “findings pose a serious problem for adherents of traditional, Bible-based faiths,” and he often began his lectures at Harvard with a warning to true believers. 

In advance of his NJ appearance, Kugel, who now lives in Jerusalem, responded to questions from NJJN

NJJN: You’ve written a lot of books over the course of your career, yet you are best known for the way you manage the seeming conflict between your scholarship and your religious life. Is there a dissonance?

James Kugel: Well, I don’t think so, but it does take some explaining. I tried to do that in the last chapter of How to Read the Bible, but I think a lot of people didn’t get that far. So now I’ve written a whole book on the subject, The Kingly Sanctuary, An Exploration of Some Underlying Principles of Judaism, for a Jewish Student who has Become Disillusioned (soon to be out in hard copy; right now available as an e-book on Amazon).

NJJN: If you argue there is no dissonance, why did you famously start your class at Harvard with a warning to students from traditional religious backgrounds?

Kugel: Actually, that was for fundamentalist Christians; one year a bunch of students complained, so I inserted the warning. But if you read How to Read the Bible, or my new book, you’ll see that Judaism always was and still is quite the opposite of fundamentalism.

NJJN: Most academics do their research, teach their classes, and mostly have a discussion with a handful of other scholars in their specialty around the world. You also write for a lay audience. Do you have to compromise in any way to do so? 

Kugel: I don’t think so. At least nowadays I try very consciously to write on two levels. The book itself is aimed…to people who know something and want to find out more. At the same time, though, I try to talk to my colleagues in the footnotes, pointing out how what I’m saying follows up on, or contradicts, what professors X, Y, and Z have written. 

NJJN: Does writing books for lay people affect your standing in the academic world? 

Kugel: I used to say that the best place to hide a good idea is in a popular book — since no scholar will ever read it. And that is still true to some extent: For example, I’ve come across a fair number of articles about the stories of Cain and Abel or Dinah over the last few years; none of them seem to be aware of what I wrote in How to Read the Bible. In fact, while a lot of professors who have to teach “Intro to the Old Testament” (sic) use How to Read the Bible as a textbook, others definitely shy away from it. Why? I’m not sure. But I remember what an academic reviewer once wrote about my first book, The Idea of Biblical Poetry: “The very readability of this book renders its scholarship suspect.”

NJJN: I read that you often get questions and visits from disillusioned former believers. How do you decide which ones to respond to? 

Kugel: I try to answer every question, even if it takes me a while. And it’s certainly not only, or even mainly, from “disillusioned former believers.” I have a healthy correspondence with yeshiva students who are curious about biblical scholarship — or sometimes just about this or that verse in the Torah. 

NJJN: Do you think people of faith are afraid of biblical scholarship and where it may lead? 

Kugel: Of course they’re afraid, as I was when I started. And I certainly wouldn’t tell people that they have to know about biblical scholarship; I think you can be a great Jew and not know a word about Wellhausen and etiological narratives and all the rest. The essence of Judaism is avodat haShem, the service of God, which means keeping the mitzvot. But there are some people who just get bitten by the bug of modern scholarship, as I was. To them I’d say: You can go into that tunnel and still come out okay on the other side — at least I did.

NJJN: How do the students at Bar-Ilan compare to those you taught at Harvard? 

Kugel: There are a lot of differences, but overall I’d say that Harvard students tend to have a great general education but know very little about the Bible, whereas with Bar-Ilan students (or Israeli students overall), quite the opposite is the case.

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