Interview with James Kugel

Could you give a brief description of what the academic community currently feels about when and by whom the Torah was written? Does an academic consensus really exist about how the Torah came to be written? Are Wellhausen’s divisions still seen as the foundation of how the academic community divides up the Torah? I have read that other theories – the supplementary hypothesis and the fragmentary hypothesis – have begun to supplant the documentary hypothesis. What is your opinion on those?

My feeling is that there is no real consensus at present. Wellhausen’s four-source theory, albeit somewhat modified, still has many adherents today, particularly in the U.S., Canada, and England. But in the meantime, a new “European” school has risen up in Wellhausen’s backyard to challenge his approach as well as his overall dating. The arguments are pretty technical; I wouldn’t want to try to summarize them here. But I don’t think that the new approach is any more compatible with Judaism than the old one.

What is, in your view, the most compelling argument for late authorship and multiple authorship of the Torah?

As I’ll explain below, this is not the sort of question I deal with. I have no problem studying modern scholarship or teaching about it in my classes at Bar Ilan. Frankly, I think what scholars in this field have achieved over the last 150 years is little short of amazing. But their whole conception of what Scripture is and how it is to be understood is miles away from the Jewish understanding of Torah, so I wouldn’t want to start endorsing this or that idea of modern scholars about the authorship or date of the Torah.

The reason is that modern scholarship and traditional Judaism have a fundamental disagreement about what the “text” is. The former believe that the text consists only of the words on the page, and in that sense their whole orientation is fundamentally literalistic, whether the interpreter defines himself/herself as conservative or liberal. By contrast, the Torah of Judaism has always been more than the words on the page; from earliest times it came accompanied with Judaism’s great oral tradition of interpretation, a tradition that frequently maintains that “the words say this, but what they really mean is that.” I don’t see that there is any way to reconcile this with literalism: the two approaches are profoundly at odds.

I might compare the situation to that of two people. The first person, the traditional Jew, has inherited his family’s old photo album, passed on lovingly from generation to generation. The second, the modern biblical scholar, has acquired an exact replica of the photos in the album, but with one difference: his copy consists of photographs alone, while the traditional Jew’s copy has little captions underneath each picture: “Far Rockaway, Uncle Mo and Aunt Fay, 1952,” and so forth. Sometimes there are even little quotes and comments alongside the pictures: “The worst vacation ever – all that sand!” or “Your uncle Mo always liked to say, ‘Don’t do to anybody what you wouldn’t want done to you,’” and so forth.

For the biblical scholar, these captions are irrelevant. “Words can lie or may have been scribbled in later on,” he says. “Only the photographs tell the truth – if they’re researched properly.” Using city records, birth and death announcements, newspaper archives, and photographs of other people from the same period, he arrives at his own identification of the people and places in the photographs, as well as their dates.True, sometimes he may be wrong, but at other times his reconstructions are amazingly accurate. But either way, it does not matter. For the Jew, it’s the whole book that counts; what is important is not just the pictures, but what the book says about the pictures, plus all those other comments and quotes. So if – dropping the analogy somewhat – the Jew’s religion is founded on the whole book, what the biblical scholar may have concluded on the basis of the photographs alone is altogether irrelevant. It is the two together that make up the real text of his religion. In fact, their combination is absolutely crucial for the purpose which his “album” serves – namely, the service of God.

Someone who truly understands this will have no trouble living with modern biblical scholarship. Judaism never sought to reduce the Torah’s meaning to the photographs; indeed, often it was a matter of “the photograph seems to suggest this, but the caption says what it really means,” and it is that second, other meaning that is decisive. So what the biblical scholar says may be interesting, but it is ultimately irrelevant to Judaism. (I admit, however, that a lot of people don’t understand this.)

Do you ever find yourself, in the course of your scholarship, drawn in different directions by the traditional understanding of Jewish texts on the one hand and anti-traditional understandings of them on the other? Do you ever feel that there are situations when modern scholarship comes to a dubious conclusion about a text simply to refute the traditional understanding of it, when the traditional understanding is in fact quite plausible?

To the first question: not really, for the reason stated above. But I suppose the conflicting interpretations never quite leave one’s mind, at least not mine, and so they do rub against one another; I’m no schizophrenic, or “two truths” philosopher, or even a compartmentalizer. For the second question: modern scholarship is no monolith, and all sorts of crazy theories are put forward by some scholars and subsequently rejected by others. Sometimes, indeed, the traditional understandings seem as good or better. But I don’t want to mislead you. My real answer to the question is what I said above: traditional Judaism is a package deal, Torah she-bikhtav and Torah she-be‘al peh together.

You seem to have adopted the position that the Torah was not written at the time it has purported to be written, and along with that, presumably the divinity of the Torah as well. Could you explain why you still continue to observe Judaism? Would you describe your religious orientation, broadly speaking, as “Orthoprax”? What are the benefits and difficulties that you face in living that kind of religious life?

Actually, I’ve never taken a position about when the Torah was given or about the doctrine of “Torah mi-Sinai” and what it implies about the traditional dating or the role of Moses. A lot of people misunderstood this basic aspect of my book, How to Read the Bible.

Perhaps I should explain that that book was not addressed to Orthodox Jews, or even to Jews in general, but to anyone interested in the Bible, including my own colleagues who teach in modern universities. What I tried to highlight, in chapter after chapter, was the great gap between what the Bible has traditionally been held to be saying – both in Judaism and in Christianity – and what it is now understood to be saying by modern biblical scholars. Of course, Orthodox Jews don’t generally need to have this pointed out, but a lot of other people do. So the question my book sought to raise in each chapter was: Hasn’t the acceptance of modern scholarship profoundly undermined the traditional teachings and role of the Bible? And the answer – though still fervently denied by some of my colleagues and a lot of other people – is: Yes, of course it has.

To make that point, I had to describe in some detail the whole development of modern scholarship and its basic conclusions. Some of my readers, including some people at YU, seem to have taken this as an endorsement of the whole modern approach, which was exactly the opposite of my book’s main theme. I don’t think many of them got past reading the table of contents; they certainly didn’t get to the last chapter.

So, for the record: I’ve never taken a position about when the Torah was given or about the whole matter of “Torah mi-Sinai.” I am not trying to start a new religion. So what I have said is basically what HaZaL said, that the truly important issue is “Torah min ha-Shamayim,” that is, the divine origin of the Torah. Not only do I believe in this, but modern scholarship itself has said nothing to contradict it. There is simply no way that a modern scholar can prove or disprove the divine origin of a single word in the Torah. This is not given to proof.

I’ve also never described myself, or anyone, as “Orthoprax.” I don’t see how it is possible to live with all the requirements and restrictions of Orthodox Judaism for any length of time if you don’t believe in the basics of Judaism, not only “Torah min ha-Shamayim” but the authority of the Torah she-be‘al peh and the teachings of HaZaL. I suppose some sentimental attachment to the way one was brought up can carry a person for a while, but ultimately that will not be enough.

Finally, I should make it clear that nothing I have said here is different from what I wrote in How to Read the Bible (see especially pp.45-46 and 679-689), or what I have written often before and since. Nor, I should add, have I intended any of what I have said here to appease a few people at YU and elsewhere who is upset about that book. I know that a great many Jews are frightened by modern biblical scholarship, and the easiest thing for some was to condemn James Kugel for having dealt with it openly and in some detail and, in fact, even with some sympathy. I make no apology to them. As I have explained, the purpose of my last chapter was to outline a way in which an Orthodox Jew can honestly confront modern biblical scholarship without losing his or her faith in the Torah (both the written and the oral) as the best guide to ‘avodat H’, indeed, to what Maimonides called yedi‘at H’.

On the other extreme, I also suspect that hearing me say these things now may actually disappoint some readers of the The Beacon. Certainly some of them had hoped to see in me some sort of fire-breathing radical. So to them as well: Sorry to disappoint you.

What brought you into the field of Biblical scholarship?

It was really an accident. I started off graduate school at Harvard as a medievalist. My teacher was the late Isadore Twersky, z”l, and my main focus was medieval parshanut and piyyut. At one point I decided to write a term paper about Abravanel’s commentary on Shirat ha-Yam (which, it turned out, was largely copied from earlier sources, but that’s irrelevant here). About halfway through it occurred to me that the subject of Abravanel’s comments, the structure of biblical poetry, must certainly be one that modern biblical scholars had discussed, so I thought it would be worthwhile for me to see what they had to say. I picked out a couple of titles from the Harvard library and started reading. That led me to a few more books and articles, and then more; I remember my apartment slowly filling up with books and photocopies over the next six months. After a while, I lost sight of biblical poetry and started reading about all sorts of other things in the Bible that scholars had worked on. By the time I was done I knew that I just had to find out more about modern scholarship – everything about it – even if it meant giving up medieval studies. Professor Twersky was disappointed, but I think he understood.

You have said that the Book of Jubilees is (among) your favorite(s). Can you explain why?

The person who wrote it (we don’t know his name) was an amazing scholar. He lived around 200 B.C.E., a troubled time for the Jewish religion, and he thought long and hard about the Torah, offering his understanding not just of specific verses, but also of some of the most basic issues in Judaism. I tried to explain some of this in a recent book, A Walk Through Jubilees (Brill, 2012). It’s too expensive to buy, but it might be in the library.

What do you value most about your chosen career?

Career? I don’t know; the hours are good; being a professor gave me the opportunity to think and write about the things that interest me most; plus, nobody says to you, “Hey, what’s that on your head?”

In your most recent book, In the Valley of the Shadow, you write about religious feeling as a sense of smallness, of being one part of a much larger world beyond our control, and of possessing identity that is inseparable from the whole, from family and community. How do you think contemporary Jewish communities, in all their variety of religious belief and practice, can best maintain the virtue and reap the benefits of this feeling? What role does faith play in this effort?

Well, smallness – I do want to get back to that, because it seems so essential to thinking about religion. Your description isn’t wrong, but smallness is not just about being part of a much larger world or carrying about some collective identity. These things are certainly part of it, but there’s something more basic and radical: it’s all about an elusive “sense of self,” about being no more than yourself and fitting inside your borders. No one I know walks around all the time with such a sense of self, but I think most people will have entered into it in a privileged moment or two. It is in such moments, I think, that one is acutely aware of being in God’s world; what we do in Judaism, especially prayer, is ultimately a way of trying to come close to the Holy One, to stand before Him in full awareness of our smallness.

How do you feel that your work should impact the study of Torah in institutions of learning in the faith community?

I certainly hope that people get the message about modern biblical scholarship that I outlined above. But really, most of what I have worked on in my life is the literature of the Second Temple period – books like Jubilees and Ben Sira and the Dead Sea Scrolls. What interested me about these from the beginning was the parshanut ha-Miqra (biblical interpretation) found in them, though often it is just alluded to in passing. When I was in graduate school, it was fashionable for people to say that the rabbinic midrash began in the late second century C.E. – and that it pretty much developed out of nothing. What these writings show is that a lot of the midrash familiar to us from Bereshit Rabba or the Babylonian Talmud was actually in existence 400, 500 or more years earlier. Jubilees knows, for example, that Abraham underwent ten tests, just as it says in the Mishnah – except that Jubilees was committed to writing four hundred years earlier than the Mishnah. Jubilees also preserves the tradition that Abraham rebelled against his father Terah for his idol-worship, something that is never stated explicitly in the Bible (although Joshua 24 comes close) but was the subject of many midrashim. And so on and so forth: these are two examples among hundreds. I collected a lot of them in my book Traditions of the Bible (or the shorter version, The Bible As It Was); I’d be happy if Orthodox shuls had a copy or two of these on their shelves.

How would you best summarize the significance of belief in Omnisignificance to the study and reverence for biblical texts?

I coined the term “omnisignificance” to refer to the traditional Jewish belief that every word in the Bible has some meaning, that even apparent repetitions or pleonasms are there for a reason. This belief came to play a central role in rabbinic writings, so I guess the answer to your question is that it remains a vital element in Orthodox Judaism to this day.

There is some evidence of the idea of omnisignificance in pre-rabbinic sources (that is, Second Temple period writings) as well, but there I would connect it to a more generalized (and older) belief that Scripture contains no contradictions – not within itself, and not with the basic beliefs and teachings of the interpreters. Omnisignificance was, as it were, the ultimate statement about the utter perfection of Scripture.

In fact, studying ancient biblical interpretation as it is witnessed in Second Temple writings like Jubilees eventually led me to conclude that this and other basic assumptions were shared by all ancient interpreters of the Bible – a striking conclusion, since we know full well how different one ancient interpreter was from another, Ben Sira from the author of Jubilees from Philo of Alexandria. True, they disagreed on a lot of particulars, but they all seem to have held that 1) Scripture was a fundamentally cryptic text, often saying A when what it really meant was B; 2) that Scripture was a fundamentally relevant text: even though it discussed things that had happened or been said in the distant past, its purpose was not historiography but teaching, offering guidance for us nowadays; 3) that Scripture speaks with one voice, so that there are no contradictions (as just explained above); and 4) that all of Scripture came from God, or was otherwise divinely authorized or approved.