According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for
this world to recreate, reclaim, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of
explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. - anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. - anon
... Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument.
There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is
irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a
power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table
to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace,
reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants
us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. - anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals
and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power
is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. - anon

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How Orthodox Beliefs and Modern Biblical Scholarship Might Reconcile






Today's article concentrates on comparing the orthodox view of Scripture with the modern view of biblical scholarship. It is a problem not only for the Christian faith but for the Jewish faith too as each debates the Bible's many meanings and interpretations for today in language couched within psychological or sociological paradigm, or a philosophic mode of discovery albeit personal or societal, organic or institutional, natural or spiritual. It ranges from a worshipful embodiment of that great collected tome of gathered biblical stories and accounts, to a soulless tome of objectivity in portended analytic research upon its mortal pages. For the biblical scholar, as for any scientist who is peerless in his or her's study of inquiry, each attempt to uncover the holy grail of Scriptures can be met by one of a hundred approaches to beholding the hand of God, or the hand of man, or some combination of the two in joint collaboration and communion with one another.

Succinctly, the orthodox view of Scripture is that of a God-breathed product while the non-orthodox view may portend anything but this awareness claiming human authorship alone if not human commentary on the ancient wisdoms of ages past. Here at Relevancy22 we subscribe to the former while working with the latter to discover Scripture's background and setting, narrative and interpretation, and liveliness (or relevancy) to each age of its witness to humanity. More plainly, that the Bible is very much God-breathed and inspired but that it is also very much a human product written and maintained by mortal mankind through its ancient history of oral legacies and imperfect recounts (if not wholly lost) human recordings and derivative midrash accounts or commentaries. To say otherwise is to subtend its meaning from both directions at once. Or to imbalance one account of its charter to that of the other in preference of personal view and understanding. Thus making of it more religious than it is (sic, bibliotry, or even palpable humanism), or less godly than it was conceived (sic, mere historical myth and legend alone).

It is a divide that must be approached from both directions at once, and more particularly for the believer, can at once be the easiest and most difficult challenge to spiritual discovery. But to do less is unwise. And to do more can be exhausting... many simply give up and consider Scripture as a wholly man-made product. And who could argue with this approach? For certainly it is! And yet, for the child of faith, this beloved collection of narratives and stories carries within it a strong sense of God's handiwork and faithful revelation through the history of both Israel and its antecedent priests and rabbis. And later, the early church and its early church fathers, as it reflects its divine Author in a hundred more ways when examining mankind's sufferings and toils, joys and delights, melancholies and ecstasies, temperament and behavior.

But the task of biblical discovery requires a wisdom both childlike and spiritually mature and cannot be a task simply given over to one's religious preferences or academic prejudices. To do so is to create an injustice to the sacred text of Scripture as well as those whom it will affect by our prejudices and bigotries. One that is more commonly done when its readers come to a subject matter wholly distasteful to their spiritual sense of morality and ethic. And can become a great danger when blundered through by inexact - and let me suggest - naive, simplistic, or literalistic, readings of the biblical text by the religious reader. Or  a soulless, empty, austere approach by the academician. Nay, the biblical text is far wiser and more complicated than either approach. Far more hoary and fraught with sublime reflections of mirror-like self-imaging should we allow it to be itself. Which reflections may better tell us perhaps more about ourselves than about the mind of God as He chips away at our self-reliance, prideful wisdom, follies, and sin through its joint sacred-mortal pages. And yet, it is the Christian belief that somewhere upon its holy pages it tells us of our God as much as it tells us of ourselves.

Nay, as a two-way mirror, the Scriptures can tell us as much about ourselves as it can hide us from ourselves should we choose to be its mere interpreters and not its supplicants come to a holy fountain requiring a washing from sin and stain, self-discovery and illumination. Who, beholding the divine sword of a Damocles, allows it to fall this way or that to our preferential readings rather than where it must fall upon our sin-hardened hearts and religious spirits that holds the dead man of our being stoutly within. For it is there upon this altar where God's words must fall in cleaving our beings in two as He did with Abraham (sic, Gen 15 below), sorting out to which side of the ledger he wished to meet his Maker. Either in the austerity of his own hands and handiwork. Or by that of His Creator-God come to save his soul in a remake of heaven of earth for this humble servant seeking to cling to the worship of this new god he had given all for known by the divine name of YHWH.

And to know that this holy covenant of cleaved halves were measured out not by his own making but by the bloody testament of His God YHWH who swore an oath to Abraham upon Himself to bring forth the divine promise of restitution, redemption, and rebirth from the mortal lands of Ur unto the harder lands of repentance and faith. The worship of God begins-and-ends upon God alone and not upon ourselves. It can be a hard faith. A faith that must claim even our sin (but not necessarily our doubt) until all is laid upon God's holy altar as loss and incense. That is given up to a God of grace and mercy whom we do not understand but can only marvel at the great works by His hand when led to the Christ of the Cross become our covenant by His own blood. A slain sacrifice cut in two by the hand of God as continuing testament to God's promise to Abraham that would lead us from the lands of our own making to one made by God alone who is our self-sufficiency. A God who is great in forgiveness and long suffering. Who claims His children as His own and never remits of His promise that we are His. This is the God of Scriptures who whispers grace and love to the lost lands of humanity that all will be peace and still in the destitutions and loss of the day. Even so Lord may we bow in covenantal rest and assurance in Thee. Amen.

R.E. Slater
April 1, 2014


English Standard Version (ESV)

God's Covenant with Abram

15 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue[a] childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 4 And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son[b] shall be your heir.” 5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

7 And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.”8 But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him.13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give[c] this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”

Footnotes:
Genesis 15:2 Or I shall die
Genesis 15:4 Hebrew what will come out of your own loins
Genesis 15:18 Or have given



* * * * * * * * * * *



James Kugel, Professor Emeritus of Classical
and Hebrew Literature, Harvard University

James Kugel: Professor of Disbelief
http://www.momentmag.com/james-kugel-professor-disbelief/

By Michael Orbach
March/April 2014

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, James 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.”


A Biography of Shoe Leather and Parchment

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 Technique of Strangeness, 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 [the Jewish 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, www.VosIzNeias.com dubbed him “perhaps the most famous living controversial Apikores [heretic] in the world.”


Of Books and Universities

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,” [said Sommer].

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?


Can Orthodox Jewish Faith Bridge Academic Schlorship?

Kugel is not the first religious Jew to grapple with the concept of [the] “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 www.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.


How Does One Reconcile the Orthodox Faith?

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.”


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