Friday, November 9, 2007

James Kugel's provocative thoughts on the Torah; and the Jewish blogosphere

To be clear, the title refers to two different topics. James Kugel has not said anything provocative about the Jewish blogosphere.

Let me start with the second topic first. Christian bibliobloggers may be unaware that there is a thriving Jewish blogosphere (J-blogosphere) out there. The easiest point of access is Haveil havalim. The 138th roundup of what's going on in the J-blogosphere was hosted by Soccer Dad.

And that's all I wanted to say about that. Now, on to James Kugel's provocative thoughts on the place of the Torah in Judaism. Hat tip, Jewish Atheist.

Kugel has his own Web site here. He was recently asked the following question:
I have always avoided studying biblical criticism because, although I am primarily an orthoDOX Jew (daven 3 times a day, shomer shabbat/kashrut), I have somewhat of a cynical attitude to many aspects of our tradition despite my love for Judaism and my commitment to live a "religious life" and raise my children as observant Jews.

I feared that if I were to be convinced that the Torah is not a divine document, that the foundations of my faith (in halacha – not God) would be shaken and that I would not be able to take halacha seriously. Because if the foundational text that the entire halacha is based upon was not in fact divine — then chazal’s primary assumption no longer holds true. If Rabbi Akiva or Rav Ashi or Maimonides or Rav Feinstein all operated under the assumption of a divine Torah and that assumption is not valid (either in whole or part) - well.......

… I am actually not even quite sure what I am asking. I suppose I am writing to you to get your thoughts on how a religious person can maintain his/her faith and fealty in and to a rabbinic system that is so directly based on the belief of a Divine text and the "Four Assumptions"?
Here is an excerpt from Kugel's detailed response (which is certainly worth reading in its entirety):
Orthodox Jews (myself included) are, by definition, people who like to be told what to do. We accept eagerly the whole "prepared table" of Judaism. …

It is part of the whole posture of seeking to do God’s bidding that we absorb ourselves in the details of the traditional way of life, "davening three times a day" as you say, and kashrut and learning and Shabbat. We don’t take easily to going beyond this, looking up from those daily tasks to contemplate our Employer, that is to say, to think about the really basic issues of theology. In fact, to talk about such things even seems to us un-Jewish; it is neither a necessary nor a particularly comfortable activity for someone who has undertaken to live as an Orthodox Jew. …

When you actually consider Judaism as it is, the role of the Torah in it is really not what you say it is. Ultimately, Jews are not Torah-fundamentalists. On the contrary, our whole tradition is based on adding liberally to what the Torah says (despite Deut. 4:2), sometimes reading its words in a way out of keeping with their apparent meaning, and sometimes even distorting or disregarding its words entirely. (My book "The Bible As It Was" contains seven hundred pages of examples of how this all began.)

What’s more, as everyone knows, much of what makes up the daily fabric of Jewish life has only a tenuous connection, or no connection at all, with what is actually written in the Torah. I mentioned such things as saying the Amidah three times a day, the berakhot that we recite before eating and on other occasions, netilat yadayim, many aspects of kashrut [e.g. basar vehalav], many of the particulars in the way we keep Shabbat and holidays, studying the Babylonian Talmud, and so on and so forth. Isn’t this an awful lot of what it means to lead a halakhic life? On the other hand, one might also mention such practices as mekhirat hametz, which on the face of it seem in fact to contradict what is written in the Torah, in this case, the prohibitions of bal yera’eh ubal yimmatze. And all these are really only the tip of the iceberg; you yourself could go into much greater detail on this theme.

So someone looking at this situation from afar would probably be reluctant to accept your assertion that the whole system of halakhah depends on the words of the Torah and their divine inspiration. … No, this observer would say, it is simply not true that the whole system of halakhah depends on the words of the Torah. Those words were the starting-point, but what has truly proven determinative in them (indeed, what was recognized as such from the start) was the general direction that those words point in and embody, and whose trajectory was then carried forward through the Mishnah and Gemara and all later writings.

That "general direction" is the basic idea that Israel's connection to God is to be articulated through avodat H'. This is the whole substance of the Sinai revelation, and whether it took place at Sinai or somewhere else, biblical scholarship itself has highlighted the utter disconnectedness of this idea from all that preceded it. Before that moment, there was (for centuries) the God of Old, who appeared and disappeared; and there was the offering of sacrifices in the temple. Then, suddenly, the phrase la'avod 'et H' acquired a new meaning: it meant doing all these mitzvot. That changed forever the whole character of divine-human interaction, and it's that change that all later Judaism embodies.

… Time and again, it's not a matter of the specific words, at least not if you try to see the big picture. What really underlies everything — and what was the ongoing substance of the Sinai revelation — was the revelation of a new way of being connected to God.

In the light of all this, I hinted at the very end of the book at what is called in German a "thought experiment." What would happen if someone could demonstrate definitively that God had truly given only one commandment to Moshe at Mount Sinai, the one in Deuteronomy that says: "You shall serve the Lord your God with your whole heart and soul." Then He said to Moshe: "Okay, you and the zeqenim and their later successors can work out the details." Well, this is a somewhat jarring question, but please go along with it for a minute. In the end, I do not believe that this would, or could, invalidate our system of halakhah.

Of course I do believe in nevu’ah, in divine revelation, and I don’t think that Israel got only that one commandment from God. Theoretically, however, I think it would be enough if that were all, since that would provide the firm basis for everything that followed — Moshe's, or Rabbi Akiva's, elaboration of how this primal divine commandment is to be carried out. Because ultimately, any Jew must admit that at some point the divinely-given text leads to the human interpreter and the poseq, indeed, to this specific taqqanah and that specific gezerah shavah. And frankly, we don't really seem to all that aware of, or even care much about, where the dividing-line falls. This is our "prepared table," the work of many hands. If someone wants a different table, let him go ahead — but this is the Jewish table, the way Jews serve God. …

Understanding that avodat H' is the true foundation of our halakhah may not de-fang modern biblical scholarship; a lot of what it says will always be disturbing to Jews. But I think that modern scholarship does not, because it cannot, undermine the essence of Judaism or what Jews actually do in their lives; it cannot, as you suggest, cause the system to collapse.

… After all is said and done and Kugel is long gone, the problems raised for Orthodox Jews by modern biblical scholarship will remain. My hope is that the response I’ve outlined here, which is really what I said in somewhat different terms in my book, will also be around for a while, and that it may help people like yourself to look squarely at those problems and at what seems to me to be their only truthful resolution.
My response, in bullet form:
  • I find Kugel's perspective on Judaism fascinating. (1) To talk about the really basic issues of theology is almost un-Jewish. (2) The whole Jewish tradition is based on adding liberally to what the Torah says … and sometimes even distorting or disregarding its words entirely.

    I presume that other Jews would take issue with Kugel on those points. But it certainly confirms the impression that Judaism makes on me, a Christian outsider. In the brief time that I spent exploring the J-blogosphere, I found that I was unable to relate to many of the topics of urgent importance to Jewish bloggers. Discussion mostly concerned the extra-biblical demands that Jews live under, and told me virtually nothing about how Jews interpret the biblical texts.

  • The whole substance of the Sinai revelation [is this] … suddenly, the phrase la'avod 'et H' acquired a new meaning: it meant doing all these mitzvot. That changed forever the whole character of divine-human interaction, and it's that change that all later Judaism embodies.

    This statement highlights one of the fundamental differences between Christianity and Judaism (the observation is hardly original to me):  Judaism is grounded in observing the commandments in a way that Christianity simply is not.

    Jews will tell you that you can be an atheist and still be a Jew, as long as you continue to daven (pray), eat only kosher foods, and maintain the other practices of Judaism. For Protestant Christians, that is a very alien paradigm. For Protestants, what one believes about Jesus and the God and Father of Jesus is of primary importance. Praxis is also important, but definitely secondary.

    (Roman Catholics are perhaps closer to the Jewish model:  participation in the rites of the Church is regarded as salvific, and it seems to me that the rites operate somewhat independently of the individual's beliefs.)

  • Ultimately, any Jew must admit that at some point the divinely-given text leads to the human interpreter and the poseq, indeed, to this specific taqqanah and that specific gezerah shavah.

    This is, in fact, the rationale for the extra-biblical tradition. We have the Tanakh, but it provides only a general guide. What does it mean, for example, "you shall do no work on the Sabbath"? How far can I walk before I violate the commandment? Such questions must be answered authoritatively, and that's what the extra-biblical tradition sets out to do.

    At the risk of riding my personal hobby-horse, I suggest that Brueggemann would agree with Kugel's pragmatic observation but go well beyond it.

    The divinely-given text leads inevitably to the human interpreter; and the human interpreter is not only fallible but inescapably trapped in a subjective perspective, conditioned by his or her location at a specific point in space and time. This inescapable reality has enormous implications for the claims we can make about our interpretations of scripture. As Brueggemann puts it, the best we can do is make an interpretation for now, knowing that we'll have to come back and do it all over again in future.

  • What would happen if someone could demonstrate definitively that God had truly given only one commandment to Moshe at Mount Sinai, the one in Deuteronomy that says: "You shall serve the Lord your God with your whole heart and soul." Then He said to Moshe: "Okay, you and the zeqenim and their later successors can work out the details."

    Here we swing back in the direction of Christianity — almost, but not quite! Kugel and Jesus agree on the Great Commandment. And indeed, I think we are very close to Jesus' whole approach to religion at this point.
The problem is, Jews and Christians disagree fundamentally on "the details" that God left to the successors of Moses to work out!

5 comments:

Bob MacDonald said...

Thanks for this summary and your responses. As I walk through my own Christian-based traditions, I have ceased using the term faith as a cerebral notion and have moved to the term engagement - and in all love, from the foolishness of Psalm 38 to the reality of its wounds, the engagement with the One is everything - so I keep praising as the Psalmists invite and instruct. This much too impresses me with Jewish worship - so heavily into the Psalms as well as Torah and Haftorah. - Anyway - thanks and thanks for your post.

Phil Sumpter said...

I guess that's why Christians ask if someone is a 'believer', whereas Jews ask if someone is 'practising'.

It's uncanny how you decide to post on Kugel, just as I am about to!

Jewish Atheist said...

The divinely-given text leads inevitably to the human interpreter; and the human interpreter is not only fallible but inescapably trapped in a subjective perspective, conditioned by his or her location at a specific point in space and time.

Orthodox Judaism believes that the Oral Law -- the "human interpretations" -- were in fact given to Moses at Sinai and then passed down through the generations, but allowed to evolve in a way that the Written Law could not.

What Kugel is kind of talking around is that the notion that the five books weren't even given at Sinai completely demolishes the traditional Orthodox understanding of why the Oral Law is binding. His stance is interesting, but I don't think it can hold up. If the Rabbis over the years were merely adding stuff (and not relating stuff that was given to Moses but not written down) it puts an entirely different spin on Rabbinic law.

And, as you correctly point out, the Law is essentially the whole of Orthodox Judaism.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

JA:
Thanks for pointing out that the oral tradition also ostensibly traces back to Moses. And thanks for calling my attention to Kugel's answer to a provocative question.

Christians have similar debates, of course. I am pretty far out on the liberal end of the spectrum; as a result, I'm most comfortable interacting with the scholarly literature, where one is permitted to ask the hard questions.

Like you, I appreciate Kugel's honesty. His answer boils down to his personal appreciation of the "table" that has been "prepared" for him by others. In my view, that's exactly the right attitude to have. If the tradition is meaningful, it's worth observing even if the historicity of the biblical accounts is doubtful.

One might argue that the proof of the pudding is in the eating: i.e., the only validation we can possibly provide for the tradition is that we find it meaningful in our personal experience. But the implication of that is, we ought not to condemn others who do not find it meaningful, or who reject certain elements of the tradition.

Jewish Atheist said...

If the tradition is meaningful, it's worth observing even if the historicity of the biblical accounts is doubtful.

The problem for Orthodox Jews is that they are often faced with a horrible choice of either keeping silent about what they actually believe or being shunned by their communities and quite possible their families if they are honest.