Questions and Reactions from Readers and a Reply to My Critics
I wanted to ask about a distinction in your book between the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom. You write that the J source was a southerner, while E
was a northerner. J is portrayed as displaying a polytheistic even animistic
theology, whereas E is somewhat more advanced. (You mention scholars who
disagree with Wellhausen's notion of linear progression among the biblical
sources. However, if I understood correctly, this disagreement is about the
chronology of the sources not their characteristics.)
Is there any extrabiblical evidence for this dichotomy between North and
South? Do we know from other sources what the respective kingdoms were
like, or is it entirely based on ideas extrapolated from portions in the Bible attributed to North and South? Are there any books which discuss the makeup of the kingdoms and the dynamic of relations between them?
In truth, my query has wider implications because it questions, as many do, what historical proof there is for many of the theories put forth in Bible criticism. Nevertheless, I was particularly fascinated by the certainty which scholars seem to possess regarding the North and South and would like to know more about that topic.
JK: I'm not sure anyone nowadays expresses any certainty about the matters you raise -- I'd say rather that it is uncertainty that characterizes the position of most contemporary biblical scholars. There is widespread agreement now that the texts formerly attributed to "J" cannot have been the work of a single person -- there are simply too many contradictions among them to make that plausible. (The idea of "J the Theologian" was largely the work of a single, temporarily persuasive, German biblicist, G. von Rad.) So I think your characterization of J would not be acceptable to most scholars today -- at best, it applies only to some of the texts so attributed. As for the source identified as E, many scholars now doubt that this was ever an independent written work -- it's just too incomplete to have stood on its own. In fact, there are a lot of scholars nowadays who seek to claim that D and P are the earliest actual sources that can be identified as such, however much they may have relied on earlier oral or written traditions.
As for the larger question, however: I often tell students that if they
are looking for what you call "historical proof," they are probably in the
wrong field. The question is not one of proof, but of drawing conclusions
based on a limited body of evidence, both from within the Bible and
outside of it. Modern scholars have been sifting through this evidence for
more than two centuries. The data include a growing body of writings
discovered in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and elsewhere; the extensive findings of
archaeologists, whose excavations have been carried out throughout the
territory that once constituted the northern and southern kingdoms as well
as in adjacents lands; careful linguistic analysis of the historical
development of biblical Hebrew (and comparison of the Bible's Hebrew with
the Hebrew found in excavated inscriptions), and the assignment of
different biblical texts to various historical periods on the basis of
their lexis (vocabulary) but also, more recently, their syntax; close
reading of specific biblical passages for agreements and disagreements
with other passages, as well, of course, as their relationship to material
outside of the Bible; and finally, an increasingly detailed knowledge of
the entire history of the ancient Near East, its political and social
history as well as its literature and culture.
That's a lot of material to take into consideration; no wonder there are still so many differences of opinion. But I think biblical scholars for the most part go about their work seriously, and they are genuinely just trying to figure out "what really happened." Though there are certainly exceptions, the people who conduct this research are not, for the most part, religious polemicists out to puncture anyone else's baloon -- if anything, the opposite has sometimes been true.
Perhaps I misread your intentions in the fascination you express about scholarly "certainty." If what you mean is that such certainty is unjustified, well, I'm sure that in many cases the scholars themselves would agree with you.
They are just trying, as I said, to draw the best conclusions they can from a
necessarily limited body of evidence. (And by the way, the evidence from
within and outside the Bible would seem to suggest that the northern
kingdom was indeed given over to combined worship of Baal, Asherah, and
other Canaanite deities along with YHWH long after it split from the south
-- rather the opposite of the contrast you propose between north and
south.) Where I think they have been, on the whole, short-sighted or narrow-minded is in the decidedly Protestant bias that has informed the whole orientation of modern scholarship and its understanding of the relationship between biblical research and Scripture's traditional place in our religions. But that's really another question.
Definite Article Not in Biblical Poetry?
One of the many surprising facts I read in your book (How to Read
the Bible) was the absence of the definite article (ha-) from the
Song of the Sea. I reread Exodus 15 and indeed this is true-- after
the introduction within verse 1 (with "ha-" twice) and the conclusion
in v. 19 (also with "ha-" twice) the Hebrew definite article does not
appear...thus 17 or 18 verses without "ha-". You then suggest that
this reflects the antiquity of the poem, going back to the period
before the definite article was introduced into Hebrew. I believed
this for several months, and then began to question it. None of the
other supposedly old ballads (e.g. the Song of Deborah) show an
avoidance of "ha-". Here is what I suggest instead.
As you know very well (probably by heart) the Book of Proverbs ends
(Ch. 31, 10-31) with an alphabetic acrostic poem of 22 lines in
praise of the "Woman of Valor". In the first 20 of these lines, the
definite article "ha-" never occurs! This alone demonstrates that
having a poem of 17 or 18 lines in B'Shalach without the definite
article does not prove that such a poem must predate the introduction
of the article into Hebrew. But beyond this fact, I speculate the
following. Both the Song of the Sea and the Woman of Valor are poems
in praise of someone--YHWH and the Woman of Valor, respectively.
Each refers to its subject of praise mostly in the third person, but
also briefly in the second person (Mi kamocha, and Rabot banot,
respectively). So perhaps in such a poem, the definite article is
not normally used! This led me to take a fresh look at the next-to-
last (and probably the most famous) line (Sheqer ha-chen...) in
Proverbs. The more I thought about it, the more out of place it
looks! (Counter-intuitive, because we all know the poem so well with
this line in it.) But it is the only line that is not specifically
about the Woman of Valor in either the 2nd or the 3rd person; to the
extent that it is referring to her at all, it is highly insulting
(she must be ugly!); the other verses describe the positive, active
things she does, without a reference out of the blue to her fearing
YHWH; and finally we are reminded that we are not only at the end of
this poem, but at the end of the entire Book of Proverbs, where the
editor no doubt thought it necessary to insert a reference to the
deity. (Isn't there something similar near the end of Qohelet,
another book of "wisdom literature"?) I'd appreciate your reaction
JK: First off, I wouldn't agree that the Song of Deborah fails to show an
avoidance of the definite article ha-. There's no mistaking its deliberate
avoidance of it in vv. 4, 5, 6, 7 (I'll stop here, but there are lots more
examples). As for the ha- in verse 9, it is, technically speaking, the
sign of the vocative ("O you who offer yourselves willingly..."). But
you're right, that still doesn't explain the occurrences of ha- in vv. 16,
17, 20, and 28. My hunch is that some got added in the course of
transmission; phrases like "ever ha-yarden" and "bein ha-mishpatayim"
became cliches, and they probably just sounded wrong without the ha- after
a while. But the generalization doesn't need to be 100% true to be valid.
Long before I wrote about it, people had noticed that the definite
article, the relative "asher," the particle "vav," and little words like
"ki" often seem to be omitted in songs, prayers, and other genres of
elevated style. This seems to hold true to some extent for poetry in all
periods, but as time went on, ha- and these other things did begin to
appear in poetry more and more. (Psalm 1 is a good example.)
By the way, I don't think Exod. 15 predates the introduction of the
definite article into Hebrew. Ha- certainly existed, but it still probably
had some of the force of a demonstrative and just didn't sound right in
poetry. Then, little by little, it started to sound not too bad. Exod 15
has other ancient features as well -- old pronomial suffixes and verbal
forms -- that likewise suggest that it is old (or a good imitation of old,
as some have claimed).
I think your example of Prov. 31 is a special case NOT because it is a
song of praise but because the need for ha- is obviated by the feminine
possessive suffixes that exist all over it. (This is of course a
chicken-and-egg type observation; maybe those possessives were used on
purpose just to avoid the ha-.) In any case, I also think that later
biblical poets were well aware of this conventional terseness in the style
of their predecessors and imitated it -- just as they imitated other
archaic features. Look at Ben Sira, for example. Even though this makes
for a cloudy picture, I still think the gradual introduction of these
various elements has been documented and certainly reveals an overall
Orthoprax or Orthodox
I just finished "The God of Old"
and found it to be an enlightening, if rather speculative, insight into
the Biblical minds of old. I also intend on reading your newest work
when I get the opportunity.
But the real reason I'm writing you is not for the quality of your work
... but of the curious juxtaposition of it to your ostensible Orthodoxy. Frankly, I do not understand how the same man who
intellectually deconstructs the very human pathways that lead to modern
Orthodox Judaism can at the same time hold belief in their immutable
correctness. I do not mean to sound accusatory in the least - and I know
you probably already get flak from all directions about this - but is
what you really believe "Orthodox" as you could find described in some
dictionary or recognized rabbinical treatise, or rather is it a kind of
self-styled religious philosophy that maintains *Orthopraxy* as proper
That may be mere splitting of hairs for some, but as I am an individual
who (I think, like you) is very interested in maintaining traditional
Jewish observance, I am struck by the gross untenability of typical
Orthodox beliefs in the face of modern scholarship from numerous fields.
I should also mention that I was raised Modern Orthodox and have
maintained general observance even while my philosophical and scholarly
thoughts have strayed, as it were. The great trick of course would be
how to open the eyes of so many of our observant co-religionists without
prompting disillusionment and a tumbling of the Halachic system -
assuming such a feat were even possible and assuming we ought to even be
interested in carrying out such philosophical revolutions.
In the meantime, as I count myself among the "Orthodox" as a
sociological identity, I often encounter difficulties where what I have
learned through modern scholarship contradict established tradition.
Indeed, when the Torah is raised at hagbah, should I say along with the
congregation that “This is the Torah that Moses placed before the people
of Israel at the command of the Lord through Moses”? Clearly modern
Bible scholars like yourself would say that even if Moshe did write a
Torah, the modern Pentateuch we have raised before us is not it.
I'm not exactly sure what I am asking of you here and it may even be
inappropriate (and if so, then you have my apologies) but how do you
engage the philosophical difficulties that lie between living our
traditional observances and the generally poorly informed beliefs of so
many whom we observe them with? Is there a philosophical or theological
or sociological endpoint to seek or should each man merely find their
place between skepticism and traditionalism and hope the great Jewish
masses will one day raise their minds from the merely Medieval?
Practically, how much does traditional Judaism need to adapt so to
honestly assimilate these intellectual elephants sitting in the living
room? In ironic form, can these elephants become kosher?
JK: Well, that is the question. I did try to address it in a few pages of the
last chapter of HOW TO READ THE BIBLE, but judging by people's reaction, I
obviously need to do more. (I didn't go into more detail there because
that book is not really aimed at Orthodox Jews, or even Jews in general,
and it is not, despite what a lot of my correspondents seem to think, a
kind of personal confession. It's really a book about the Bible.)
I suppose the longer answer that I might write some day would start by
saying that I really don't buy into the distinction between "Orthodoxy"
and "Orthopraxy" that you, and a lot of other people, invoke. An Orthodox
Jew isn't just someone with the right "doxy," the right ideas; you
wouldn't call someone "Orthodox" who sincerely believes that the Torah was
given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai and fervently upholds his faith in
the resurrection of the dead etc., but who does not keep Shabbat or the
rules of kosher food.
In a subtler way, I think the opposite is also true. I've heard lately
from a lot of people who say that they like the "Orthodox life style," but
that they are only "Orthoprax" and not "Orthodox." I hope that's not
really true. As you know, Judaism is notoriously long on deeds and short
on doctrine; still, I can't imagine that any such "Orthopraxy" can be
pursued in the long run by someone who doesn't have some basic belief in
H' and in the connection between that belief and all the "deeds" of his or
Rather, I think what such people mean is that they have difficulty
accepting one or another of the traditional teachings of Judaism: they are
bothered by what you call the “gross untenability of typical Orthodox
beliefs in the face of modern scholarship from numerous fields.” I
certainly understand what you, and they, mean. It seems intellectually
dishonest to – if I can reverse the contemporary cliché -- walk the walk
(not a bad way of referring in English to keeping the halakhah) while at
the same time mumbling when it comes time to talk the talk, that is,
affirming those traditional beliefs that seem to clash with modern
knowledge. So what to do?
You may say I’m chickening out, but I’ve always been a fairly conservative
person, certainly when it comes to throwing off traditional teachings
(though some of my readers may doubt this). I would never want to announce
to anyone, “Forget about that mitzvah,” or, by the same token, “This
specific belief isn’t really important.” I think history teaches that
people who start down the road of public rejection of this or that
specific thing rarely stop there.
But history does have another lesson, and that’s the one I would
highlight. Most of the “creedal statements” of Judaism were originally
made in opposition to something or someone. That is, the very enterprise
of formulating the "musts" of Jewish belief in rabbinic times arose out of
doctrinal differences among the various Jewish groups that flourished
before 70 C.E., or later on, as a result of the rise of certain changes in
the Jewish world (Karaism, e. g.) or the world in general. The point of
these affirmations of belief often was: If you want to be with "us," you
can't uphold what "they" say or do. But situations do change, and so do
(eventually) the things people feel it essential to assert. As I'm sure
you know, the Mishnah (perek Helek) specifies a few things that Jews are
to believe in or lose their portion in the world to come. The list of
essential beliefs was considerably expanded when Maimonides (not
unopposed) introduced his Thirteen Principles. After his time, other
things did get added from time to time (creatio ex nihilo, for example, or
free will), while some of the earlier items were dropped. You might look
at the wonderful article by the late Professor Alexander Altmann,"Articles
of Faith," in the Encyclopedia Judaica. So certainly one lesson of history
is that at least some of these affirmations were not written in stone.
Added to this is what history teaches about the actual application of
various orthodoxies to real life. Even when things don’t change de jure,
they sometimes change de facto. For example, that same chapter in the
Mishnah says a Jew must not read from the "sefarim ha-hitzonim," and even
if the Mishnah doesn't say exactly what those books are, it seems likely
that that rubric includes at least some of the writings studied in courses
currently given by Orthodox professors at Yeshiva University or Bar Ilan;
indeed, a number of Orthodox posekim have explicitly ruled that this
prohibition is no longer in effect, because times have changed. This is, I
admit, a fairly small example of what you call “the Jewish masses
rais[ing] their minds from the merely medieval,” but it did happen. (We’re
talking about doctrine; I’m sure you can think of numerous examples in the
domain of halakhah lema’aseh.) On a somewhat different plane, the use of
amulets (kame'ot) for quasi-magical purposes, or the attribution of
magical powers to mezuzot -- both of which, I’m afraid, are quite common
in Israel today -- suggest beliefs that are clearly at odds with Jewish
doctrine as formulated in the Torah, Mishnah, and by numerous later
authorities. But these things do go on, and they are actually almost never
denounced as heretical; in fact, they are espoused and practiced by
prominent rabbinic figures. So I'm not sure that, in any descriptive
(rather than prescriptive) definition of Orthodox Judaism, all required
and prohibited beliefs are treated equally.
In saying all this, I'm not looking for a back door out of what I take to
be Judaism's basic doctrine about the Torah, namely, "Torah min
ha-shamayim." There's nothing in my book (or in me) that denies that
belief. As I've written several times, words are words, and there is no
litmus test that modern biblical scholars could ever perform to determine
that this word was divinely inspired and that word was not. But in my book
I did try to put the whole doctrine of a divinely-given Torah in a
somewhat different perspective, which, since you say you haven’t yet read
the book, I might summarize here:
What I tried to show was that, at a certain point within the biblical
period, the religion of Israel suddenly changed (I would say "as if by
revelation," except that I don't mean the "as if"). Now, "avodat H'" was
no longer principally understood as the offering of korbanot in the
Temple, but the keeping of God's numerous laws. This is evident within the
Bible itself, and the trajectory of avodat H' as presented in the Torah
carries over into all the later stages of Judaism, even in such perfectly
human activities as writing piskei halakhah (or, for that matter,
formulating lists of required beliefs). Keeping the mitzvot is the way
that Jews seek to reach out to H', and I would make no exception in this
for people who define themselves as "Orthoprax." It can't just be a matter
So... The point of this rather long-winded answer is that people who
devote themselves fully to keeping the mitzvot are, at least by my
definition, Orthodox in the true sense of the word: they have grasped what
is essential in Judaism, avodat H', and they are living it. All those
mitzvot have a single trajectory, from the Torah itself through centuries
and centuries of human interpreters, the makers of midrash halakhah and
aggadah, takkanot and gezerot shavot and piskei halakhah, down to the
present day. I think someone who truly understands this will not be
troubled by the things you mention.
Adam and Eve
I have just read your chapter on Adam and Eve in How to Read the Bible
and am a bit confused about how the interpretation of the eating of the
fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil led to knowledge of "seeds' and the beginning of agriculture. Were the writers of the J strand in contact
with hunters and gatherers? How would they have known that a preagricultural
state of affairs existed?
And why call it the tree of knowledge of good and evil rather than simply the tree of knowledge if the fruit simply represented the awakening of biological awareness?
I think the focus of the story appears to be the origin of human awareness of
our moral capacity. I would go so far as to argue that the story has an
evolutionary bent to it. People clearly understood that we were different
from all the other species of life on earth, and not knowing how that came to pass wrote the story as an explanation of how it came about. Adam and Eve's
ignorance of death and a sense of morality prior to eating the fruit point to a time when we were like the other animals living in ignorance of our finite and precious existence.
JK: A number of readers have written to me about this, and I should be the first to say that no interpretation is NOT going to be speculative in some degree. I cetainly understand why you and they would prefer to interpret the story as being about what you call "the origin of human awareness of our moral capacity." But I don't see any expression in the story itself that suggests that Adam and Eve had any heightened sense of morality after the incident. And if the point is why we are different from all other species of life on earth in our capacity for moral judgments, then why include in the story a talking snake who gets punished along with Adam and Eve? That seems to suggest that he and they are pretty much in the same moral boat. Finally, if Adam and Eve end up with some greater appreciation of our finite and precious existence, why doesn't the story say so, and then distinguish their awareness from the ignorance of that representative of the animal kingdom, the snake?
Your question about Israelite familiarity with hunter-gatherers is worth posing, but I'm not sure anyone can answer it for sure. We certainly know that throughout much of the biblical period, knowledge of hunter-gatherer peoples (who still existed on the African continent) could have reached ancient Israel through Egypt, which dominated the region for many a century. I do not mean to assume that any Israelites had direct contact with such peoples, only that it is altogether possible that they had heard of "primitive" people who move about from place to place and survive by hunting and gathering, indeed, people who walk around in a state of shocking undress. Such information, however, would hardly have been necessary to generate the story in Genesis; in my chapter on it I was careful to say that, if this is the underlying sense of the story, it represents "a kind of speculative reconstruction" rather than anything based on first-hand observation or even historical memory. And by the way, it may be important to note that the picture of the life of Adam and Eve is altogether sympathetic, even nostalgic.
As for the tree of knowledge, it seems to be just that, a symbol of ANY knowledge; Adam and Eve eat from it and become "wise," understanding about all sorts of things -- agriculture, clothing, and perhaps also sexual reproduction. The phrase "knowledge of good and evil" has been recognized since the 1950s as a "merism," that is, a naming of the two extremes so as to include everything between them. See, for example, Gen. 31:24, 2 Sam. 13:22, 1 Kings 3:9, etc. So it really means "knowledge of all things."
Two Recent Reviews
Bezalel Stern, “Reading the Bible Without Apologies” (To read this review:
Richard Elliott Friedman, “Ancient Biblical Interpreters vs. Archaeology and Modern Scholars” Biblical Archaeology Review (January-February 2008), 62-68. (This review is not available on line.)
JK: I don’t wish to use this website to write a response to every review of my book ever written, but I thought it might be interesting to readers if I respond to these two reviews together, because they make perfectly symmetrical but opposite mistakes about
Mr. Stern apparently likes what he calls my “epic overview of the Hebrew Bible,” and I will probably seem churlish in not simply taking the compliments and shutting up. But I’m afraid he has drastically misconstrued the point of my juxtaposing ancient and modern interpreters. He writes that “Kugel’s readings of the Bible uniformly side with the modern Biblical scholar,” and again “Kugel, throughout the book, sides squarely with the most tenacious of the modern Biblical scholars, Orthodox credentials be damned.”
Actually, my purpose in juxtaposing ancient and modern interpreters was
In fact, I said in the Introduction (p. 46) that people ought not to think, just because I give modern scholarship a lengthy exposition, that it "is all there is to the Bible." I said the same thing again at the beginning of chapter 9 (p. 134), and of course again in some detail in the last chapter.
By the same token, the book is not, as Stern asserts, "arguing here for a Bible created by man." As I say at the very end of the book (bottom of 688), I do not know of any litmus test that can be used to distinguish the word of God from ordinary, human words; words are words, after all. So the truly divine parts of the Bible, versus the merely human, are nothing modern scholarship, or I, could ever seek to define – in fact, that's the whole point of those last two pages of mine.
Friedman’s review is also quite complimentary, at least at first. He says all sorts of nice things, most of which hardly apply to me. (I am certainly not, for example, “the most learned Orthodox scholar of the Bible on earth.”) But when he gets down discussing the book itself, I’m afraid he also distorts what it’s all about and who it’s for – and in a manner just the opposite of Mr. Stern's above. The distortion is already hinted at in the compliment just mentioned. Basically, what Friedman seeks to claim is that this is a book by an Orthodox Jew for Orthodox Jews, one that therefore aims to defend ancient Jewish interpreters as better informed (!) than modern scholars.
In fact, Mr. Friedman just can’t seem to get over the fact of my own affiliation with Orthodox Judaism. Friedman mentions Orthodox Judaism (along with “Orthodoxy,” “Jewish Orthodoxy,” and “Orthodox Jews”) twenty-five times in a review of six pages. My book mentions Orthodox Judaism exactly once in 689 pages.
Actually, it would be wrong to describe Friedman’s review as a review of the book. The
Truly, a better title for Friedman’s review might have been: “My Problem with Orthodox Judaism.” Everything seems to come back to that. Friedman even identifies the ancient biblical interpreters I discuss in my book as
But this is nonsense. Friedman might as easily have referred to these interpreters as the “reverends,” or the “ministers” or “priests” or “pastors,” since their way of interpreting the Bible is as connected to Christianity as it is to Judaism. Indeed, as I pointed out repeatedly in another book,
I’m not at all sure what motivated such an odd misrepresentation of my book. But it was all the more vexing to me because, Friedman, like Stern above, seems to have gotten the main theme of my book all wrong. I don’t think my argument was particularly obscure, but since both these reviewers missed it, I might do well by presenting it once again in summary form.
The biblical book called the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon, or Canticles) was, even before there was a Bible, interpreted as an allegory of God’s love for Israel. Christianity changed this interpretive line, but only slightly: it became an allegory of Christ’s love for the Church. With the rise of modern scholarship, it did not take long for this whole approach to be questioned. Weren’t all those garden metaphors really talking about a woman’s body? Why, old King Solomon (the song’s reputed author) was, by the nineteenth century, just a dirty old man! Of late, the basic identification of the Song as erotic love poetry has only been strengthened by the discovery of striking parallels between it and the erotic love poetry of ancient Egypt.
If so, what is the Song of Songs doing in our Bible? Its interpretation as an allegory of divine love is just that, an interpretation; now that we know what the text “really” means, what its original author intended it to mean, let’s get rid of it. Such stuff certainly doesn’t belong in a holy book! Unless, as I repeatedly suggest in my book, texts can sometimes change their meaning. Actually, this happens all the time. Societies change, circumstances change, and then suddenly, no matter how hard you try to stifle it, the "Merchant of Venice" has a completely unintended resonance with the whole later history of anti-Semitism, and "Othello" with modern racism.
It was just such a change – in this case, however, quite deliberate – that turned the erotic Song of Songs into the allegorical one. Long before there even was a Bible, someone put forward the idea that this song could be understood as if it were all about divine love, not human eros; the idea caught on, and soon everyone was singing it, or humming it, with the new meaning in mind. The discovery of what its original author may have intended certainly enhances our understanding of how the Song got started, but it does not cancel out the allegorical meaning. Indeed, it was only in that reinterpreted, allegorical sense that the Song was included in sacred Scripture in the first place.
The same might be said for much of the Bible. What scholars now know about the psalms is that most of them were written for a particular setting, the ancient Israelite temple, where God was deemed to be in residence. Over time, however, ideas about God changed, and with them ideas about prayer – including the psalms. “I come before You, Lord” no longer meant “I am entering Your temple,” but “I am appealing to You, O omnipresent deity,” and the psalms thereby became the heartfelt expression of anyone seeking to turn to God – anywhere, any time. By the same token, the great history of Israel that stretches from Genesis through 2 Kings was not originally intended to be “biblical,” that is, full of lessons to take to heart today, or even full of interesting characters who develop and change. According to most scholars, this history was sewn together from individual snippets, many of which had begun as “just-so stories” of a type well known to anthropologists and students of folklore. Even when, later on, they were first stitched together into a sequence, it was not as part of an
In one stunningly misinformed paragraph of his review, Friedman responds to my highlighting of these interpreters’ role in changing the meaning of the text. “The ancient interpreters did not know more than we do about the Biblical world or about history or the Bible’s authors. They knew less. But the basis of the system that Kugel favors is a doctrine that the ancient knew more than we do: they had Oral Torah going all the way back to Sinai.”
But what I have to say about the ancient interpreters has nothing to do with their
As I indicated in my book, this process of transforming the meaning of ancient texts started even earlier than the third century BCE. The moralized reinterpretation of earlier narratives is evidenced here and there in the book of Deuteronomy and, more abundantly, in Chronicles. Scholars have shown that the sayings of Isaiah and other prophets were quite consciously rearranged and supplemented by later editors to bring out an entirely different message from the one originally intended by the prophets themselves. In pursuing this theme, however, my aim was to point out the great gap that has now been opened between what biblical texts were reconfigured to mean by the ancient interpreters – a meaning that has persisted to the present day – and what today’s scholars have discovered about the original meaning of these texts.
Faced with this gap, Friedman’s reaction is, “No problem!” The Bible only becomes “more special,” he says, once we learn all that modern scholarship has revealed about these texts. But this seems somewhat disingenuous. If that were so, then one would expect everyone – not just people like him, but Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians and all sorts of other people who have hesitations about modern scholarship – to welcome it with open arms. This hasn’t happened. Surely it is not just a finicky minority of readers who are troubled by such modern ideas as: the exodus from Egypt never took place; the Israelites never conquered Canaan—they were the Canaanites; David’s mighty kingdom never existed; Moses, David, Solomon and other reputed biblical authors never wrote the things attributed to them; and so forth. These ideas pose a challenge to any reader who seeks to take the Bible’s words seriously.
How that challenge will be met certainly depends on the individual; as I wrote in my book, “I do not think it can be the same for both Christians and Jews, or for Catholics and Protestants, or even for Episcopalians and Southern Baptists” (p. 672). For that reason, I think Friedman is wrong in supposing that his one-size-fits-all assessment ("more special") is the only valid one. In any case, I have no such global solution to propose. All I tried to do was to set this question in its historical perspective by putting down almost everything I know about Scripture, its past as well as its present.
by M. S.
In chapter 25 you use the word "tergiflexuous" (p 449)
when describing Saul contrasted to Samuel. What does this word mean?...
The word is not present in the online Oxford English Dictionary. I couldn't resist asking since you have the web site.
Thanks for noticing. No, well, I made it up. It just seemed the English
language didn't really have a good antonym for "unbending," one that would fit King Saul. I considered other possibilities -- tergiflective, flexiturgical, etc. -- but that little extra wiggle in the "u-ous" seemed irresistible, almost onomatopoetic.
What translation do you use in your book?
I'm enjoying it.
What do you think of Robert Alter's?
JK: Sometimes I just translated things on my own, but even then, I would usually look at two modern translations, that of the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) and the New Revised Standard Version Version (NRSV). Other times, I would simply adopt their wording, or depart from it only on a small matter. (One of the NRSV's stated goals is to eliminate all "sexist" language; I went along with this sometimes, but not always; for example, when the Hebrew text says "father" and the NRSV changes it to "parent," I sometimes went back to "father.") When the exact translation is particularly important, you really have to go back and compare all "textual witnesses" (as they are called) -- the Old Greek translation, the traditional Hebrew text, Dead Sea Scrolls fragments, etc. (I talk about this briefly in connection with the book of Jeremiah, on pp. 594-597).
I consulted both those translations because I very much respect their scholarship and (not less important) their imaginativeness in creating an English equivalent to biblical Hebrew. I actually think the JPS translation is the more readable of the two, but both are very good. Robert Alter's translations are also imaginative (in the good sense), but I think, in all due respect, the other two translations are a bit more grounded in the subtle issues of contemporary scholarship. There are lots of other translations out there, and sometime it might be fun to write a long essay comparing them in detail.
On Divine Inspiration
Within the past 4 years I have read a number of your books. (Quick sidenote on my background – I am 33 years old, grew up in a modern orthodox household, learned in yeshiva, BA from Yeshiva University, MA in Jewish studies plus a law degree.)
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.......
When I read your introduction to "How To Read" I was overcome with excitement about entering this journey with you. Despite my fears of delving into biblical criticism, to paraphrase you - I never enjoyed burying my head in the sand.
Reading your book merely confirmed my suspicions of what I felt I was likely to confront and armed me with some specific examples of "problematic” challenges to the belief in a divine text (and the four assumptions you listed – those same assumptions that our halachists obviously shared and took for granted).
I was hoping that your last chapter would lend some comfort or provide some solutions or set forth a framework for a religious person confronted with this information – but I did not find the chapter persuasive. (I know – you warned me in the introduction). I did, however, get food for thought from your chapter (i.e. strands of the text may be divine, and it is impossible to determine what is what – or – oral law itself never took the written Torah as its word either).
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”? I fully realize that I am asking this question to a Bible professor who happens to be observant rather than to a Rabbi - I am more interested in the former's response than the latter's.
I am not sure if that is too personal a question or not. I hope not – and if you take offense, please accept my apologies.
JK: Before getting to the specifics of your e-mail, I should say something exculpatory (I hope) about this book in general. It really is not addressed specifically to Orthodox Jews, or even to Jews as a whole. I think there’s been some confusion about this. I’m a Bible professor, and the purpose of this book is to teach something about the nature of modern biblical scholarship – something that the general public, and even quite a few modern scholars themselves, are largely unaware of (i.e., the great gap separating ancient and modern scholarship, and the crucial role of ancient interpreters in shaping the Bible’s message). It’s true that, in the last chapter, I also tried to offer some thoughts about how different groups, including what I called "traditional Judaism," might try to reckon with the insights of modern scholars, but if that were all I was out to do, the book could have been considerably shorter.
A second point is also worth mentioning – and this is a bit closer to the subject of your e-mail. 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 – not just the idea of avodat H’, but all the detailed plan that goes with it. In fact, the general idea alone
would not get us very far (this was the oft-repeated theme of my book “On Being a Jew”). And so, 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. If it ever does come to such basic questions, I think our preferred path is, as in the details of halakhah, to look to our classic texts to tell us what to think. I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.
The problem posed by modern biblical scholarship is that it calls into question some of the most basic teachings of Judaism, and, since it really is modern, its specific arguments are not addressed by our classical sources. So what should a Jew think about modern scholarship? As I said, I wrote this book for a broad audience from different religions, but as far as Jews are concerned, my purpose was certainly not to get them to incorporate into Judaism modern scholarship’s version of what the Torah is or where it came from. In fact, I think I recommended pretty clearly at the beginning of the book that people of traditional beliefs think twice about reading it, and at the end I said outright that modern biblical scholarship is altogether incompatible with traditional Jewish belief and
practice. In other words, I think that if you want to be an Orthodox Jew, the Documentary Hypothesis and the other insights of modern scholars can have no place in the way you study Torah. (This, by the way, puts me at odds not only with the stance of Conservative Judaism, but also with a fair number of biblical scholars who describe themselves as Orthodox.) I really don’t even buy the idea that you can go halfway down the modern path, adopting the linguistic or philological insights of modern scholars but not the rest. Ultimately, all roads lead to Wellhausen.
But the question I tried to address in that last chapter was: bedi’avad, what is someone who has heard or learned something of modern scholarship (and this includes an increasingly large number of Orthodox Jews) to think?
I know that the answer of some people, perhaps a great many people, is what your e-mail calls “burying their heads in the sand,” though perhaps we should rather call it: “trying to stick with Judaism’s traditional teachings by ignoring or dismissing what modern scholars say.” I really have nothing to say against such a stance. I know perfectly well how much is at stake for most people in adopting any other position. For the same reason, I feel pretty sure that most Orthodox Jews will continue to declare modern scholarship off-limits.
But I also know that this is not an adequate response for some people – not for you, according to your e-mail, and truthfully, not for me either. It just feels wrong to say about anything that really matters to you, “Well, I know that scholars have turned up a lot of disturbing facts, but I don’t want to know about them.” My impulse, anyway, is to face the truth as best it can be known and then try to make sense of what it is telling us.
In your e-mail you say that if modern scholars have proved that the Torah is not a "divine document," then our whole system of halakhah collapses. I don't think I'd ever accept that premise in the first place: modern scholars may have proven a lot of things, but I don't think they've ever tried to determine what is or is not divinely inspired, simply because there is no litmus test by which you can decide such a thing. Words are words, whether written by prophets or interpolators or editors, whether written in this particular set of circumstances or another; the words never carry little flags identifying some of them as divinely inspired and others and ordinarily human.
I believe what I just said is absolutely true, but I wouldn't want to use it as a cop-out to avoid addressing what seems to me to be the real issue. Modern scholars have said a lot of things that are indeed upsetting to traditional belief: they've cast doubt on the Torah's reliability as a historical account of things that actually happened, they've highlighted contradictions within the text, and so on and so forth. Doesn't this indeed undercut the Torah's standing as the basis of our whole way of life?
Forgive me if I restate some of the overall argument I made at the end of the book. (I know you didn't find it particularly convincing the first time around, but I'm hoping this time I may say it better.)
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. (Of course I am aware that our Rabbis sought to find within the Torah itself the source of their own authority to add to or depart from the Torah’s own words, but I think our outside observer would rightly point out a certain circularity here: It is only the rabbis’ own, authoritative interpretation of a certain verse in the Torah that grants them the right of authoritative interpretation. In any case, this is a formalist argument, one that doesn't really speak to the larger issue.)
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.
As I said before, Jews generally don't like to think about such things, and talking about a "general direction" or overall character of the Sinai revelation is particularly disturbing for people who are otherwise so devoted to studying specific words and actual texts. But I think if you want to be absolutely accurate, you have to admit that, 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.
As one of our sages said: to what may the matter be compared? To a man who wished to see the King. So he went to the royal palace and stood outside and waited for the King to appear. After some hours, the King did come outside, and the man was thrilled. But soon the King went back inside the palace. The man returned the next day, and the next, and sometimes he did catch a glimpse of the King, but always only for a few seconds, and then his view would be blocked by someone, or the King would step behind a pillar or get into his carriage and ride off. What had at first been thrilling now became only frustrating.
Eventually, the king’s close advisor became aware of the presence of the man standing day after day outside the palace, and he approached him and said: “I know what you want, but you are going about it the wrong way. Go up to the palace door and ask to work inside – it doesn’t matter what: janitor, guard, woodcutter or water-drawer! Then you will enter the palace by right and see the King as a matter of course; indeed, He will recognize you and perhaps even call you by name.” And so the man did, and it was just as the King’s advisor had said: he saw the King up close every day, and the King called to him by name.
This is the whole idea of Judaism. If you want to come close to God, the only way is to become His employee. 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.
That was not my whole purpose in writing this book, but it was one thing I wished to say, because I thought it might be of help to people like yourself. Of course I knew – I knew this even before I began writing – that some people would be upset by the book, and I knew that their natural reaction would be to attack me. I must tell you I really don’t mind. I know that for such people, even contemplating modern scholarship is off limits for an Orthodox Jew, so anyone who does so must be condemned. But 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.
etiology and morality
Wouldn't cultural anthropologists say that the people who constructed etiological tales also had ethical concerns that are reflected in them? Aren’t these still tales that we can study and perhaps even learn something from?
You make a sharp distinction between the modern interpretation of biblical stories as etiological tales and traditional interpretation of them as ethical tales. But these ideas are not opposed to each other. Etiological tales can have strong moral elements to them that complement the traditional ethical interpretation. For example, I believe that the ethical message of the story of Jacob and Esau is enhanced by consideration of the historical events leading up to the time in which, according to modern biblical scholars, these tales were written. Those historical events are reflected in, for example:
2 Samuel 8.13-14
“David won a name for himself. When he returned, he killed eighteen thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt. He put garrisons in Edom; throughout all Edom he put garrisons, and all the Edomites became David’s servants. And the Lord gave victory to David wherever he went."
Or in 1 Kings 11:15-16
“For when David was in Edom, and Joab the commander of the army went up to bury the dead, he killed every male in Edom (for Joab and all Israel remained there for six months, until he had eliminated every male in Edom)."
In the modern interpretation, the Jacob and Esau story is a political parable that not only etiologically describes Israel’s violent dominance over Edom but also condemns it ethically. The modern interpretation assumes that the story is written for the benefit of people who wield state power and the story criticizes our use of power to dominate others.
The traditional interpretation associates Esau with violent Rome or other state entities that persecuted Jews, and presents Jacob in contrast to the violence of empire. The traditional interpretation assumes that the story is written for the benefit of people who do not wield state power and the story criticizing others use of power to dominate us.
JK: An interesting argument, but I’m afraid most modern scholars would disagree with you – on two grounds. First, the whole idea of an etiological tale is that it aims at explaining some feature of present-day reality (that is, at the time of the tale’s composition) by referring back to something said to have happened long before, in “the time of the founders.” If what the Jacob-Esau stories were aimed at doing was, as you suggest, not only “describ[ing] Israel’s violent dominance over Edom but also condemn[ing] it ethically,” then surely Jacob would have been portrayed in these stories as a violent hothead and Esau as a poor victim. But there’s nothing even remotely like that in these stories. Nor is there any hint of condemnation of Jacob.
Rather, for a modern champion of the etiological approach, the three narratives of Jacob and Esau in their youth (the birth story, the sale of the birthright, and the stolen blessing) are all out to make the same point. Although they were brothers, nay, twins, from the womb on these two did not get along – so too, Israel and Edom, though close in geography, language, and culture, would not get along either. More to the point, from the womb on, Jacob tried to obtain, and eventually got, what wasn’t previously his: his relations with Esau thus embodied the later reality of their descendants, that is, Israel’s rise and its domination of a previously stronger Edom. That is the whole etiological message; there is no ethical lesson here at all.
Nor (this is the second point) is there any notable concern with ethics in most of the other stories identified by scholars as etiological – certainly not in Abraham’s “Say you’re my sister” narratives, nor even in Cain’s murder of Abel, whose point is to explain, and in a sense even justify, the unfair vengeance practiced by Cain’s descendants. It is really only the ancient interpreters who turned these tales into moral exempla. But they were very successful at making their case: even after modern scholars have said all that they have said about etiology, many of them still want to wring some moral preaching out of these singularly uncooperative narratives. See my appendix, “Apologetics and Biblical Criticism Lite,” on this website in the “How to Read the Bible” section.
I believe there is a problem with the footnote numbering in Chapter 36;
note 38 has no corresponding superscript number in the text, and as a result
through 55 actually refer to notes 39 through 56. No doubt others have
noticed this, but since I didn't see an errata section on the Web page I
thought I would pass this on. I'll admit to having read the last chapter
almost first--after much enjoyable skipping through the earlier
chapters--but I am a footnote reader. I look forward to a more thorough
JK: I apologize for the slip-up. You may be interested to know how it came about:
Originally, the Free Press planned on not having the endnotes in the book
at all; they would add too many pages and, hence, make the book more
expensive. Instead, they decided to have the endnotes displayed on my
webpage, along with the bibliography and appendix. Consequently, the
footnotes were not edited or checked along with the rest of the book, and
when the book was mailed out in August to newspapers and magazines for
review, it had no endnotes in it. The preface explained that they were to
be found on my webpage.
But many of the reviewers complained (rightly so!) that this was too
burdensome, so the Press relented. I scaled down the endnote format, but they
still added another 80 pp. or so to the total. The good side of all this was
that it was too late to change the jacket price -- it still reflects what
the Press had estimated its cost would be without the endnotes. THe bad
side is that the endnotes were then edited with great haste -- I was in
Scotland at the time -- and a few errors crept in. But if I get a chance
to make corrections, I'll try to get everything straight.
Your book, obviously, cannot treat all mistranslations, however, I am
puzzled by your constant use of "Red Sea," without pointing out that "Yam Soof" is the "Sea of Reeds."
JK: Dear D. M.,
Good point. I probably should have put in something about it, but sometimes I’m a little wary of repeating myself -- although I know it's wrong for me to think every reader has read everything I've written. I did deal with the question in TRADITIONS OF THE BIBLE, p. 603. "Red Sea" isn't so much a mistranslation as a Hellenism -- it's how that body of water was called in Greek. Consequently, that’s the name that appears in old Greek translation of the Torah (third century BCE), and from there the name made its way into later translations, including English ones.
Woe to me
Congratulations on your new book, "How to Read the Bible." On page
692 you encourage readers to write to you. I have two questions:
1. I could not find the Hebrew quote found in your book after page
vi. (",,, woe if I reveal and woe if I do not..") The second part of
the quote is quite common, but where is the fist part from?
2. We find again and again in the Gemara the phrase Ein Mukdam
u-meuhar ba-Torah, that there is no chronological order to the Torah.
Do you think that the Gemara suspected that different parts don't
quite fit together and what the implication might be?
JK: 1: It's actually from the Zohar, from the beginning of the section known as the "Idra" in Parashat Naso.
2. I sincerely doubt it. Actually, the idea behind this phrase seems to be very old (certainly older than the Gemara). There had to be some way to
explain why some events seem to be narrated out of chronological order (Abraham's death, for example). Even books like Jubilees had to
deal with that problem, and although the author of Jub. tried wherever possible to maintain that things really are in chronological order, every once in a while he had to break with the textual order. I don't think this shows any glimmerings of the Documentary Hypothesis way back then, however.
Kugel at YU
by James Kugel
A few weeks ago, I spoke to a student group at Yeshiva University. The talk itself – a discussion of ancient biblical interpretation – was hardly controversial, but the fact of my visit itself seems subsequently to have become the subject of intense debate. One side of this debate held that YU erred in having me to speak there, since some of the things that I have written in the past – particularly in my most recent book,
Frankly, I was less troubled by those who opposed my speaking at YU – I believe they truly did not understand my book, if they read it at all – than by the fact that others felt it necessary to defend me. I was, of course, grateful for their efforts – and in particular for their courage, since it always requires a special kind of fortitude to stand up to a chorus of shrill, accusing voices and say, “Wait a minute!” But I hardly think I need to be defended. In fact, I can't quite bring myself to think of my accusers as my enemies, since – although they seem to be quite unaware of the fact – my own position is, in one significant respect, altogether identical to theirs.
That is why, as I wrote in the book's preface, I hesitated for some time before adding to this literature. In the end, however, I felt I had a rather unique perspective to offer, since on the one hand, I am well acquainted with modern biblical scholarship, but on the other I have come to specialize in a different, though somewhat related, field: the earliest written reflections of Israel's great tradition of biblical interpretation. It was precisely the conjunction of these two subjects that seemed to me crucial in thinking about the larger subject of Torah's central role in Judaism.
I felt that if my own argument was to be properly understood, it was important for me to give the work of modern scholars the most serious exposition – not to dismiss it or dispute with it, but to try to make it understood fully, exploring first of all how it originated (I did this in the long introductory chapter) and then reviewing the most important of its conclusions about various parts of the
I realized that in so doing I ran the risk of being misunderstood – as if I were advocating that people adopt modern scholarship's views on the Bible as their own. I did try to warn readers on this point. In the book's preface I wrote that, “In reporting on this [modern biblical scholarship], I may seem like an advocate of [it],” but that this is actually not my position (p. 46). In my final chapter I was more explicit: “My own view, therefore – though others may disagree – is that modern biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are, and must always remain, completely irreconcilable... Nothing in the present volume is intended to suggest otherwise” (p. 681). I'm quite sure that those who found my speaking at YU disturbing would have seconded these sentiments – if only they had gotten that far in their reading of my book (indeed, in some cases, if only they had tried to read it at all).
But while I in no way espouse the marriage of Judaism with modern biblical scholarship, there is no denying that this scholarship is simply out there, in books and magazines, the media and the Internet. One of my aims in writing this book was thus to reach a particular sort of Jewish reader (as I also said, p. 46), someone who, having encountered bits of modern biblical scholarship here and there, feels the need for some sort of reasoned response to it, based on a sustained, unflinching consideration of its ideas. I know from a considerable amount of e-mail that I have received since the book's publication that there are many such Orthodox Jews, and I doubt that their numbers will decrease in the foreseeable future. So it was in part for them that I wrote this book, and I hope that they will find in it (and in particular in its last chapter) some help as they try to think through this difficult issue.
The alternative to my book's undertaking – merely pretending that modern biblical scholarship does not exist – is not likely to satisfy the sort of Jew I have just described, and it is here that I disagree with some of my critics at YU. They apparently believe that even recognizing the existence of modern biblical scholarship is to cross a line. It should simply not be countenanced, they say; its arguments and evidence should simply be ignored. This stance can be dignified with reference to this or that source, but in the end it amounts to sticking one's head in the sand. That may satisfy some of my accusers, but to me such a position seems far more dangerous to Orthodox Judaism than anything I reported on in my book, since it suggests that to be an Orthodox Jew, one must be prepared to hide from certain disturbing ideas, lest one come to know something – something widely discussed and accepted in other circles –that might make one's whole religious world collapse.
Quite apart from the intellectual dishonesty involved in adopting such a stance, it does not have a particularly impressive track record. It has been adopted many times before, and it has always failed. Those who today wish to protect Judaism from modern biblical scholarship are the same people who wished to protect Jews from a knowledge of Greek philosophical thought in antiquity – and against whom Rabbi El'azar said, “Know what to respond to an Epicurean [
Indeed, in general, the “Know-Nothing” party has never fared well. It has backed the bishops and cardinals who denounced Copernicus as a heretic and threw Galileo into jail for maintaining that the earth circles around the sun and not vice versa. It has doggedly ignored (indeed, in some places still continues to ignore) dinosaur bones, geology, astrophysics, evolutionary biology, and so forth – without any notable success. It cannot succeed, because in the end, people –
Of course, this is not to say that modern biblical scholarship is to be embraced in some new form of Judaism. I believe I quoted myself a few paragraphs ago as saying that I believe such scholarship and traditional Jewish belief to be altogether incompatible, and I have not changed my mind in the interim. Indeed, a careful reader of my book will have realized long ago that its whole argument is intended to provide the foundation for what I see as the only truthful way of confronting modern scholarship and still coming out with Judaism on the other side.
On the rather narrower issue of whether someone who has written about modern biblical scholarship ought to be allowed to speak at YU – indeed, whether such a person ought to be allowed to speak