I am currently reading (or I should say listening) to an audiobook entitled, “How to read the Bible :A guide to scripture, then and now” by James Kugel, an Orthodox Jew who previously (and famously) taught at Harvard University, but later made aliyah and now teaches at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, Israel.
The book thus far is engaging and is attempting to explain two very different methods of interpreting the Jewish scriptures (one minor quibble with his title — I wish he had said “Tankkh” or “Jewish scriptures” in his title, as I’m afraid many readers may pick up the title and assume it is dealing with the Christian Bible). The methods are: (1) the world of modern Biblical criticism (which has become the mainstream method of Biblical interpretation in academia and is what is taught in most seminaries, but which is often not shared with lay people by many rabbis and ministers) and (2) the world of ancient Biblical interpretation (how those of old interpreted and used these texts).
I haven’t finished the whole book, but what I’ve read thus far intrigued me enough that I wanted to learn more about the author, which is how I stumbled across this piece: “James Kugel: Professor of Disbelief” by Michael Orbach (Mar 4, 2014 Moment Magazine).
I have two quotes I want to share from this article:
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 really like Kugel’s way of explaining this and it really helps to highlight one of the key distinctions between Judaism and Christianity, the role of tradition and dialogue within that tradition. I myself am not Orthodox, so I embrace the idea that “the past gets a voice not a veto” (which I think was first said by Mordechai Kaplan, co-founder of the Jewish Reconstuctionist movement), but I definitely think that part of being Jewish is respecting the long line of tradition and dialogue that has brought us to the present moment.
Here is the second quote:
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.
I think I found this quote to be so interesting, because it reflects some of where my faith journey has been taking me of late, in trying to reconcile a human-centered scientific view of the universe (in short, humanism) with my inner yearnings for meaning and purpose, which often is connected with my understandings of the Divine. And then part of me can’t help but wonder if the long tradition of scripture and how it came to be is in large part a case of fiction coming to life, and that if “God” exists, then maybe God is only a matter of collective human imagination, seeking to find meaning in an otherwise scary world? Of course, none of these questions are new (Reza Aslan and Karen Armstrong have both written about these questions extensively) but I’m experiencing these questions in new ways.
Part of me goes back to childhood when I think about these questions. I had a rich imaginary life, full of a cast of interesting people who I engaged with as a person who had power (so unlike my life as a kid in small town Oklahoma). These imaginary people made me feel important and valued. Could it be possible that my yearning for God and connecting with God is kinda the same thing? And if so, is that a bad thing, particularly to be honest with ourselves about the nature of what our faith is really about?
I will say though that talking in such a frank way about these things makes me a little nervous, because writing about God on this blog has gotten me in trouble before. In my previous time as a progressive Mennonite minister, back in 2010 there was an attempt to have me fired because I expressed admiration for one of my atheist friends and her willingness to live a life of service to humanity without the promise of eternal reward and/or the fear of divine punishment for inaction. Those dark days shook me hard (and I should say that while I kept my job, the end result of the drama was about 1/3 of the congregation leaving, but later personal reconciliation between myself and most of those who left), but despite my fears, there is something about this question that won’t let go of me, and so I keep coming back to it again and again.
Today of course I am no longer a Mennonite and instead belong to two faith communities (one Jewish and the other Religious humanist), both of whom are very supportive of these kinds of questions being asked and discussed. Still there is a part of me that continues to be nervous about being completely honest about what I believe and don’t believe.
I think I will leave it there for today.