Author Archives: Dr. James L. Kugel

Dr. James L. Kugel

About Dr. James L. Kugel

James L. Kugel is chair of the Institute for the History of the Jewish Bible at Bar Ilan University in Israel and the Harry M. Starr Professor Emeritus of Classical and Modern Hebrew Literature at Harvard University.

Hebrew is the Language of Hebrew Thoughts

Reprinted with permission of the author from On Being a Jew (The Johns Hopkins University Press). In this book of dialogues, an older traditionalist Jew, Albert Abbadi, explains Judaism to a young graduate student, Judd Lewis. Responding to a question about the importance of Hebrew, Abbadi first offers the observation that “Hebrew gives you access” to the synagogue service and Jewish classics “in a way that you would not otherwise have.” But beyond that, he argues, Hebrew also offers a “crucial advantage” because “a language is much more than a mere vehicle for thoughts. It shapes thoughts.” He continues:

AA: It is simply that, to put it as an apparent truism, Hebrew is the language in which Hebrew thoughts occur. To pray in Hebrew, to read the Torah in Hebrew, is to give to yourself the language in which certain thoughts and ideas are at home.
hebrew in prayer
JL: And why is that so important?

AA: Because those thoughts and ideas are the fabric of Judaism. For Hebrew, as I said, is the language of the Torah and of our other writings, the language in which God has the names we spoke of (and not “Lord”), the language in which He speaks to Moses and other human beings, and in which He has mercy and forgives and remembers. That language constitutes a world, a sphere of action, and not a closed one: You too may enter it by learning the language and reading and remembering the texts. And then, with the language inside of you–well, it is just as with the mitzvot [commandments], the “doing” part of Judaism: It opens up a space inside.

So here, Hebrew too opens up a space inside you and allows these words to come back to you. Like the English thoughts that begin to intrude on the French native speaker, so Hebrew thoughts now have an opportunity to intrude on your own thinking and allow you to see what otherwise you might be blind to.

This is one reason, by the way, that Hebrew is called leshon ha-kodesh, “the holy language.” It is not that one language is intrinsically, by its origin or structure, holier than another. But Hebrew, by dint of being the language of Torah, ultimately became the location the world of a certain way of seeing.

Kashrut & Physical Purity

Reprinted with permission of the author from On Being a Jew, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press. The book takes the form of a series of dialogues between Albert Abbadi, an older observant Jew, and graduate student Judd Lewis, for whom Abbadi explains and interprets Jewish observance.

AA: I think holiness and purity really have a central role in our religion, even if, nowadays, the Temple itself, formerly the principle focus of these matters, is missing from our lives. The great power our kosher laws have on us–sometimes even when other things have been left to slide–bespeaks something deep within our hearts, perhaps not consciously articulated by most Jews, a desire connected to kedushah [holiness], be it expressed only in so humble a form as adherence to the kosher rules.

 

JL: How so?

AA: Well, to begin with, you have to get some of the physical sense of purity and holiness, or rather–since the feeling itself may be known to you–come to understand this feeling as part of what is meant by kadosh [holy]. You see, kadosh was, and is, primarily a physical concept. When something was kadosh it had to be protected from physical contact with impurities, and when you yourself fell into a state of impurity you could become pure again not by reciting some prayer, but only by immersing your body in a mikveh, a bath or stream of running water. Similarly, when the Levites were consecrated for service in the Temple, they were not only sprinkled with waters of purification but, strikingly, shaved all over their body, a physical starting anew; then their clothes were washed and they were made pure.

There is something similarly physical, I think, about kashrut. That is why I said I thought a vegetarian might understand. Because instead of just eating whatever comes within your grasp, there are certain rules and distinctions that guide you, so that the very act of eating becomes changed as a result, isn’t it so? In a sense, submitting to this regime purifies one’s insides in the same way that a bath purifies one’s skin, and that physical feeling of purity is unmistakable. As a matter or fact, it is precisely the threat of contracting impurity–in the days of the Temple, by coming into contact with some source of impurity, or with regard to kashrut, by swallowing some impure substance–that causes one to acquire a sort of self-awareness, even vigilance, as one goes through life, even if, in the course of time, this feeling must become rather routine and second nature. So it seems to me that our zeal for kashrut is likewise ultimately a physical thing, or rather, that the combination of concrete physicality with things non-physical that is the essence of kedushah.

Mitzvot: Walking in Holiness

Reprinted with permission of the author from On Being a Jew published by The Johns Hopkins University Press.

The book takes the form of a series of dialogues between Albert Abbadi, an older observant Jew, and graduate student Judd Lewis, for whom Abbadi explains and interprets Jewish observance. Following a discussion of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), Abbadi moves here to a discussion of kedushah (holiness) in our lives as a physical state, analogous to the physical holiness of the Temple.Mitzvot, Walking in Holiness

AA: “Be holy” is the great governing principle of the Torah. In order to carry out this mitzvah we must constantly turn our thoughts to Heaven and, as it were, constantly watch our step. In fact, just now it occurs to me that we find the same idiom in Scripture: “Watch your foot as you go to the house of God,” it says. Because with that which is holy, you cannot simply bumble along carelessly. So similarly does this expression occur in connection with Shabbat kodesh [the holy Shabbat]. For while it is not, properly speaking, a place, Shabbat is nonetheless a site of holiness; and so, when the prophet Isaiah wished to warn about guarding its sanctity, he began by using a similar expression: “If you keep back your foot from Shabbat….” And when the Torah says that we ourselves are to be kadosh, it is, it seems to me, to be understood that with our very selves we must, as it were, tread carefully.