Great Blog + James Kugel

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I’ve been planning to write about the very excellent blog “And the Enlightened Ones Shall Shine,” known as XGH, for some time. The blogger, a traditional Jew trying to navigate the challenges that modern scholarship poses to Orthodoxy, is one of the most sophisticated, honest, and interesting writers I’ve come across online.

The blog has been around for several years, it seems; but somehow I only stumbled upon it recently.

For a good intro to XGH see his recent post: So maybe MO isn’t the one true subsect of the one true sect of the one true religion: How the world’s most notorious jblogger changed his mind

(For the uninitiated, MO = Modern Orthodox)

HowBible2.jpg But I’m glad I waited until now to give XGH a shout-out, because yesterday he posted a Q&A with Professor James Kugel, whose recent book How to Read the Bible re-introduced the problem of reconciling modern biblical scholarship with traditional Judaism.

Kugel, who deals with his own approach to this question in the last chapter of How to Read the Bible, is — as always — fascinating in his response. He writes:

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.

At first I was surprised by this response, but ultimately I realized that I agree with it: It just doesn’t make sense to accept critical scholarship in certain areas, but not others. Either give credence to the Academy or don’t: making arbitrary decisions based on faith commitments undermines the entire scholarly project.

Kugel also notes that he “recommended pretty clearly at the beginning of the book that people of traditional beliefs think twice about reading it.”

While he ultimately rejects willful ignorance for himself, it’s an interesting — and, perhaps, sympathetic — position for a scholar to take.

In college, I took a remarkable, eclectic class on postmodernism with Chaim Potok (who, in addition to being a writer of relatively commercial novels, was also a rabbi and philosophy PhD), and I know he felt similarly. It concerned him when yeshiva graduates took his class. He didn’t want to be the one to destroy their world.

Potok served as wise rebbe figure in the class, and he was (rightfully) worried about his influence.

Again, an interesting approach for a scholar — and teacher — to take. And a question for all of us: Is it ever good for knowledge to be withheld?

In any case, keep an eye on XGH. For me, finding it was a reaffirmation of the blogosphere’s potential.

Posted on November 5, 2007

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2 thoughts on “Great Blog + James Kugel

  1. Ross Hyman

    I have not read Kugel’s book but his website appears to make a sharp distinction between the modern interpretation of bible 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 that modern biblical scholars would place its writing.

    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.

    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.

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