The reality of tradition: James L. Kugel talks about his ‘great shift’

Kugel wrote The Great Shift, written for non-scholars about the changing perceptions of God, the human self, and related topics from the early to late biblical writings.

 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The sometimes peaceful coexistence of the forces of tradition and reality has been a feature of Jewish history since events at Mount Sinai some 3,000 years ago. One belief of the former holds that the entire Jewish people – past, present, and future – was there. One view of the latter is that, while no one really knows what happened on Mount Sinai, the actual event is not what established the Torah’s authority, but rather the way Jewish tradition has understood, interpreted, and made Torah imperative for millennia. 
Whatever really was revealed to the Jewish people at Sinai, the interpretations of sages for thousands of years have become what the Bible meant. Modern scholars began investigating this process with the advent of biblical criticism in the 19th century. This new discipline had a mixed reception among Jews and Christians, most of whom had differing, traditional understandings of the sacred text.
Perhaps no modern scholar has focused more on these contradictions than Professor Yaakov Kaduri, aka James Kugel, emeritus professor of Harvard and Bar-Ilan universities. “My own view,” he says, “is that modern biblical scholarship and traditional Judaism are, and must remain, completely irreconcilable.” Many people, he asserts, “are simply doing the best they can to have it both ways, to have their Bible and criticize it, too.”
That is the ideological tightrope the Orthodox professor has been successfully navigating through 16 books of biblical scholarship that have both earned him awards and acclaim from academics as well as condemnation as a heretic by fundamentalists. 
When it appeared in 2007, Kugel’s How to Read the Bible was recognized as an “awesome, thrilling” masterwork by The New York Times and “a tour de force... a stunning narrative” by Publishers Weekly. This was because, as in subsequent volumes, Kugel proffered a clear, readable guide to the Bible that inspired a renewed dialogue on the relationship between modern biblical scholarship and traditional belief.
Ten years later, Kugel produced The Great Shift, written for non-scholars about the changing perceptions of God, the human self, and related topics from the early to late biblical writings – in other words, the “great shift” to which the book’s title refers. Kugel is concerned about how to maintain a dialogue with the biblical testimony from an era whose inhabitants had a different perception of God than we do today. A genuine encounter with God should thus acknowledge both continuity and change.
On the one hand, Kugel’s meticulous textual analysis depicts biblical religion “as it was,” through an historical linguistic inquiry into the ancient understanding of the divine. On the other hand, it leaves unresolved the theological question as to how it may be possible to have a genuine encounter with God in the present.
The “great shift” refers to the transformation from the concept of an anthropomorphic biblical God that one could see and hear to the concept of a transcendent God, as reflected in the language of sacred texts as their authors’ perception of reality evolved over the millennia. What is important in this process, Kugel argues, is that “We worship God, not the Torah.” In this regard, he notes, the Torah is the holiest book we have, but it is at bottom what they call in the publishing business ‘a how-to book,’ teaching us how to serve God.” For the Orthodox, Torah in the broad sense is “never just words on a page, but their elaboration through Halacha, by what we think and interpret.”
But while such an enlightened position may seem self-evident, it was not so for fundamentalists, some of whom have virtually declared Kugel to be a heretic. This was despite his conscientious caveat to Harvard students at the outset of his journey: “If you come from a religious tradition upholding the literal truth of the Bible, you could find this course disturbing.”
Kugel has devoted his career to establishing the academic truth that deciphering the patterns of composition of ancient sacred texts does not necessarily entail sacrificing their religious dimension. Indeed, he is hardly the first religious Jew to wrestle with cherished doctrines. The Talmud (Baba Batra 15a) is often cited as recognizing a number of non-Mosaic verses, and 11th century scholar Abraham ibn Ezra is often cited as the first biblical critic, when he posited that someone other than Moses wrote the last 12 verses of Deuteronomy. 
Obviously, God did not reveal himself at the Western Wall, a supporting wall of the Temple Mount that was built by Herod, and where Jews began to pray in front of around 1520. Since then, however, the Kotel has been sanctified by millions of Jews throughout the world. The foundational text of the Jewish people has been sanctified by three millennia of study, interpretation, and observance of its mitzvot, and new knowledge of its evolution does not undermine its sanctity.
As Rabbi David Golinkin of Jerusalem’s Schechter Institutes writes, “the Torah itself is not the revelation, but rather the human expression or by-product of that revelation. Because the Torah is the human record of the word of God, it is imperfect. God did not reveal himself to people, but through them.” Being Orthodox thus should not entail being sorry for knowing too much about the history of the Bible.
Kugel’s position is similar. “As the rabbis said, characteristically reinterpreting Deuteronomy 30:12 (lo ba-shamayim hi), as the Torah is no longer in heaven. It started out there, but then it came down to ordinary, or rather, extraordinary human interpreters.”
This distinction is posited in Kugel’s insistence upon differentiating between Pentateuch and Torah; the former refers to the biblical text itself, the latter to the holistic tradition that has evolved through 3,000 years of interpretation and commentary. “Judaism and modern scholarship have two distinct programs and two very different ways of reading the Bible,” he notes. “Both are altogether legitimate, and they can certainly coexist in the same brain (as they do in mine), but you have to be able to shift gears (or maybe I should say, switch vehicles entirely), since the two are simply not given to synthesis or integration.”
This seems to beg the question why hasn’t his brain exploded?  In The Great Shift he describes a linguistic timeline showing how people’s sense of self changed over the centuries. He concludes that “What is human in us inevitably leads us to try to apprehend God in ways consistent with our way of being.” Does this not imply that God was created in man’s image?
Kugel suggests that one might think, on the basis of modern research into mental ill-health, that prophets were merely cranks or the victims of mental illness, but the ancient Israelites were perfectly capable of distinguishing insanity from prophetic inspiration. Perhaps this is why we have inherited the ancient caveat: Ein navi be’iro (a prophet has no honor in his own country. 
Kugel posits that ancient humans had a “semipermeable mind, whose innermost chambers are accessible to an inquisitive God.”  Similarly, he suggests that “there is something inside the human being that plays an active role in this process, the person’s own self or soul.” He then strikingly defines soul as “nothing less than the carburetor where two unlikes, heaven and earth, commingle to power all that humans think and understand.” (This lovely metaphor seems to require a divine spark to ignite human consciousness, perhaps as in the Gospel song, “Soul on Fire.”)
Kugel: “What starts with God has to make it to my ears. My understanding is the thinking equipment we have. Torah starts in heaven, but comes down to Earth.” 
Back on Earth, one last question begs to be asked about a less-great shift” – the one from the Kaduri of Baghdad to the Kugel of Harvard. Should we understand this as something like from Shmuel Clemens to Mark Twain?
Kugel/Kaduri: “That’s complicated.” 
The author is a former chief copy editor and editorial writer of ‘The Jerusalem Post.’