19 February 2009

Off the cuff review of Kugel at JTS

Guest post!

Here's an unedited extemporaneous review from Mark. He gave me permission to post this.

It's a fantastic writeup, especially, considering he did not mean for this to be posted.

Here is an overview of last night. The place was packed, must have been at least 500, and the man is worth it just for his humor, and he is a real gentleman.
The lecture itself was nothing new if one is familiar with his work, he started out by posing the question of the possible reconciliation of Modern Scholarship and Traditional Judaism, and went on to answer in the negative. Despite this, he went on to say that the real bible is not the initial intent of this or that author, rather the way readers have read it over time. So, although the two are irreconcilable in their understanding of the Bible, what's more important is how bible was understood over the centuries, which is the "real" bible, what made the bible what it is. Hence the findings of Biblical Criticism are not as crucially important as may seem.
OK, that's his regular Shpiel.

After the lecture I had the opportunity to ask him the question I came for:
Although Biblical Criticism can't determine if something is divine or not (it's inherently a unprovable claim), which means that technically one may still believe in the divinity of the Torah in light modern scholarship, one who approaches the matter objectively and without any preconceptions would conclude that the Torah, notwithstanding its uniqueness is just a product of its time an the work of a purely human enterprise.
To which he answered, that he believes in God, and in one who communicates to humanity. Therefore, while granting that there is no reason to believe that anything in the Torah is from God, he does believe that God communicates to us, and that the objective of this communication is that we serve him, which is also the goal of Judaism. He went on to say that even if we were to propose a Torah that only has one Posuk from God (he made sure to qualify that this is not what he believes), for example, to serve God with all our hearts, that would be enough to validate the Torah in it's general sense, since even if the whole Torah is divine, Judaism is still mostly based on human ideas.
In short, he said that the question of God's existence and communication to mankind is a theological one, and since he believes in those, his approach to the discoveries of modern scholarship is that it a science that doesn't bear on these theological issues. Basically Biblical Criticism is correct in it's discoveries, but we don't know where God could have been in the picture and how he may have acted behind the scenes so to say. Since he believes God does communicate to us and the goal is we serve him, he accepts the Torah which promotes that goal.

This is what I got out of him, although he was more eloquent in conveying his ideas that I did, but I hope I did them justice.
What I got out of the man, is that he never did do a total and complete reassessment of his Weltanschauung. He eased himself into the academic world together with his deeply held religious views. (And I must say, that if he was speaking honestly, which I think he was, he is a man of deep faith, almost pious, not exactly what I expected.) He never went through the total destruction of his theological world like we did, and so in the end he does not approach the issue with a complete objectivity. He is truth seeking, otherwise he wouldn't come to write and study what he does, but his approach is that of a religious man, not of a undecided agnostic.

In the end, it is what it is. I hoped to hear something convincing, something that would make me believe as he does. It was a hope, in my mind I knew it won't be, and it wasn't.

My beef with this, aside from the unsupported notion that God communicates with us, is in "Despite this, he went on to say that the real bible is not the initial intent of this or that author, rather the way readers have read it over time"

So why aren't we all Christian? More people read the Bible from a Christian perspective than the Orthodox Jewish way.

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