I remember the first time I heard a “this word appears 3 times in the chumash” dvar torah. You know the kind I mean – "This word appears X times, in X different situations, and we can connect all X appearances in order to derive the following lesson..."
I was in my mid-teens, and I was immediately charmed by this approach; I liked the mix of bekiut (superficial scholarship) and creativity, and so pretty much every dvar torah I delivered over the next year or so was built along those lines. Eventually I came to understand the gematriesque flexibility of this approach (“that instance of the word doesn’t count because X” “the word doesn’t quite appear here, but a related root does” “true, this one is אנא and that one is אנה, but still...”), and that turned me off, and so I found other ways to develop ideas.
As we develop our approaches to Torah (and this is particularly true for those of us fortunate enough to spend significant time in our fad-grabbing teens and early adulthood in Torah study), we become enamored of various styles. We read a pamphlet or two and we are instant Breslovers. We hear a Brisker shiur and we suddenly see cheftza and gavra around every corner. We go to Rav Blachman’s shiur at כרם ביבנה and become allergic to acharonim. And so on.
Generally, these fads are fairly benign, but occasionally they can corrupt. Example: The teen who becomes absorbed in mysticism or seeking Torah codes and so loses his opportunity to learn substance in his formative years. Another example: The student who hears a JOFA speaker declare Judaism sexist, and then spends those key formative years ferreting out examples of sexism in Jewish law, lore and practice, instead of studying with a less judgmental perspective.
To these two examples I now add a third: The student who becomes turned on to the approach of biblical criticism as presented by Professor James Kugel, and who now sees support for that approach around every corner.
I witnessed this a short time ago, in a thought-provoking dvar torah delivered by a college student.
Update: I have deleted the specific example used here, because a reader figured out whose dvar torah I was discussing and emailed it around, creating embarrassment for the parties involved.
The dvar torah itself has many evident holes, but my major concern is its method of jumping to a conclusion without evidence. To me, this indicates a closed-mindedness which is a negative byproduct of the Kugel influence, and which characterizes a generation of Professor James Kugel’s fans.
Professor James Kugel is currently famous among Orthodox college students for his “How to Read the Bible.” In this work he explains the methods and conclusions of modern biblical criticism, and he endorses an approach to rabbinic prescription that divorces it from “what the original text really meant,” while simultaneously contending that one may still see meaning and authority in the prescriptions of chazal.
This is exactly what that student did, but without the 700-page book to support it. Without presenting Kugel-level research, without presenting Kugel-level evidence, the student still feels comfortable with his Kugelesque assertion because it is inspired by a popular approach that addresses real problems and is expressed with disdain for the opposition and a certitude normally reserved for the law of gravity.
Well, what of it? I imitated the “three times in chumash” approach for a while, didn’t I? True – but reading chumash through that lens didn’t keep me from studying mishnah and gemara and rishonim and acharonim and midrash. I fear that the student who becomes enamored of Kugel’s approach will be more like the student who sees everything for its Torah Codes potential – he will close himself off to other approaches and to serious textual study.
This student might come to take biblical criticism as a foregone conclusion and ignore that which does not do likewise. He might read the gemara and see its citations of pesukim or its analyses of kri/ktiv and laugh it off. He might study midrash and reject its approach to textual anomaly. And so he might go through the years when he should be accumulating bekiut (superficial scholarship) as well as iyun (analytic study), and instead spend that time thinking he has transcended both with his embrace of modern scholarship.
It's like a secular university student who falls in love with socialism, or with 19th century German philosophy, or with Keynesian economics. These are good fields of study, but if they become your dominant approach before you read more broadly, then you emerge with a very narrow education.
My point is not to accept or reject Kugel's scholarly views; I am not enough of an expert in modern criticism to do either.
My point is not to discuss the question of whether Kugel's view can fit within Orthodoxy; others have already dealt with that question at length.
But I fear that the popularity of his approach, without the scholarship to back it up, will take a generation of groupies down a foolish path.
[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]