Monday, October 5, 2009

Spawning a Kugel Generation

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!]


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I guess the solution is just like dealing with an earnest secular college kid with an attitude of superiority: keep introducing doubt about his certainties, make him prove his points, and encourage him to keep "studying" for his whole life.

    We get a lot less certain as we get older; there's still hope. ;)

  5. As a student in secular college, I see TONS of what you're talking about in the area of biblical criticism and the like. I would have put it even stronger than you did - the issue is not just that they jump to conclusions, but that they look for conclusions before they enter. The main thing I learned from Rav Blachman - much more than an allergy to Acharonim - is the importance of "muchrach". Academic talmud (at least my limited experience of it) is the polar opposite of that - never even looking for muchrach, but rather a justification for an opinion they already hold for other reasons.

    Perhaps the biggest thing that turned me away from ever exposing myself to academic Talmud/Bible study was when one of the co-chairs of the OCP (Orthodox Community at Penn) wrote an article for the Jewish student journal titled, "Replacing The Temple With The Torah: The Subversive Powers of the Rabbis". While some of the content is valid - it is of course impossible to understand seder hatefillah without seeing it at least partially as something constructed to replace the temple - I had serious issues with the tone of the article which enters with the presumption that any change being made by rabbis is subversive. Aside from being inherently unprovable (are you really making a psychological assessment of people who lived thousands of years ago?), a character judgment like that is, in my opinion, way outside academia's supposed territory of objective research.

    Aside from that, I found the use of sources in the article to somewhat sloppy and dishonest. She quoted sources that at a stretch could be seen to support a point, but never particularly strongly. The rigor was simply not there. The contrast between that and the scientific research I am used to is very stark.

  6. "Perhaps the biggest thing that turned me away from ever exposing myself to academic Talmud/Bible study"

    You've therefore obviously very qualified to comment on it.

  7. ID-
    I believe Michael was commenting not on biblical scholarship, but on presumptuous arrogance and shoddy argumentation in a specific article.

  8. While I have not taken any classes in Academic Bible or Talmud, I do attend a secular college with a large Jewish community and many of my friends have taken those classes. Can I speak with authority on the topic? No. But I have had enough informal exposure to believe that what I saw in that paper is not an isolated occurrence. In the acknowledgments the author did thank her professor "for her ongoing support and assistance in both the writing and editing of this essay," which leads me to think that the level of scholarship seen there is something that a professor would consider acceptable, at least for a student-published paper. I find that troubling.

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. I agree with you; however I don't think anyone needs to take a stop in the Beis Midrash to engage either the Torah or Talmudim with rigor. The problem with the guy who cribs a paragraph from James Kugel or Richard Elliot Friedman (apart from heresy, of course) isn't that the critical approach is entirely superficial. Critical scholarship can be truly rigorous. In fact, by definition "critical" means rigor. The problem is that the student is being superficial. Maybe the popular presentation of these authors is superficial as well. You seem to equate the Beis Midrash with "reading more broadly." Is bekius what the Beis Midrash is for?

    All of that said, obviously Kugel's 700-page book spoke to some need for an exciting, fresh and even convincing approach to Tanakh among many people who weren't getting it with traditional methods. Why doesn't someone write a 700-page book following or at least giving intellectual respect for traditional approaches that ignites the same excitement, and the same a-ha! moments in the student?

    I'm not being facetious. I bet Rabbi Josh Waxman (whom I am a huge fan of) is capable of it.

  12. Hello Mississippi Fred,

    1. I'd agree that popular presentations tend to be shallow, yes. The same is true across the spectrum, for many presenters.

    2. I do believe that bekius should be part of the goal in the beis medrash, yes. (My peers from my yeshiva days are reading this and laughing; bekius was practically all I wanted to learn. Whether I ever achieved it is another story.)

    3. I agree re: the need for such a work. I think that's why R' Menachem Leibtag's work sparks such interest; people are looking for new approaches.

  13. you may want to delete or edit those of our comments that referred to the details of the dvar torah as well, just in case

  14. Steg-
    Didn't want to go that route, because I can only delete them; editing is not an option. But I've come to agree with you, as you can see...

  15. i believe these approaches are all very valuable , and it is natural for one to become enamored of a new novel apporach, and throw themselve into it.

    The problem is only when it eclipses everything else in a permanent fashion.