Friday, March 07, 2008

James Kugel on Orthopraxy

DH: I just finished "The God of Old" and found it to be an enlightening, if rather speculative, insight into the Biblical minds of old. I also intend on reading your newest work when I get the opportunity.

But the real reason I'm writing you is not for the quality of your work ... but of the curious juxtaposition of it to your ostensible Orthodoxy. Frankly, I do not understand how the same man who intellectually deconstructs the very human pathways that lead to modern Orthodox Judaism can at the same time hold belief in their immutable correctness. I do not mean to sound accusatory in the least - and I know you probably already get flak from all directions about this - but is what you really believe "Orthodox" as you could find described in some dictionary or recognized rabbinical treatise, or rather is it a kind of self-styled religious philosophy that maintains *Orthopraxy* as proper Jewish behavior?

That may be mere splitting of hairs for some, but as I am an individual who (I think, like you) is very interested in maintaining traditional Jewish observance, I am struck by the gross untenability of typical Orthodox beliefs in the face of modern scholarship from numerous fields. I should also mention that I was raised Modern Orthodox and have maintained general observance even while my philosophical and scholarly thoughts have strayed, as it were. The great trick of course would be how to open the eyes of so many of our observant co-religionists without prompting disillusionment and a tumbling of the Halachic system - assuming such a feat were even possible and assuming we ought to even be interested in carrying out such philosophical revolutions.

In the meantime, as I count myself among the "Orthodox" as a sociological identity, I often encounter difficulties where what I have learned through modern scholarship contradict established tradition. Indeed, when the Torah is raised at hagbah, should I say along with the congregation that “This is the Torah that Moses placed before the people of Israel at the command of the Lord through Moses”? Clearly modern Bible scholars like yourself would say that even if Moshe did write a Torah, the modern Pentateuch we have raised before us is not it.

I'm not exactly sure what I am asking of you here and it may even be inappropriate (and if so, then you have my apologies) but how do you engage the philosophical difficulties that lie between living our traditional observances and the generally poorly informed beliefs of so many whom we observe them with? Is there a philosophical or theological or sociological endpoint to seek or should each man merely find their place between skepticism and traditionalism and hope the great Jewish masses will one day raise their minds from the merely Medieval?

Practically, how much does traditional Judaism need to adapt so to honestly assimilate these intellectual elephants sitting in the living room? In ironic form, can these elephants become kosher?



JK: Well, that is the question. I did try to address it in a few pages of the last chapter of HOW TO READ THE BIBLE, but judging by people's reaction, I obviously need to do more. (I didn't go into more detail there because that book is not really aimed at Orthodox Jews, or even Jews in general, and it is not, despite what a lot of my correspondents seem to think, a kind of personal confession. It's really a book about the Bible.)

I suppose the longer answer that I might write some day would start by saying that I really don't buy into the distinction between "Orthodoxy" and "Orthopraxy" that you, and a lot of other people, invoke. An Orthodox Jew isn't just someone with the right "doxy," the right ideas; you wouldn't call someone "Orthodox" who sincerely believes that the Torah was given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai and fervently upholds his faith in the resurrection of the dead etc., but who does not keep Shabbat or the rules of kosher food.

In a subtler way, I think the opposite is also true. I've heard lately from a lot of people who say that they like the "Orthodox life style," but that they are only "Orthoprax" and not "Orthodox." I hope that's not really true. As you know, Judaism is notoriously long on deeds and short on doctrine; still, I can't imagine that any such "Orthopraxy" can be pursued in the long run by someone who doesn't have some basic belief in H' and in the connection between that belief and all the "deeds" of his or her Orthopraxy.

Rather, I think what such people mean is that they have difficulty accepting one or another of the traditional teachings of Judaism: they are bothered by what you call the “gross untenability of typical Orthodox beliefs in the face of modern scholarship from numerous fields.” I certainly understand what you, and they, mean. It seems intellectually dishonest to – if I can reverse the contemporary cliché -- walk the walk (not a bad way of referring in English to keeping the halakhah) while at the same time mumbling when it comes time to talk the talk, that is, affirming those traditional beliefs that seem to clash with modern knowledge. So what to do?

You may say I’m chickening out, but I’ve always been a fairly conservative person, certainly when it comes to throwing off traditional teachings (though some of my readers may doubt this). I would never want to announce to anyone, “Forget about that mitzvah,” or, by the same token, “This specific belief isn’t really important.” I think history teaches that people who start down the road of public rejection of this or that specific thing rarely stop there.

But history does have another lesson, and that’s the one I would highlight. Most of the “creedal statements” of Judaism were originally made in opposition to something or someone. That is, the very enterprise of formulating the "musts" of Jewish belief in rabbinic times arose out of doctrinal differences among the various Jewish groups that flourished before 70 C.E., or later on, as a result of the rise of certain changes in the Jewish world (Karaism, e. g.) or the world in general. The point of these affirmations of belief often was: If you want to be with "us," you can't uphold what "they" say or do. But situations do change, and so do (eventually) the things people feel it essential to assert. As I'm sure you know, the Mishnah (perek Helek) specifies a few things that Jews are to believe in or lose their portion in the world to come. The list of essential beliefs was considerably expanded when Maimonides (not unopposed) introduced his Thirteen Principles. After his time, other things did get added from time to time (creatio ex nihilo, for example, or free will), while some of the earlier items were dropped. You might look at the wonderful article by the late Professor Alexander Altmann,"Articles of Faith," in the Encyclopedia Judaica. So certainly one lesson of history is that at least some of these affirmations were not written in stone.

Added to this is what history teaches about the actual application of various orthodoxies to real life. Even when things don’t change de jure, they sometimes change de facto. For example, that same chapter in the Mishnah says a Jew must not read from the "sefarim ha-hitzonim," and even if the Mishnah doesn't say exactly what those books are, it seems likely that that rubric includes at least some of the writings studied in courses currently given by Orthodox professors at Yeshiva University or Bar Ilan; indeed, a number of Orthodox posekim have explicitly ruled that this prohibition is no longer in effect, because times have changed. This is, I admit, a fairly small example of what you call “the Jewish masses rais[ing] their minds from the merely medieval,” but it did happen. (We’re talking about doctrine; I’m sure you can think of numerous examples in the domain of halakhah lema’aseh.) On a somewhat different plane, the use of
amulets (kame'ot) for quasi-magical purposes, or the attribution ofmagical powers to mezuzot -- both of which, I’m afraid, are quite common in Israel today -- suggest beliefs that are clearly at odds with Jewish doctrine as formulated in the Torah, Mishnah, and by numerous later authorities. But these things do go on, and they are actually almost never denounced as heretical; in fact, they are espoused and practiced by prominent rabbinic figures. So I'm not sure that, in any descriptive (rather than prescriptive) definition of Orthodox Judaism, all required and prohibited beliefs are treated equally.

In saying all this, I'm not looking for a back door out of what I take to be Judaism's basic doctrine about the Torah, namely, "Torah min ha-shamayim." There's nothing in my book (or in me) that denies that belief. As I've written several times, words are words, and there is no litmus test that modern biblical scholars could ever perform to determine that this word was divinely inspired and that word was not. But in my book I did try to put the whole doctrine of a divinely-given Torah in a somewhat different perspective, which, since you say you haven’t yet read the book, I might summarize here:

What I tried to show was that, at a certain point within the biblical period, the religion of Israel suddenly changed (I would say "as if by revelation," except that I don't mean the "as if"). Now, "avodat H'" was no longer principally understood as the offering of korbanot in the
Temple, but the keeping of God's numerous laws. This is evident within the Bible itself, and the trajectory of avodat H' as presented in the Torah carries over into all the later stages of Judaism, even in such perfectly human activities as writing piskei halakhah (or, for that matter, formulating lists of required beliefs). Keeping the mitzvot is the way that Jews seek to reach out to H', and I would make no exception in this for people who define themselves as "Orthoprax." It can't just be a matter of lifestyle.

So... The point of this rather long-winded answer is that people who devote themselves fully to keeping the mitzvot are, at least by my definition, Orthodox in the true sense of the word: they have grasped what is essential in Judaism, avodat H', and they are living it. All those mitzvot have a single trajectory, from the Torah itself through centuries and centuries of human interpreters, the makers of midrash halakhah and aggadah, takkanot and gezerot shavot and piskei halakhah, down to the present day. I think someone who truly understands this will not be troubled by the things you mention.

7 comments:

Shai said...

Thanks, DH, for publishing this letter. I am grateful, too, to Professor Kugel, for his response.

I have a different question I think, and I'm not sure how to get my arms around it with either of your approaches. What happens when the practice becomes in and of itself the manifestation of Judaism that makes us "Orthodox"? What happens when we lose complete track of the doctrine (hashkafa)? Aren't all these in place to achieve something other than the mere continuation of doctrine or halacha?

I have also had the exact same question you had - if indeed Moshe wrote the whole Torah, is what we have that Torah? We accept this as a matter of faith, and that faith extends to rabbinic interpretation and many other matters to create of halachic observance a "culture". What trips me up about people who believe in orthopraxy as an alternative (even accepting Kugel's nuance here) is when do they ask "so what"?

For you as a doctor, for example, you are aware of halachic questions that inform decisions about medical ethics. Is the fact that the decision is halachic as or more important than the culture that encourages THAT we discuss these things? It is THAT halacha pushes us into a life of introspection and ethical extrospection that makes our culture click. But I don't see most orthodox Jews tying into that. It's for them about the form, not the substance. If they never allowed themselves for a moment to be touched by the ethical message in a way that made them richer and better persons wouldn't make a damn bit of difference, as long as they hold their kiddish cup the right way. See what I mean?

What am I missing here?

Miri said...

"For example, that same chapter in the Mishnah says a Jew must not read from the "sefarim ha-hitzonim," and even if the Mishnah doesn't say exactly what those books are,"

I think "sfarim hachitzoniim" are usually the Apocrypha; but I'm not 100% sure bc Jews used to learn those almost as regular sefarim. I mean, mostly in the post-second-churban time period.

Orthoprax said...

Shai,

"What happens when the practice becomes in and of itself the manifestation of Judaism that makes us "Orthodox"? What happens when we lose complete track of the doctrine (hashkafa)?"

I don't think that's a big problem. I agree with P' Kugel here that ultimately Orthopraxy is not maintainable long term without some measure of hashkafa. Some form of monotheism and the transformative power of deeds and deep thoughts will continue.

"What trips me up about people who believe in orthopraxy as an alternative (even accepting Kugel's nuance here) is when do they ask "so what"?"

Yes, that is a problem. Orthodoxy has the force of God mandating behavior while Orthopraxy is more subjective and based on individual valuation of Judaism. This is no unapparent weakness to me.

"For you as a doctor..."

Well, I'm actually not a doctor yet. Get back to me in a couple of years. ;-)

"It is THAT halacha pushes us into a life of introspection and ethical extrospection that makes our culture click. But I don't see most orthodox Jews tying into that. It's for them about the form, not the substance."

Yes, I agree with you. The unfortunate common superficiality in observant communities undermines much of the good, the soul, of what Judaism could be.



Miri,

"I think "sfarim hachitzoniim" are usually the Apocrypha; but I'm not 100% sure bc Jews used to learn those almost as regular sefarim. I mean, mostly in the post-second-churban time period."

Yes, I think that's generally accurate. But there were possibly other books too.

Al Knight said...

This is very similair to an XGH posting

http://extremegh.blogspot.com/2007/11/what-if-torah-is-not-divine.html

with an interesting discussion following it.

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

To Miri;

perhaps 'sefarm hachitzonim' are all books outside the Tanakh (i.e. the Apocrypha are early "outer" writings. There are also the writings of the issiyim (like "sefer hayovelot", and other kinds of books they found at kumeran) and of course the new testament. There were also the books of the Greeks and the Romans (the Mishna was written pretty late in history in that respect), and of people like Philo.)

Anonymous said...

"This is evident within the Bible itself, and the trajectory of avodat H' as presented in the Torah carries over into all the later stages of Judaism"

But Torah commentators have already made this point, and they didn't need Prof. Kugel's 'academic' approach. The trajectory from bereishit to devarim is highly suggestive of the tragectory of Judaism, as Torah scholars (ie rabbis) have noted.

And how does this resolve the numerous inconsistencies Kugel brings to the table in his book?

Orthoprax said...

Anon,

"And how does this resolve the numerous inconsistencies Kugel brings to the table in his book?"

I'm not entirely sure. He seems to be making a few links in reasoning that he doesn't explicitly express. Probably that 'between the lines' of the text lies the divinity as brought out in later rabbinic readings. Therefore the inconsistencies - and even the varied sources of the Torah - don't matter all that much.