Richard Friedman Cooks James Kugel's Cholent

First Richard Elliot Friedman figuratively cooked James Kugel's cholent. Then Kugel [in BAR 34:02, Mar/Apr 2008] responded to Friedman. [Ancient Biblical Interpreters vs. Archaeology & Modern Scholars, by Richard Elliott Friedman BAR 34:01, Jan/Feb 2008.]

This exchange is painful to me to read. Friedman obviously searched high and low for a unity of method or purpose in Kugel's erudite brain dump. Frankly, Kugel does not purport to present a systematic treatise on the Bible. He honestly says in concluding his rejoinder to Friedman,
I think Friedman is wrong in supposing that his one-size-fits-all assessment is the only valid one. In any case, I have no such global solution to offer. All I tried to do was to set this question in its historical perspective by putting down almost everything I know about Scripture, its past as well as its present.
Kugel does not claim to make or prove any case. He thinks that sharing his knowledge will be of interest to others. He has every right to his vanity. As he is a celebrity professor from Harvard, indeed many readers are eager to see what he has been thinking all these years.

But this baffles Friedman and I can see why. He assumes that a book should attempt to make or try to prove some case. "Who wrote the Bible?" is a clear question and Friedman gives it an answer in his popular Bible book.

By contrast, "How to Read the Bible," is not a question. In fact, the book should be called, "How I Read the Bible" since it is not a how-to guide at all. Kugel is confessing in this tome his life story of reading the Bible along with ancient and modern sources.

Friedman picks up on this and accordingly sees the need for offering effusive praise to Kugel the man at the outset of his review. Sure you need to do this since the book is a confession of the inner musings of a special man.

But then Friedman searches for the questions that the book seeks to answer. And not surprisingly he cannot find any big ones. Puzzled, Friedman decides that Kugel must be answering a set of questions inaccessible to Friedman. He must be speaking in the code language of the Orthodox Jews.

In concluding his review, Friedman says,
We have rather moved on from their assumptions because the textual and archaeological evidence revealed that their assumptions were not correct.

I realize how hard all of this is for Orthodox Jews and possibly for fundamentalist Christians. I have sat and studied with them, not as opponents but with mutual respect. If there is any meeting point between them and the people who are persuaded by critical scholarship, it should be that both recognize the Bible’s value and both are committed to the truth. Kugel’s book can be an exceptional starting point for that discussion.
In this statement Friedman says that he does not understand the code and the discourse of the Orthodox and "possibly … fundamentalist Christians." But they seem to like the same Bible that Friedman analyzes. So they cannot be bad people. So he really does want to talk with them.

The value of Kugel's book for Friedman is to provide a window into the mentality behind that secret code of the Orthodox. I suspect the folks at Christianity Today feel the same since they want to recognize Kugel's book for its value on its own terms.

So now the question is whether this window into Kugel's thinking shows readers such as Friedman or the CT selection panel anything about how and what Orthodox Jews (as Friedman would have it) or all Jews (as Kugel would have it) think about the Bible.

Kugel appears to concede that he'd like his book to be received by the reader as, "How to Read the Bible the way we Jews Read it." And the conceit in that presumption is that somehow Kugel has reached the pinnacle of clarity on this matter because of his rich erudition.

Come to think of it, that is the underlying assumption of the class of religious leaders that we call rabbis. Due to their special knowledge, they achieve individually and as a class a special religious charisma. It's nice when rabbis speak or write in well-reasoned common sense ways to state a proposition and prove it -- which they often do. But it is not required of them. Their positions of charismatic authority allow them to take a great deal of leeway. Even the raw brain dump of a rabbi carries inspiring significance for the follower.

Kugel speaks in this rabbinic mode in his magnum opus because that is how he sees himself after all -- as a rabbi.

Ever respectful to the rabbi, Friedman speaks well of Kugel the man and his learning in his opening sections of his review. Richard more comfortably wears the robes of the academic and hence cautiously circles back around to say that he does not understand the purpose of Kugel's book, that it must be because it is written in Orthodox code, and that he would like to hear more from Kugel and the Orthodox.

I frankly have to side with Friedman. I'd like to hear more from the learned professor Kugel about how he solves the problems of scholarship and makes new knowledge for some community -- be it academic or religious.

Friedman has shown his commitment to this cause and has brought significant progress to his field of endeavor throughout his career. The solutions he posits to the questions he answers in his books and articles can be sifted through and built upon by those who come next.

Kugel has thought great thoughts and now shares them with all of us. These notions will hang in the Jewish wing of the museum of great thoughts for the appreciation of the cultured viewer.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. [repost from 3/18/08]

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