Tuesday, March 16, 2010

James Kugel Redux - Reply

In my review of How to Read the Bible, I did not suggest that Kugel is too ‘biased,’ as some commenters have suggested on a blog devoted to the subject have suggested nor did I, as Gil Student, in apparent agreement with my argument, suggest that Kugel is ‘subjective.’ I did express in a comment of my own a sense of disappointment in understandings of interpretation that rely upon the subject-object distinction. It is a nineteenth century philosophical distinction - wielded in various contexts, usually now as a form of polemic (which predictably happened following Gil’s Student's comments) - which has nothing to do with traditions of Jewish interpretation, nor conceptions of interpretation that go back to Newton, Milton and Aristotle. I went on to cite the analyst Jonathan Lear - that any knowledge entails a form of love - in order to argue that all forms of knowledge entail some form of union - and that there is no erasure of subjectivity, nor pure Truth or objectivity. Despite Kugel's dismissal of my claims - and the assertion that he acknowledges the importance of interpretation - he does, as my full review reveals, persistently write about the so-called objectivity of modern scholars, and their ability to deliver the Real Truth.

Have no doubt about it: the heroes of How to Read the Bible are the modern biblical scholars who supposedly ‘read the Bible scientifically’ and ‘without any presuppositions’ and conclude that the Torah is just a scramble of different human traditions and interpretive accretions. It is true, as Kugel writes, that I did not address him on some of his areas of scholarly expertise – in which I admittedly have limited expertise. But I do address him on methodological assumptions about hermeneutics – theories of interpretation – to which he offers no response. How to Read the Bible as the title announces is not only about the Bible, but about interpretation. My review took issue with Kugel’s methodological assumptions about interpretation (and assumptions about objectivity which come from it) – which, as I wrote, arose in the nineteenth century and have since been discredited by scholars working in a large variety of disciplines (and not by post-modernists with which he blithely groups me). The assumption that ancient interpreters ‘play fast and loose’ with the ‘face value’ of the Bible, and that modern scholars tell us like it really was, leads to Kugel’s clear advocacy of the conclusions of the latter, and the ‘great secret’ which they reveal. For, as Kugel writes, they understood Scripture to be on ‘the level of any ordinary human composition – in fact arguing that it was in some cases even worse: sloppy, inconsistent, sometimes cynical, and more than occasionally deceitful.’ This conclusion is based upon flawed methodological assumptions, and it is to these flaws that my review attempts to draw attention.


Moshe said...

Dont see why your reply was necessary. It was clear to me from reading Kugel's response that you had won the round.

Moshe Shoshan.

wdk said...

That is encouraging - was really replying to the comments on hirhurim - frustrated that I did not seem to be getting my point across...

tzvee said...

No winners Moshe. Just stronger and weaker opinions. Sommer by all measures had the stronger hand in this exchange. Kugel is on the ropes, poor man. Lord knows he invested a life's efforts to put forth his opinions and he has every right to express his beliefs and earn his royalties. Kolbrener's laudable efforts fall short, well they are only 7.75 pages and one of those dithers on Milton. Unless we are conducting a poll, the best formulated opinion wins, Sommer in this round, but only because he tied Kugel's hands and published behind his back. What was that all about? The man is alive and down the hall from you and yet you and your buddies ambush him. Not nice.

wdk said...

Kugel publishes in public sphere; journal reviews his work; what's the ambush? If you don't like the editorial policy - should they have asked for his response - write to JQR.

Is it a question of winners and losers?

Seth (Avi) Kadish · אבי קדיש said...

Kugel's disagreement with other academic schools of thought, namely "biblical theology" (e.g. Moshe Greenberg) or biblical poetics (e.g. Alter, Berlin, Uriel Simon, Bar-Efrat, etc.) may be summed up in a single sentence:

"The Bible is not ALLOWED to be great literature."

In other words, if a narrative can be vividly shown to have serious repercussions for the human condition on the one hand, but also be explained as a sloppy patchwork of political texts on the other hand, then for Kugel the second position *must* be the correct one. Objectively. Convincingly so.

Also notice the not-so-subtle reversal of rolls: Scholars of biblical poetics have been claiming for 2-3 decades that classical biblical scholarship rests upon mistakenly reading the Bible according to modern, western literary conventions. Their reaction was to try, instead, to find the inner literary mechanisms of the Bible.

Kugel knows this, of course, and turns it on its head by claiming that the scholars of poetics are the ones mistakenly reading the bible according to contemporary conventions. In other words, to even consider looking for poetic rules in the Bible is an error in itself! And to *favor* such readings over explanations that are at once more simplistic and less inspiring shows a lack of academic integrity.

Do the thousands of years separating the Bible from Milton mean that only the latter and not the former can be great literature? Or is perhaps the potential for human literary genius something that remains constant?