Thursday, December 11, 2008

'Midrash Before Hazal: Why It's Important For Orthodox Jews' by Dr. James Kugel

These notes are unofficial and unedited. Any and all mistakes are mine.

A short note: Dr. Kugel has to be one of the sweetest, most even-tempered gentlemen I have ever met. He takes every question with perfect equanimity and is an extremely warm, kind person.


Click here for information about TEIQU.

From the source packet Dr. Kugel handed out:

Source Sheet 1
Source Sheet 2
Source Sheet 3
Source Sheet 4

Gilah: Good evening, everyone. And welcome to a lecture with Dr. James Kugel, “Midrash Before Hazal: Why It’s Important For Orthodox Jews.” Before we begin, just a word about TEIQU, who we are and why we are here tonight. TEIQU is a new student organization that stands for a Torah Exploration of Ideas, Questions and Understanding- we had our inaugural event this past Tuesday and in case you did not see this morning’s New York Times, we were featured in it- four columns. It’s really been hard walking around the city today; everyone’s just asking for autographs. We hope everyone enjoyed the kugel. We asked Dr. Kugel whether he has ever spoken anywhere where they served Kugel.

Simcha: In my own home, Professor Kugel’s name and works occupy a fair amount of our conversations and shelf space. Even my little brother has asked to meet this Kugel guy we always speak it about. Professor of Hebrew at Harvard, enrolling over 900 students, published 11 books, edited 4 others, etc. I understand that there has been some buzz over Kugel’s works- from reading his texts, I have found that his views deepen my views, etc. His most recent book, “How To Read the Bible” received a lot of publicity but should not be allowed to eclipse his scholarship and research in many other studies. After Professor Kugel’s speech, we would like to open up the floor to questions, etc.

PROFESSOR KUGEL: Thank you so much for the lavish introduction. And thank you so much to all of you, especially Gilah, for having arranged this evening. And I suppose there’s no way I can possibly live up to this welcome. So many people come out in this terrible New York weather – it’s really – I can only say if you come to hear me in Jerusalem or even in Bar-Ilan, I promise the weather will be better.

My title is sort of provocative- Midrash Before Hazal, because I suppose the first reaction anyone might have is – is there such a thing? How could there be Midrash before Hazal? So I should perhaps explain that by Hazal- by the way, I have to say, for the purpose of this lecture I assume you know absolutely nothing- forgive me. This is the assumption I operated on for more than 20 years at Harvard and I was not disappointed. Hazal is an acronym for Hahameniu Zichronum L’vracha our sages of blessed memory- refers to a specific group of scholars- as scholars they had deep roots in Jewish history. Speaking about the rabbis mentioned in the Mishna, Talmud, we know something about their history- they basically can be located in- well, there are two groups- TAnnaim or teachers who are a group of teachers who lived in the first or second centuries in the common era. Again, they sort of go back early BC or BCE’s as we all like to say nowadays. I fluctuate between the two- I’ve always liked to recall in this circumstance a teacher I had who was otherwise impeccably Orthodox who used to say BC. He said BC stands for Before Christianity, that’s it. So I said what about AD? And he said “After dat.” [Laughter] I think it’s permitted but anyway, I will try to be careful.

Their intellectual roots go back into BCEs but they themselves function- the people who have the honorific title of Rabbi appear in the first century of the common era. Tannaim who continue to exist until the final editing of the Mishna which scholas believe took place in around 200. Followed by Amoraim, after 200 or so, and the literary products that they are associated with are principally the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud and various Midrashic collections- today, for example, I’ll be talking about Breishit- and really the oldest rabbinic commentary belongs to the Amoraim- goes back to the fourth or fifth century of the common era. So what is before Hazal? If you really want to go back and try to figure out how people were thinking about the book of Genesis before Hazal, I guess you could look at the Aramaic Talmud. Many of you, I know, are familiar with Targum Onkeles, although frankly not so many people read it anymore- Onkeles goes back to 1st or 2nd century of before the common era. But even before them are texts that were written by Jews and talk about what the meaning of this or that story or even an individual verse in the Tanakh means and these texts are to begin with the Dead Sea Scrolls (a bunch of manuscripts that were found in the caves on the shores of the Dead Sea starting in 1947 and they turned out to be the library of somewhat crackpot Jews who lived there- but they were serious and had this library and it’s been preserved and you can see them without going too far) and if you want you can actually go to Israel and see where the scrolls were found and you can visit the caves. Frankly, as impressive as they are, it’s amazing that these manuscripts survived- they survived because that is the lowest and driest spot on earth; if they were stored anywhere else, they would have crumbled into dust by now. Because they were stored there, they were preserved up until our own time.

Interesting source of material, but really most of the midrash before hazel that we have is found in a collection of writings with a somewhat unwieldy title: The Biblical Apocrypha and Pseudagripha. And they are referred to somewhat loosely in modern Hebrew as the Outside Books – Sefarim Chitzonim because they were outside of the biblical canon. Traditionally, Jews have not studied this material; they survived mostly due to the Christians. At some point they determined that this is not what a good Jewish boy or girl should be reading and they stopped copying them but fortunately there was a small Christain sect at the time who didn’t have to listen to what Chazal were saying and they copied them over. Decision was made to allow non-Jews to join the Church and so eventually they and to translate these works from Hebrew and Aramaic into a language everyone knew, that is Greek, and from Greek it was translated into other languages, not just Latin but the old dialect of Ethianpic- it’s called Yez, my favorite language, old Church Slavonic- they have survived in these languages. While Chazal said you shouldn’t study them, then what is this fellow telling you you should study them?

I think the rabbis quite rightly decided it wasn’t a good idea for people to read these books, each book for its own reason. Sometimes the books did not end up getting studied for ___ reasons. We are not really sure which books our Rabbis banned. More complicated questions, it seems to most Israelis because in Israelis you can buy a collection called the Sefarim Chitzonim but that is really a much more complicated question and maybe we can talk about that later. But I can easily see Rabbi Akiva seeing th eBook of Jubilees and saying don’t read that because this guy has all kinds of wrong doctrines- one of the central tenets of the book is that the calendar that we use in Judaism is wrong, the kind of lunar-solar calendar. It wasn’t, according to the book of Jubilees, the calendar that underlies the stories of the Torah- instead they had a calendar which consisted of exactly 364 days; much more like the civil calendar now. And frankly, I’m sorry, the lunar calendar went out and had a lot to say for it. Our Rabbis saw fit to ban the book at least for that reason, and probably for some others. Some of tehse books were no doubt banned may be a little strong, but at least they were not to be studied because of the people who championed the books- it wasn’t so much their content but the company that they kept. Some of these books our Rabbis were quite crazy about- the Book of Ben-Sira because as I am sure some of you know, it is cited in the Talmud by name a number of times and cited anonymously more and it had clear influence on our prayers. But Ben-Sira couldn’t be part of the canonized scripture because he was too late and he was not a scribe, an inspired prophet- he was just Ben-Sira; if only he had had the sense to identify himself as King Solomon, there’s no doubt we would have him.

So this stuff has been neglected by Jews for many centuries and the question is why should we stop doing that now and one reason is because this stuff is early. If you think of the Mishna, it really inaugurates this period of rabbinic literature written by Chazal. These books were written 300 or 400 years before the Mishna and certainly 600 years or so before the great bulk of rabbinic writing- one reason it might be interesting to look at it – you can see our traditions as they are being written down/ formulated at an earlier period.

But tonight I wanted to explore two other reasons why it might be interesting to study- the first is that it sometimes helps us to understand things in our own cannon of rabbinic writings. There are things that are difficult to make sense of – one of the things it’s the very first passage. I wanted to start off with a Midrashic passage that I had to quote in Hebrew because it is still the subject of some debate- it is this passage on Page 1- from Breishit Rabbah which is our earliest commentary in rabbinic circles on the book of Genesis- and it’s talking about a verse that I’m sure some of you know well, God’s first words to Abraham- “And God said to Abraham; Depart from your homeland and kinsmen and go to the land which I will show you” and about this verse written Yitzchak – R’ Isaac said the following: “The case of Abraham might be compared to that of someone who was wandering from place to place and came upon a great Dirah-“ if you know in modern Hebrew that’s often a kind of capital, a capital city- but in Rabbinic language it means just a building, a castle- but it can also just be a kind of apartment building; that is how people lived even back then, four or five or ten families together. So this wayfarer sees a Dirah Achat Doleket- and people are not really sure about how to understand Doleket. It comes from the word “to burn.” So some people think it means this wayfarer came across a burning building- and others say no, it just means a building that is all lit up; lights burning inside. Both interpretations may be and have been defended. In any case, the traveler says: “Is it possible that a building like this could be without a- I guess what you say in New York is that the super was called a Manhig in Rabibnic times but he wasn’t a lowly super; he was usually the owner of the building and this is what he lived off of- so would you really suppose that such a building, either all lit up or all on fire, could exist without an owner? So the owner of the building looked out at him and said “I am the owner of the building.” Abraham similarly said, Would it be possible to think that the world is without a Manhig, one who directs it, and God looked out at him and said to him, “I am the Manhig of the Universe.”

So how are we to decide this question- is it a burning building or an illuminated building? I suppose we should take a poll- who would vote for burning building? And how about illuminated? Everybody else is for illuminated? And this is why I like reading these old sources- they are interested always in answering basic questions. Sometimes you are so familiar with the text that you don’t even remember what the basic questions are anymore. So I’ll try to walk you through them. It realy goes back to this passage in Genesis 12 that this comment is directed to- “Now the Lord said: Abram, Abram, go from your country and your kindred to the land that I will show you and I will make you a great nation and I will bless you…and anyone who curses you, I will curse and by you will all the families of the Earth be blessed.” Now what’s the question- I hope you don’t mind- if there’s a brave soul who can try to imagine- you’re reading this text for the first time and there’s something that bothers you and you are trying to find out the answer to these worlds.

“Why does it say go for yourself- just go?” Well, that’s such a rabbinic question. What happened, at least I hope to persuade you of this, is that the basic questions – so that our Rabbis began to focus on much more local questions” – so the question is: what had Abraham done to merit all these great promises? He just here is mentioned in Chapter 11 but just in passing but now all of a sudden, Hashem says this. So they looked at the passage and looked at it and looked at it and there was no apparent answer. So in trying to find an answer- because you have to remember in those days, people were not biblical commentaries in some lofty institution like YU- they and students who were young, impudent ten year olds and twelve year olds and they would ask: What’s so great about Abrhaam? So you had to come up with an answer and eventually somebody did- we don’t know who that somebody was but we know he must have lived at least as early of the 3rd century. I have to say in general we have a tradition of a Torah Shebaal Peh that goes way back to the time of Moses. And I certainly am a believer in that. I think that scholars have said very convincingly- at least to me- you could not possibly have a legal system such as that outlined in the Torah without an interpretive tradition. But I believe it was an interpretive tradition that grew. So I don’t see any traces of that here- I think this is at least where we can anchor it to begin with. So somebody I don’t know looked at another verse- in Joshua, Yehoshua- some of you know this pretty well because it’s in the Haggadah of Pesach- when you’re starving, this is what they say to you: “Joshua said to all the people: Thus says the Lord your God to all of Israel, long ago your ancestors Terah and Nahor lived on the other side of the Euphrates and worshipped other Gods. Then I took your father Abraham and took him and led him through all the land of Canaan.” So this doesn’t sound very god- about the worst thing you could do in biblical times is worship other gods- and yet that’s exactly what our ancestors did. So on the face of it, this wasn’t a very promising verse to support a positive interpretation of Abraham- but there was a kind of disconnect, a non-sequitur between this verse and the next one. The next one says: I took your ancestor Abraham- well if he was worshipping other gods, why would you take him? And if you were going to take him, why not take his father and brother along with him? So as this anonymous scholar contemplated the verse he said, that might be the whole secret- that Abraham really refused to worship other gods. At a certain point, anyway, he must have stopped worshipping other gods. And as a reward God takes him. So the non-sequitur is really not a non-sequitur and so you can understand Abraham’s great virutre was that he stopped worshipping other gods. This became one of the most famous and a very old tradition- earliest text I know of that specifically mentions it is in a book of the apocrypha that didn’t make it into the Jewish Apocrypha- it’s the Book of Judith. Judith is really a book that isn’t in biblical interpretation at all; it’s kind of an adventure story of a heroine who lops of Heliphornes’ head; favorite subject of Renaissance paintings. Beautiful woman holding a head…So Heliphornes is about to enter the land of Judah to conquer it and says- do any of you people know who these Jews are or where they come from? And this is the answer he gets- a foreign general explains: “This people the Jews is descended from the Chaldeans. At one point in time they lived in Mesopotamia because they would not follow the gods of their fathers who were in Chaldea.” Of course the author of Judith does not mention Abraham by name- he oughtn’t to know the particular name of the individual but this is an early statement- Book of Judith usually dated to the 3rd century- so early statement of what was to become an early midrash about Abraham, that he was the one who rejected idolatry and left early Chaldea.

Passage on the lower left is from the Book of Jubilees- basically the same motif. Here, it says “They worshipped other gods”- these ancient interpreters took that very seriously. So Terah became a worshipper of other gods. Abraham rebelled and rebelled against his father. So Terah is either the maker of idols or a keeper of idols. And Abraham one day says to him: O’ father, what advantage do we have in these idols to whom we bow down? And his father says to him- of course the author of Jubilees was a real Jewish patriot, couldn’t imagine that even Terah was a bad guy- so he says they make me do this; this is my job, and if I tell them it is nonsense, they will kill me and you oughtn’t to say anything because they’ll kill you. I threw in a passage on the right- Abraham and Farah (Terah in ___ same way Theodore becomes Fyodor in Slavonic)- and in the end I said to myself, what are tehse useless things my father is doing? Is he not rather a god to his gods, since it is by virtue of his sculpting and shaping by his skillfulness that they come into being? So sometimes a Midrashic motif generates a whole bunch of questions.

So the question is: how is it? What helped Abraham discover that the other gods were foolishness? Now, there was a detail, a scintillating detail, this place Ur of the Chaldeans. We actually know, probably better than our Rabbis did since it did not exist then, it has since been excavated- where it was located- we know where it is- a bustling metropolis of about 1000 ? people at the southern tip of Iraq. Much farther from the Gulf than it used to be. Was close to the Gulf and therefore an important commercial center- Ur and Chaldea as a whole had a particular reputation in ancient times and here I am really speaking from the standpoint of Hellenized Jews and other Greeks- the Greeks came and conquered the land of Israel- in land 332 before the common era. After that, our people learned how to speak Greek and so forth- and from their standpoint, the Greek civilization was the tops; the best philsophers, poets, mathematicians- the one thing they knew they weren’t the best at was astronomy. The greatest astronomers in the world were in Chaldea- and by astronomy we include astrology because the two go together.

Although astronomer is a greek word, in those days if you wanted to say astronomer, what people would say is “Chaldai,” Chaldean, and that was true of Hebrew? Aramaic? too. So maybe the fact that Abraham came from Chaldea, the astronomy land, had something to do with the discovery of his existence of that one true God. So here is what Philo says on page 2- Philo is – how can I describe him- he was a great Torah sage who proably didn’t know a word of Hebrew. He lived in Alexandria in Egypt and cited the bible in Greek- and it wasn’t just, at least Philo experts say, for the convenience of his Greek-speaking audience but because he had a very classical Greek education and sought to explain the Torah in sort of similar terms. He would like to read the text allegorically and that is what he says in this first sentence.

“The departing from one’s home as depicted by the literal text of Scripture was made by a certain wise man [Abraham]; but according ot the rules of allegory, [it is made] by the soul [of anyone] fond of virtue who is searching for the true God.”

So he says, yes, true, there was a guy named Abraham and he went to Haran- very far North on border of Syrian Turkey- but truly this is recounted in Scripture because Abraham represents the soul of anyone fond of virtue who is searching for the true God. And then explains that the Chaldeans exercised themselves most prominently with astronomy and everything governed by the stars- exalted the existence of what is visible and took no thought of what is perceivable to the mind and yet invisible. Basically what Philo says is that Abraham live din a time not too different from our own, which you know, science was reducing everything to numbers and formulas and the people of Chaldea therefore cared only for what is perceivable to the senses/ mind/ perceivable to the mind, yet invisible. He, Abraham, grew up with this idea and was a true astronomer for some time until opening up his eyes and saw what he had not seen before, one who guides and steers the world, presiding over it and – and that is why he has said to have emigrated from the land of Chaldea to Haran, whose name means “orifices,” a symbol for the seats of ours sense. So this is a very subtle peirsuh…

I see some of you are really hot; I’m sorry. You know he knows there is this word Haran and says that’s the world for Holes in Hebrew- horim as we would say in Modern Hebrew, and it’s no accident because the message Abraham gets from God is not to go immediately to the promised land but to go via this city whose name means orifices. Because in order to really ___ the soul at a certain point you have to see this light and understand the world does not consist simply by what is conceivable by the senses. Have to go behind those holes which are your eyes, ears, nose, mouth- it is a kind of great demonstration of two things- how this MIdrash started long before Philo gets reworked in his own extraordinary style and also something about him as an interpreter. How allegory was so central.

The last guy in connection with this Midrash is Josephus who lived a little bit later than Philo. Philo was probably born about 30 before the common era and died a little bit after 50- we’re not sure but- and Josephus is later, probably at the end of the first century.

“He [Abraham] thus became the first person to argue that there is a single God who is the creator of al things, and that whatever any of these other things contribute to the good of the world, they are enabled to do so at His command, and not by any inherent force of their own. He was able to figure this out by the changes which land and sea undergo, and those that are connected with the sun ad d the moon, and from all those occurring in the skies….etc”

This is a little hard to follow, especially in that elegant translation, but Josephus is arguing it is actually very simple. In his day, everyone knew that the solar year lasts 365 and ¼ days. So what he is saying is what an insulting number that is. If the sun were really in charge of the universe, wouldn’t it have arranged to go around the earth every 100 days or 1000 days but why would it go around 365 and ¼ days? Obviously this is a kind of tip to make us aware of the fact that the sun is not in control and nor is the moon which has 354 (364?) days- because if the moon was in charge, why didn’t it force the sun to go around- there’s a word for this in greek, toxis, which means regularly ordered and so it was all intended as a way of tipping of fthe general public that none of these heavenly bodies were in charge.

I want to go back to the question that I asked: What is a Dirah Doleket? Is there anyone wiling to change his vote from illuminated to on fire and if so, why? Well, the right answer is illuminated as most of you said, because it’s this basic analogy that we have been reading about- because Abraham the wayfarer comes across a dirah doleket, a building which is all illuminated and it is like Abraham looking up at the sky and sees all the stars there- and doesn’t say it must be the stars are in control but sees the stars are all lit up , there must be someone at home- so then God looks out and tells him who he is.

A side question: Where was Abraham when these words were uttered to him? It was a question of debate. You can see the problem on page 3- “Terah took Abrahm, his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson and Sar’ai his daughter-inlaw” etc and when they came to Haran they settled there. Now Chapter 12 begins to go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. So the question is: Where was Abraham when these words were uttered? Problem was if he was already in Haran, why would God say to him depart from your land- I love teaching this in Israel because everyone in Israel thinks Moledet means the place where you are born/ homeland but it actually doesn’t mean that in biblical Hebrew- it means your family, kindred. So its says leave your family/ kindred, but in the previous verse he had already done that! So there are two positions on this- indeed, he was already in Haran and God was referring to all Mesopatamia and others said it was a flashback, which sometimes happens in the Scripture- it is formulated as a rule that Ein Mukdam U’Meuchar B’Torah. The order is sometimes not chronological; it contains these flashbacks, etc- this people descended from the Chaldeans and one time they lived in Mesopatamia and then their God commanded them to leave a place where they were living and go to the land of Cannan So according to him, those words, Lech Lecha, were spoken in Haran. But others said no- Philo thought these words were spoken in Ur. The passage underneath that is actually from the New Testament and talks about how one of the early Christain martyrs did something bad and is taken out to be killed and they said do you have any last words- and he says, “The God of glory brought Abraham from Mesopatamia before Haran” and I really identify with this guy; they asked do you have any last words and he says, yeah, I want to clarify this problem in Genesis [laughter] and I never saw this ____ except in the Book of Jubilees. In the Book of Jubilees, Abraham prays a prayer- “Shall I return unto Ur of the Chaldees who seek my face so that I should return to them? Or shall I dwell here in this place? Make the straight path prosper before you in the hand of your servant that he might serve. And do not let me walk in the error of my heart, O my God.” So here Abraham prays and says I don’t know what to do- I’ve been living in Haran for 14 years and now the people of Ur say all is forgiven, you can come back to Ur and live here now. So they are earnestly/ beseeching me to come back. And the answer that he gets is the word of the Lord: “Come forth from your Land and from your kindred into your father’s house, into the land which I shall show you.” So that famous sentence now has a new meaning. Lech Lecha means don’t go back to Ur- depart forever from your kindred. But in fact, you should also depart from your father’s house right here in Haran and continue on to the land of Canaan- so I thought this was really fancy footwork for a second-century exegete.

The last thing I wanted to talk about and I’ll try to dot his quickly so that I leave some time for discussion- is the Book of Jubilees as it retells the story of Abraham and the near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac. This is – when these people went about explaining a text, they didn’t do what Rashi does and later commentaries do where they bring a pasuk, phrase from a biblical verse and say this is what I think it means. That form of biblical commentary existed but it wasn’t very popular- the most popular was to retell the story and everybody knew the story by heart, really, but they also knew what the problems were so in your retelling of it you would insert the answers to the problems as best you saw them and people would understand you are departing from the text in order to explain what it means. Sometimes it would just be a difficult word people didn’t understand so in retelling it I would insert a word people did understand and that’s what happened here- the story of Abraham and his near-sacrifice of Isaac starts off at verse 15 on the left-hand side: “It came to pass in the seventh week, in its first year, in the first month, in the jubilee, on the twelfth of that month, that words came in heaven concerining Abraham that he was faithful in everything which was told him and he loved the Lord and was faithful in all affliction.” We- the narrator here is an angel. Now, Prince Mastema- Mastema is a fancy word for Loathing- Prince is not a good translation, sot he angel Mastema (so the Devil, Satan)- there is Satan in the Tanakh, I know you will tell me that, but not in the sense of the embodiment of all evil as he becomes in later commentaries/ centuries. He is called by various names- Satan, Satan-El, Gavriel? – angelic suffix- every angel has one, Refael, - so the Prince Mastema here comes and says “Behold, Abraham loves Isaac his son. And he is more pleased with him than everything. Tell him to offer him as a burn offering upon the altar. And you will see whether he will do this thing. And you will know whether he is faithful in everything in which you test him.” So very much as it appears in the book of Job, tell this Abraham guy to kill his son and then you’ll really know whether he is faithful.

So what sort of question does that answer? Maybe I should have begun with that. What is the basic question everyone asked about in the 2nd or 3rd century-

AUDIENCE: Because the text says that God said to test Abraham, people wanted to know why He wanted to test Abraham.

PROF KUGEL: Absolutely right- now why would anyone be bothered by that?

AUDIENCE: What did Yitzchak do?

PROF KUGEL: That is another question, and does become a question later on but not this early.

So the question is, Hashem knows everything; he knows how it will turn out, so why put this poor man through it? So the author of Jubilees says, of course Hashem knows how this will turn out but Satan comes and wants him to test him, so in order to show Satan how things really work, he puts Abraham to the test. Now, that is a nice invention but it is an invention- where did he/ how could he get away with this? It doesn’t’ mention that anywhere in the text.

AUDIENCE: Based on the same story of Iyov?

PROF KUGEL: Well, yes, but the thing about this author, who I know well and frankly it is true of everyone I know in this period, is that if you ask them a question like that, they always say an answer: you’re just not reading the text carefully enough- if you look deep enough, everything I am saying is implied in the text. In this case it is because the story starts off “Vayehi achar hadevarim ha’eilah”- IT came to pass after these things. So if you ask me, that is a fairly standard biblical sentence- but he’s cleverly transformed that and says “devarim”- it’s true, in biblical Hebrew, can mean words as well as things. So he says suppose it means words here- what words? But nothing is specified but since words exist you can suppose it meant, and here I am quoting from verse 15 that “words came in heaven concerning Abraham that he was faithful” and this provoked Satan who issued his challenge. So after these words- after this challenge in heaven.

And then the next paragraph goes on to say- And the Lord was aware that Abraham was faithful in all of his afflictions because he tested him with his land, and with famine. And he tested him with the wealth of kings, etc….and in everything which he tested him, he was found faithful.

Now, this is a tradition I hope some of you know: Abraham underwent 10 tests. Well, that is in the Mishna but here we are at least 400 years earlier and this author clearly knows this tradition- so these were all the divinely instigated tests. So certainly God- that account – that God knew the way the test was going to come out serves to reinforce the point of the first paragraph that it was not in order to find out how things would turn out that God accepted this challenge. Well, that’s very nice but again, we’d have to ask how do you know that there were these tests? I mean, they are not described as tests- the only thing that is described as a test is the last one. And I say, by the way, both these bits of Midrash are paralleled in rabbinic literature- it says the same thing in the Babylonian Talmud that Satan challenged God to have Abraham sacrifice his son and it also has this tradition not just in the Mishna but in later rabbinic texts- but how do you know that those were tests and again, if you ask the author of Jubilees, you’d get the same answer- it’s right there in the text! You’re just not really reading carefully enough. So where does it mention that Abraham underwent 10 or some number of tests? How do you derive that?

So the author of Jubilees would say:

AUDIENCE: VaHashem nisah et Abraham?

PROF KUGEL: Well, that simply says He tested him, so yes-

AUDIENCE: Doesn’t it say that now God knew that-

PROF KUGEL: Well, that is really at the end- I’m getting at the end of what I want to say so I don’t want to give you a chance to go say-

But actually it’s the same verse- forget what I said that devarim means words, now it means things. After these “things,” God tested Abraham…again! Those earlier things, you can understand as also being tests!

That’s fine- God certainly knew how the test was going to come out except for what it says at the end where the angel speaking on God’s behalf calls out to Abraham and says, “Atah yadati ki yarei Elohim ata”- now I know that you are one who fears God. NOW I know? Of course, the implication of now I know is that earlier I didn’t know. So you might think that would imply that we do not have a ___ of God. So it was very important for ancient interpreters to explain that now I know didn’t mean that. So this is where the author of Jubilees, certainly the best of all ancient interpreters deals with it:

“And I stood before him and before Prince Mastema. And the Lord said, “Speak to him. Do not let his hand descend upon the child. And do not let him do anything to him because I know that he is one who fears the Lord.” And I called out to him from heaven and I said to him, “Abraham, Abraham.” And he was terrified and said, “Here I am.” And I said to him, “Do not put forth your hand against the child and do not do anything to him because now I know that you are one who fears the Lord”- etc

How does this solve the problem?

AUDIENCE answers correctly.

Here God is not saying “atah,” now I know but rather I have always known! Rather, the angel is not omniscient. Nobody says angels are omniscient; he picks up on God’s instructions and inserts the word “now” which appears in the biblical texts. There were actually two solutions that were around- one was this one, which I think was probably created by the author of Jubilees; I didn’t see it anyplace else. But the other is very common and it is in Midrash Rabbah- when you write you don’t always fill in all the letters- now we have this wonderful system of Nekudot but it didn’t exist in the time of our Rabbis and certainly didn’t exist at the time of the giving of the Torah so when the angel says “Atah yadati” you could read it as “Atah yidati”- put a dot in the daled and suddenly “now I know” becomes “Now I have made known.” “Hodati” would be more common biblical form, but “yidati” certainly existed.

So if you look down at 16- and all of the nations will bless you – and I have made known to all that you are faithful. It says “to all” precisely because they did not have any dots or dashes- if you just wrote yud daled ayin tav nun- I hope that is a kind of representative sample of these ancient interpreters and how they operated. In a way this is a kind of infomercial of a book I am putting together with a former, now retired prorfessor of this institution, Lawrence Feldman and ___ Schiffman, compiling a compendium of these books to make them available- they are available but for a Jewish audience. So much so that it is being published by the Jewish Publication Society. So soon you should be able to hold in your hand- well, not exactly easy to hold in your hand, anyway, thank you very much. I’m eager to answer questions about this or anything else you might want to ask about.


QUESTION: What would Wellhausen say about tonight’s question?

PROF KUGEL: He said what would Louis Wellahusen, the great German biblical lecture say about tonight’s lecture- I’m sure he would say “This is interesting nonsense.” He had very little- he was very much a product of his time and his religion as I am, but his background religious orientation was such that he really had no patience for ancient biblical interpretation; he was really all out to undo it and read the whole Tanakh with fresh, unbiased eyes and the one thing I can – I mean, he was a great scholar- one positive thing I can say in connection with your question is that he himself has gotten the credit for having propounded the Documetnary Hypothesis- he really didn’t invent it. He srot of took the writings of other people and took them and put them into new and comprehensive form but having propounded that and a lot of other main features of modern biblical scholarship, he quit his job. He was working in a Protestant seminary and we still have his letter of resignation- it’s really rather moving. It says I went into this field beause I was interested in research- I was trying to figure out whatever we could figure out in this world of Bible and somehow lost sight of the fact that this is a theological faculty and my job is to tarin future Lutheran ministers and now that I have said all the things I’ve said, I realize I’m not really helping them and therefore I quit- I think he got another job but in any case it was a kind of frank admission that he was already well aware that modern biblical scholarship

QUESTION: Do you see yourself as somewhat of a Wellhausen in that regard?

PROF KUGEL: No. Do I see myself as a Wellhausen? Really not. What I have tried to do, is as a teacher and more as a writer is to try to situate modern biblical scholarship in its broader context. It’s kind of surprising but often eople who teach modern biblical scholarship are really uninformed about- now I am speaking again of Christian scholars mostly- what the bible looked like from the standpoint of – even just 100 years ago, not to speak of 1000- and I think that once you are aware of that context everything looks rather different. It is interesting; this last book in which I really did try to expand on that topic in some way- sort of like this evening- I guess I get attacked from all sides. You wouldn’t think this but I was just at the Society for Biblical Literature Convention about 5000 people who teach the Tanakh, Hebrew Bible in colleges and universities and seminaries and it’s a annual affair and it moves around the country because basically hotels don’t like this convention because most of these people don’t drink and it’s not a really ___ venture. So there are a lot of people there who are upset about my book because they find it “too Jewish” or it is “against what we do.” But on the other hand, I know that there are people- Jews who are troubled by my book- I don’t hear from too many of them, but I know they exist and say things like they’ll “Never daven in Teaneck again.” [Laughter] But I also have been surprised by how many people are really fond of this book and say I am also an Orthodox Jew and I’m really glad you wrote this and so I don’t know where that puts me, but I would resist any description of me as a Wellhausen-like figure; I am not really as smart as he was.

AUDIENCE: Do you have any problems from a religious perspective in your book- do you for yourself have problems printing Midrashim Chazal thought were not appropriate to canonize?

PROF KUGEL: The problem I have with this book is the problem I have lived with for most of my adult life. If you want an autobiographical answer, I didn’t really set out to get into this field. This is really all the fault of my late teacher. Professor Twersky- I went there to study Parshanut like a lot of you- Midieval Biblical Interpretation. And you know, he at one point suggested I might write a term paper on the subject of ideas about biblical poetry and medieval times and I read Abarbanel and thought it would be a good thing to do and I started writing the paper and figured I should find out what modern scholars say about how biblical poetry worked and so I started reading on that subject and os one thing led to the next and before I knew it I was up to my neck. I had always been very curious about biblical scholarship- I knew people who were studying this in Harvard and I knew they knew a lot less than I did- they? I? didn’t really know TAnakh very well but they knew about Wellahusen etc- but I can’t say I didn’t have misgivings about it from the beginning- it says in Tehillim that Seeif Daat, SEeif Machov- he who increases knowledge or learning increases pain. I guess I have made my peace with it but I am really not trying ot push people to study this stuff, certainly not Orthodox Jews- I think if you can live without it, well, that’s great. I couldn’t. I just felt I couldn’t and the people I hear from I know feel the same way. They just, you know, say I know this stuff exists- I actually once- excuse me for rambling on beyond this question- when I published this book the publisher insisted I have some website and I really wanted the website to be but about two weeks before we registered that name someone else took it so unfortunately it had to be called and you can certainly write to me at that address- has an email associated with it. I get all kinds of email and one email I got was from someone- I don’t see her here but she might well be- I subsequently met her; I didn’t know her at the time- she teaches at a leading Orthodox Jewish high school in the greater metropolitan area and she said I am planning on using my book with my twelfth graders and what do you think about that? And I wrote back and said I think that is a terrible idea- why would you make twelfth graders study this stuff- maybe in a college course where people take this stuff? And she wrote back and basically said Aifo ata chai- what world do you live in? Everyone in this school has heard about the Documentary Hypothesis- they read articles in the New York Times about how archeologists say this or that couldn’t happen but I still don’t think I recommend teaching that in twelfth grade. But I do know there are a lot of people who are like me and feel like they want to find out about this stuff.

AUDIENCE: On your website, when people ask you about difference between Orthopraxy and Orthodoxy- do you believe that the five books of Moshe were given to him by Hashem?

PROF KUGEL: I don’t think I’ve given a talk in the last five years where people don’t ask that question. Really what people mean by that question, sometimes, is can I get you to say something that crosses the line and the answer is no, I’m really just like you except I have been studying

AUDIENCE: So you believe… [LAUGHTER]

PROF KUGEL: So I’m trying to answer…what I believe is tha Judaism is a very tradition-oriented religion and we like to look to our sages for guidance. I did say that in that same website answer, but you know, invariably, ineluctably, we live in the midst of history. And there’s really nothing altogether immutable when you live in – historical circumstances change. I’m very wary of invoking change as a motif in Judaism because again, I’m just like you- I want the same things to be true now that – do exactly the same thing we’ve done before- that is the essence of our halakhic system but things do, sometimes, something happens. I mean just to choose a totally inappropriate analogy but there was a point in Judaism where the very essence of Jewish piety involved bringing sacrifices to the Beit Hamikdash – Haavodah was the basic thing- and then that Temple was destroyed by the Romans and at the first people thought they would rebuild it but time went on and Judaism changed in consequence. The institution of the synagogue which had existed before became the central institution of Judaism which it wasn’t before- the prayers changed- now there is this things that has happened which is called modern biblical scholarship and my hunch is that not I, but someone down along the line, will help people to sort of accommodate this in a better way than it has been accommodated so far. I don’t feel great about just saying I know this stuff exists but I don’t want to hear about it- it doesn’t seem to me that has the power to be a longlasting answer. It would be nice to go back to the sages of the middle ages or even earlier but the problem is they didn’t have to recognize/ reckon with this new phenomena of modern biblical scholarship so one can try to be guided by their words but I’m not sure that one can find any solution, so all this is my way of saying I’m not here to proclaim this or that cherished Jewish doctrine is to be cast aside- I – there are few things that are more fundamental to Judasim than the notion of Torah M’Sinai and as I said in my answer not only on the website but in the book itself I said what you just repeated and I think that is true. The one subject on which biblical scholarship has nothing to say is the divine origin of Scripture- how can they possibly express an opinion on this part of the Torah being divine, this not- words don’t’ come with little flags that say- I am not troubled by that part of modern biblical scholarship but how Judaism comes to reckon with the things that scholars have found out about historical background- I think that is still an open subject- I don’t know where it is going to go but I doubt it is going to stay the same.

AUDIENCE: Paragraph on the first page in the passage on Judith- why is it talking about a bunch of people rather than Abraham?

KUGEL: I think it isn’t just that the author didn’t want to mention Abraham by name but these people wanted to account for the great nation that came and multiplied- so convenient way of accounting for them.

AUDIENCE: Is it denying the existence of Abraham or-

KUGEL: No, no!

AUDIENCE: Between Judith and Stevens, seems to be saying that Mesopotamia was ___ Haran and the other seems to say Mesopotamia is Haran.

KUGEL: What a learned observation that is. Mesopotamia was the land between the rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. But what that could refer to is I guess about is it covered a lot of territory- one uses it to refer to the southland and the other to Haran way, way in the north, so it is confusing, but it may be that the northern position is that it didn’t say Mesopotamia so much as Aram Naharaim, and that might be

AUDIENCE: In your opinion, why is it that Jubilees or other pre-Talmudic interpretations, why would it be put in the mouth of an angel?

KUGEL: That is something which is rather common in this period. We know about the Jews in these closing centuries before the common era; they lived in a reality of angels. Angels were everywhere. If you got sick, it was some kind of angel that got inside of you. If you got sick, you were possessed by bad angels. Here they become independent actors- good angels and back angels. ___ you would recite to protect yourself against these angels. So the idea of an angelic narrator – anyway, the – that certainly made it plausible- but I think it also- the author of Jubilees liked that because it gave great authority to his text. It was good to have the text handed to Moses- it says the angel – God says to the angel: Dictate to Moshe the following Book and so he does. So in a sense, it not only had the authority of Moshe Rabbeinu but also had the authority of this angel who was not just any angel, but kind of the top angel- there were two classes of angels in the world of Jubilees – Malachei HaKodesh, Angels of Holiness, because those were the angels Isaiah reports as saying Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh and then there were other angels called Malachei HaPanim- angesl of the presence because they actually appeared before Hashem. They were also highly exalted angels. I once gave a talk at YU, it must be about 10 years ago, about the function of this divison of angels. These two top angels actually get to rest on every Shabbat along with God. They don’t work but the other angels do- the lower classes do, because they really are that kind of heavenly Shabbos Goyim – [laughter] because they keep the world going on Shabbat- kind of a remarkable idea. But it was a question- if Hashem rests on Shabbat, who makes the world go/ wind go?

AUDIENCE: Talking about the tests- God testing- the first thing I don’t understand is why then add the tenth test, and my second question is that I don’t really understand the atah yadati case because it was a Malach anyway-

KUGEL: Let me take them in reverse order because the danger is that I’ll forget the second. The answer to the second is that yes, it does say Ata Yadati in the narrative, but I would have to say in most places in the Torah, maybe all of them, there’s really no firm distinction between the Malach- he’s just a spokesman for God. The normal assumption would be he is saying that – to show that really wasn’t so. The first question isn’t so much that he didn’t like the idea of tests; he didn’t like the idea of God having to test in order to find things out which is slightly different. But testing was – there’s a kind of dualism about this subject that we even to this day – we pray not to- lo lidei cheit v’lo lidei aveirah v’avon v’lo lidei nisayon- do not lead us into being tested. Famous prayer in New Testament which children in New York see as being “Lead me not into Penn Station” when really it is “Lead me not into Temptation” when really God is testing our mettle- I think that being the case, it wasn’t so terrible that there should be these multiple tests. The problematic part was the implication that God didn’t know.

AUDIENCE: Seems like the author saw fit to explain this test- but doesn’t explain tests elsewhere?

KUGEL: That’s true and I think the idea is that it was necessary to kind of sharpen Abraham and it was through adversity that his righteousness was really heightened. There was this famous pasuk- “tzaruf hashem” -I think that they probably read it not in passive form- “tzarufa” means it refines; it refines like fire- that is the whole thing about the Torah.

AUDIENCE: Well, in that case the only reason for this explanation is – because God now knew-

KUGEL: The other ones don’t involve divine omniscience- it isn’t that Abraham leaves Ur and now I know- the issue is not raised by those sort of tests- the assumption was as the bumper sticker has it, “Tests Happen” and you have just got to have

GILAH: The honking is actually the bus, which is waiting, so we should probably wrap up. Want to thank YSU and TAC for sponsoring the evening and obviously to thank Professor Kugel.


Nachum said...


I was wondering which of the number of people I saw typing was you- I knew you were one of them. :-)

Quite an excellent speech, and speaker.

Chana said...

I'm the one who had placed my computer on the ledge (as though it were a desk) toward the right. I was wearing a purple shirt and a jean skirt with ribbons, rhinestones and other lace.

yosef said...

This is so interesting. I really should have come. But better at least being able to read it. Thanks Chana!

Roman said...

Great speaker. Very fascinating lecture. I'm impressed that he handled the questions in the end so well.

a former classmate said...

"I was wearing a purple shirt and a jean skirt with ribbons, rhinestones and other lace"

Enchantress, you haven't changed!
Glad you still love color and life itself. And thanks for the fabulous notes,but then again-everything you do.. you do so very well!

Aaron said...

Interesting content.
Thanks for the notes. Chana,you must be a GREAT typist! Not surprised . Anyone who can produce the kind of The Observer you do this year is probably excellent at quite a few things! Keep it up and thanks for sharing.

Nachum said...

Ah! I think I saw you. I'm the one who asked the question about Mesopotamia and Chaldea. I now officially like Prof. Kugel- flattery will get him everywhere.

Seriously, he's a really nice guy- I spoke to him a bit before and after, and I'm very impressed.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

FYI "One who increases knowledge increases pain" is not from Tehillim, it is from Qohelet.

Anonymous said...

"there are few things that are more fundamental to Judasim than the notion of Torah M’Sinai and as I said in my answer not only on the website but in the book itself I said what you just repeated and I think that is true. The one subject on which biblical scholarship has nothing to say is the divine origin of Scripture- how can they possibly express an opinion on this part of the Torah being divine, this not- words don’t’ come with little flags that say"

Kugel's so smooth, he makes Bill Clinton look like a bumbler. The question was about the Pentateuch being written by one person in a particular period, but he delicately used the ambiguity of the word Torah to segue the question into an answer to the altogether different question of the divinity of Torah. There's not chance in hell that Kugel believes that the Pentateuch in its entirety is the work on one man in the 13th century BCE, divinely dictated or otherwise, but notice how he avoided unambiguously admitting that despite it being the crux of the question.

He's pretty slick about TSBP too:
I have to say in general we have a tradition of a Torah Shebaal Peh that goes way back to the time of Moses. And I certainly am a believer in that. I think that scholars have said very convincingly- at least to me- you could not possibly have a legal system such as that outlined in the Torah without an interpretive tradition. But I believe it was an interpretive tradition that grew.

Notice how he says a TSBP and an interpretive tradition, as opposed to TSBP and the interpretive tradition. He's oh-so-careful to speak the truth while being sure to allow the listener to be misled about where Kugel's beliefs differ from the listener's.

Of course Kugel has what to lose from straight answers to these questions, so it's hard to really blame him for his shiftiness here.

Daniel said...

Thanks for Typing this up. You are right, Kugel is quite a mentch. I was the one who asked about Wellhausen. I have heard Kugel speak a bunch of times. He spoke at the 92nd ST Y on Tuesday, and if he would have given that speech at Stern, he would have been booed off the stage. I wonder though in his chadrei chadarim what he REALLY thinks?
Shabbat Shalom

92Y said...

"He spoke at the 92nd ST Y on Tuesday, and if he would have given that speech at Stern, he would have been booed off the stage."

I was at the 92Y speech too and I agree. (Not that Stern people would be so rude as to boo the wonderful Dr. Kugel, but they would not have been happy at all with what he said.)

Anonymous said...

I met Kugel, and it's just amazing how the man exudes menchlechkeit. I'm jealous, I wish I knew how to be like that. It was an amazing presence.

Anonymous said...

and what did he ay on tuesday?

Baal Habos said...

Thanks for transcribing & posting.

Dwayne said...

Of course Kugel has what to lose from straight answers to these questions, so it's hard to really blame him for his shiftiness here.

I doubt that he has much to lose. It's more likely that he is sensitive to what is suitable for his audience to educate them without destroying them. That's not a bad thing.

nombody said...

Looks like your blog got discovered by ( and they are linking to your transcript with a scathing attack on Prof Kugel, labeling him "the most famous living controversial apikores in the world" and other ad hominem attacks. Although I must thank them as I would not have seen your transcript without their article :)

Anonymous said...

It is a "birah",not "dirah",in modern Hebrew a capital is a "birah";an apartment is a "dirah".

Anonymous said...

Correct Yez to Ge`ez.

Anonymous said...

United States Restaurant Guide - a guide to every restaurant,

Anonymous said...

Directory of insurance agencies organized by states

Recruiting Animal said...

This is terrific. I was at a lecture by Kugel in Toronto on Monday Nov 14 2011.

I used to take detailed notes at every talk I attended but didnt take one this time.

Now I can see a reason for doing so. I have his handout right here beside me as well.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this lecture ! And good luck in all that you do !