On the Foundations of Religious Belief
New York: Free Press, 2011, 256 pp.
Reviewed by William W. Hallo
James Kugel is not your average, garden-variety scholar. He taught at Yale until Isidore Twersky made a special trip to Israel to recruit him for Harvard. There, rumor has it, his classes—even on such chaste topics as medieval rabbinic exegesis—were so over subscribed that he had to conduct weekly sessions for his numerous teaching assistants just to keep them up to speed. Not surprisingly, his numerous book-length publications specialize in presenting unconventional ideas. He first made his mark with The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History, 1 which revolutionized the study of Hebrew poetics. In The Bible as It Was,2 he acquainted readers with the entire rich Jewish literature of Late Antiquity. In The Ladder of Jacob,3 he gave us “ancient interpretations of the Biblical story of Jacob and his children.”
His life has been as exceptional as his works. After years of taking every second semester off to teach at Bar-Ilan University, he decided he needed to move to Israel full time— not surprising to me, since on a visit to Jerusalem, my wife and I had gone for Sabbath services to a small Sephardic congregation that turned out to be his congregation. (If you should ask what kind of a Sephardic name is Kugel, the answer is that it was Kaduri when his family arrived in America; in Israel his name is now Ya’acov Kaduri.)
The new book under review here is vintage Kugel. Diagnosed with a kind of cancer usually fatal, he decided to abandon work on a book in process and instead to chronicle the trajectory of his disease and his reactions to it. After a decade of treatment, he is confident that he has licked his illness, and shares with us the insights inspired by the contemplation of his own mortality. These insights can be summed up, however inadequately, under two headings: one, a scientific proof for the existence of God; the other, a new theory of the origin of religion. It goes without saying that both insights are heavily indebted to Jewish sources in general and to the Hebrew Bible in particular. The original subtitle of the book was in fact announced as On the Foundations of Jewish Belief.
As to proving divine existence, or what the author ultimately calls “the reality of God,” he has marshaled a dizzying array of specialized fields in both the hard and social sciences, notably neurophilosophy and evolutionary biology, to buttress his arguments. In each case, to judge by the extensive endnotes, he has read the latest surveys of the field, be they cognitive psychology, linguistics, computer science, or such unfamiliar specialties as sociobiology and ethology (see, e.g., p. 81). This reviewer has to plead ignorance of all these fields and will therefore confine his comments to the foundations of religious belief, especially as set forth in the second half of the book, which is more conventionally based on Biblical (and occasionally ancient Near Eastern) proof texts.
The notion that animal sacrifice was meant to “defuse the inherently violent tendencies in humanity” is attributed primarily to Rene Girard and to Walter Burkert (p. 211, note 2) but rejected by Kugel. For a different assessment of the “origins of the sacrificial cult,” see the reviewer in Origins: The Ancient Near Eastern Background of some Modern Western Institutions 4 or in The World’s Oldest Literature: Studies in Sumerian Belles-Lettres.5 Part of the difference may be a matter of definition, or even etymology, with Kugel describing sacrifice as the giving up of something valuable, almost in the sense the term has acquired in American baseball, while an alternative understanding of the concept goes back to the Latin “making something holy.”
The ultimate sacrifice is said to be illustrated by the king of Moab offering up his son to relieve a siege, but recent opinion on the relevant verse (2 Kings 3:27) favors an alternative understanding of the Biblical tale: Based on Amos 2:1 (and anticipated by medieval exegetes), it was the son of the Edomite king whom the king of Moab sacrificed.6
Kugel quotes widely and at length from all parts of the Hebrew Bible, always in his own English translations. These translations are informed in equal parts by medieval Rabbinic exegesis and modern critical analysis, the latter already illustrated in the title of the book. Kugel reads ṣaLMaWeT in Psalm 23:4 not as the familiar “valley of the shadow of death” but as “deep shadow” (ṣaLMuT).
For Bible scholarship in Israel, the past year has been nothing short of devastating, with the demise of such giants as Moshe Greenberg, Moshe Weinfled, Menachem Harran, Shemaryahu Talmon, Abraham Malamat, Hayim Tadmor and now Anson Rainey. No one mortal can expect to succeed to this pantheon of savants, but with this book, his 12th as sole author, Kugel bids fair to fill that role. Indeed, to paraphrase his favorite source, who knows but that it was for a time like this that he was kept alive (Esther 4:14).
Kugel is at home in the literature of all the world, ancient, medieval and modern; western and eastern; Jewish and Christian, although most of his citations do come from the Hebrew Bible.
1. (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1981).
2. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard
Univ. Press, 1997).
3. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2006).
4. William W. Hallo (Leiden and New York: Brill, 1996), pp. 212–222.
5. William W. Hallo (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2010), pp. 517–528.
6. See simply Hallo in Robert Chazan, William W. Hallo and Lawrence H. Schiffman, eds., Ki Baruch Hu: Ancient Near Eastern, Biblical, and Judaic Studies in Honor of Baruch A. Levine (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999), pp. 46f.
William W. Hallo is professor emeritus of the department of near eastern languages and civilizations at Yale University and former curator of the Yale Babylonian Collection.
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