God in Judaism

Last week at Pardes marked the end of a four-part lecture series given by professor James Kugel, one of the preeminent scholars of the Bible alive today.  He painted an extremely interesting picture in answering the question that titled the lectures: Has Modern Biblical Scholarship Killed the Bible?  The lectures will be available on YouTube, so I will not try to summarize, but rather will focus on a couple of points that were specifically highlighted in his last lecture.

A bunch of us decided to show our true colours and get really excited about having our picture taken with Prof. Kugel

Professor Kugel  made it clear that as long as the Torah has been considered a sacred text, people have been interpreting it in whatever ways were appropriate to the time.  In the earliest days, that seems to have included changing the text itself, adding and subtracting as was seen fit (his main example was that two extant versions of the Book of Jeremiah are thought to have existed for a long time side-by-side).  Later, interpretation would not alter the text itself, but rather the meaning of words in the text — classic rabbinic midrash highlights this approach.  After the rabbinic period, commentators engaged in all sorts of methods, and the ways in which classic Jewish texts are printed highlights how the conversation continues to this day.  As such, Kugel sees the Torah as simply being the first volume in a work of exegesis that has stretched from Biblical times till now, and will continue as long as people are interested in interpreting the central texts of our tradition.  What is this history-stretching work focused on?  Kugel implied that the ‘title’ of this work could be How to Serve Hashem.  Judaism, as a religion, is about serving Hashem, and Scripture — defined in this fashion, as one never-ending work — is meant to help us get there.  Put another way, when engaging with Scripture and the attendant commentaries, Jews have always seen sacred text as the first word, but not the last word.

While this is indeed a beautiful and novel take on the history of Judaism’s relationship to its most cherished texts, I was left wondering why God needs to figure into this picture.  Professor Kugel is a self-defined Orthodox Jew, and as such not surprisingly holds onto certain traditional tenets of Judaism as practiced by Orthodox Jews.  For instance, within the picture described above, Kugel believes that Scripture was divinely inspired, and, as already noted, Kugel frames the goal of all of these texts as a collective as being the service of Hashem.  I left struggling with why God needs to be part of such a history.

In order to understand the source of the tension I felt, I had two big questions to answer: (a) Is it wrong in some sense to be a theist, and if so, why? (b) Is it wrong for a scholar like Kugel to make God prominent in his thought for the express purpose of ‘widening the tent’ of those willing to listen to his arguments?

Naturally, a proper treatment of the first question would be book-length, but let me briefly consider what such an answer would have to cover to be satisfying.  First, I want to make clear that the theist I have in mind is someone who truly believes in the God depicted in the Torah — and while I have done absolutely no research on the subject, I would be willing to bet that many, many Jews do not believe in this God in the sense I have in mind.  For those who do, I have two main areas of concern.  The first is Ockham’s Razor, and the problem on this line of argument is that positing the existence of a traditionally understood God adds to the believers ‘metaphysical baggage’ — in other words, such an understanding of our universe requires more entities to exist, and in this case a specifically ‘burdensome’ one, which contradicts the economy and simplicity that the theory favours.  While Ockham’s Razor is a basic tenet of much of Western thought, I realize that such an argument will hardly convince those who think God ought to be listened to before some 14th century Englishman.  The second reason why I think belief in a God like the one described in the Torah is problematic derives from the actions that such a belief might engender.  One only need glance very briefly at any newspaper in this country to see countless examples of how deep belief in the ultimate authority of a text can lead to consequences involving much human suffering.  This is ultimately my greatest concern about the continuation of a dogmatic theism (by which I mean a theism attaching to a centuries-old religion).

On the topic of ensuring that one’s message reach the widest possible audience, Kugel may well be able to reach a much broader swath of the traditionally observant Jewish population by placing Hashem front-and-center in his scholarship.  Upon reflection, I have no problem with this idea.  The caveat is that Kugel did not say — at least at Pardes, though I have not read his books — explicitly that that is why he gives pride of place to Hashem.

At the end of the day, belief in God is quite possibly the prototypical case of an argument where both sides see their own belief as so obviously the starting point of the argument as to be incredulous that anyone would suggest otherwise.  I learned that I have to work on that close-mindedness myself, and I hope that we can all appreciate the brilliance of scholarship such as Kugel’s while leaving the debate about the existence of God for another discussion.

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