Professor Kugel Teaches the Scripture and Gets Laughs

Starr Professor of Classical, Modern Jewish & Hebrew Literature James L. Kugel is something of an enigma on campus. Arguably Harvard's best-known Orthodox Jew, Kugel approaches the Bible with the critical eye of an academic.

His consistently positive CUE Guide reviews always make reference to Kugel's sense of humor. The professor has a reputation for sprinkling amusing, if not irreverent, commentary into his lectures.

Kugel's popular Core course, Literature and Arts C-37, "The Bible and Its Interpreters," examines ancient interpretations of Scripture alongside modern Biblical scholarship.

Some students in "The Bible" say they are surprised that a man who wears a yarmulke--in keeping with the laws of Orthodox Jewry--shows off his sense of humor while teaching the Good Book.

"I think, actually, that when I do occasionally joke about things, I stand in a grand tradition," Kugel says. "One of the things I try to show students in this course is that traditional interpreters...had this rather odd attitude."

"They were on the one hand deadly serious," Kugel explains, "and yet they did often have a somewhat light-hearted, joking attitude toward what the texts might mean."

Though Kugel's jests are usually received in good spirit, the professor learned that some sports players in the course took offense a few weeks ago when he described Jacob's brother Esau as an "undiscerning athlete."

Kugel made amends during his next lecture by admitting he was himself an "undiscerning athlete" in his youth.

In an interview with The Crimson, Kugel explained he used to be a decent soccer player.

Today, Kugel applies the dexterity he once exhibited on the soccer field to the task of reconciling faith and scholarship.

Many religious traditionalists would never dream of taking up modern Biblical criticism, but Kugel uses works from this genre in his Core course.

"I guess I believe ultimately in some kind of intellectual honesty that has to accompany Biblical study," the professor says.

His own investigation of the history of the Pentateuch--the first five books of the Bible, also known as the Torah--has yielded an insight Kugel considers key to appreciating how the Scripture is viewed today.

Early in "The Bible," Kugel explains that ancient interpreters are responsible for four enduring assumptions about the text.

According to Kugel, the first references to the Bible's cryptic nature, its fundamental relevance, its completeness and its divine origin are found in the exegesis of the ancient interpreters.

"What I do try to show in the course is how much the early interpreters really created the whole image that the Bible has in Judaism and Christianity."