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."

While he does not believe modern Biblical scholars will ever stand on common ground with their ancient counterparts, Kugel sees a reason to pursue both lines of Scriptural inquiry.

"I know there are people who feel that modern Biblical scholarship and traditional approaches to the Bible can be reconciled--that there's a great coming together just over the horizon," Kugel says.

"I just don't think that," he adds.

Kugel says he has a "hunch," however, that scholars' efforts to resolve the conflicts between modern and ancient views will lead to increased appreciation for "the whole world of these ancient interpreters."

"Finally, I think, modern scholarship is going to have to, grudgingly, give to these ancient interpreters the credit that they deserve," Kugel says.

The professor, who grew up in New York City and attended Yale University, says he first encountered modern Biblical scholarship in college.

As an undergraduate, however, he studied not the Bible but modern poetry. Before coming to Harvard to earn his master's degree, Kugel embarked on a brief journalism career.

"The most dignified place I worked at was Harper's Magazine," Kugel said. "I was poetry editor there."

Though his interests were primarily literary at this point in his career, being exposed to modern approaches to the Bible at Yale had piqued Kugel's curiosity.

"I knew there were all these people out there--a lot of them didn't even know the Bible nearly as well as I did--who seemed to have this other knowledge... [about] how the texts had been composed," Kugel says.

"I wanted to know all that stuff," he says. "I was frightened by it, but I was also terribly attracted."

And so, Kugel, explains, "The [Core] course is really in some ways the story of my life."

He admits dealing with the modern scholarship is a "bit of a struggle."

"I think I still have the sensibilities of someone who comes from a [traditional] background," Kugel says, "but I also find modern Biblical scholarship quite impressive."

"It's important to be able to see it in its full glory," he adds.

For students with traditional beliefs, Kugel offers a disclaimer at the beginning of his Core course. He tells the class that some of the material he assigns might be unsettling.

But the professor says in almost 20 years of teaching "The Bible," he knows of no student dropping out because of problems with the readings.

In light of his own experience, Kugel recommends exposure to a wide range of Biblical scholarship.

"People who are in the same position as I was [as an undergraduate] would not be well-served by being told, 'Oh forget about [the modern work]. Other people know this, but it's not for you,'" Kugel says.

Asked about how students react to learning that he is an Orthodox Jew, Kugel explained a theory he has developed.

"I hate to say it, but I think there's probably some voyeuristic pleasure... [in] watching someone who does come from traditional religious beliefs dealing with modern Biblical scholarship and its rather unsettling conclusions for those beliefs," Kugel says.

Although he is clearly in the minority as an Orthodox Jew at Harvard, the professor says he finds the atmosphere on campus "altogether congenial."

"My main problem is Kosher food," he says. "It's hard to get that around here, but that's a real minor problem."