I recently attended a lecture by Dr. James Kugel, who was recently in New York for a series of speaking engagements, along with other members of my weekly Kugel with Kugel learning group. The lecture itself focused on letters sent to Dr. Kugel in response to his recent book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now. I was a bit disappointed; though the content was good, Dr. Kugle spent his time on a letter from a reader that Dr. Kugel had already published on his website.
Many readers have hoped that Dr. Kugel would have some new answers to the questions posed by Biblical scholarship to traditional modes of thought. To date, those readers have been disappointed. Like many Jews of his generation, be they scholars, rabbis, or laypeople, Dr. Kugel is basically a compartmentalist. Though he has some non-traditional ideas about the origins of the Biblical text – ideas that are largely consonant with modern scholarship – he does subscribe to the historicity of the Torah, and especially the Exodus. For many Jews of my generation, compartmentalizing the teachings of our faith separately from the results of scientific study is no longer satisfactory.
One question that must come up whenever Dr. Kugel speaks is the challenge posed by an evolving Biblical text to the assumptions of a static, perfect text that undergird the entire tradition of the Oral Torah, from the Mishnah to the Talmud to the latest works by contemporary Orthodox rabbis. It is disturbing to think that the great Jewish sages produced Rabbinical Judaism on the basis of a false assumption! For many, this is a fatal flaw that collapses the entire edifice of Rabbinical Judaism.
But why is that so? The rabbis of the first half of the first millennium BCE had many basic misconceptions about the nature of the world around them. These included a belief in geocentricism, spontaneous generation, and the many ahistorical stories of the Bible. Modern Orthodoxy has already chipped away at some of these notions by finding or originating interpretations that allow its adherents to affirm their scientific beliefs that evolution occurred, that the Earth is billions of years old, and so forth. One might argue that this simply adds a new challenge to belief – why accept that these rabbis had any special access to Divine knowledge if they were mistaken on so many things?
The Torah itself contains the answer:
הַנִּסְתָּרֹת–לַיהוָה, אֱלֹהֵינוּ; וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ, עַד-עוֹלָם–לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת.
The secret things belong unto the LORD our God; but the things that are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.
Explicitly, the Torah tells us that not everything is revealed to us, and that we are only responsible for that which we know. The implication, too often ignored, is that as more is revealed to us, our responsibilities change. Ignoring knowledge, no matter how disturbing to our traditional beliefs that knowledge may be, is ultimately a repudiation of our responsibilities to God, to ourselves, and to our children.
Scientific knowledge has enormous impact on our moral choices. Advances in communicating with the deaf, have changed the halachic status of deaf people from a non-obligated non-entity into full members of religious society. Insights into economics have brought innovations that allow Jews to lend money with interest. Revolutions in medicine have redefined the borders between life and death, and with that, the responsibilities due to those at that threshold.
I propose that the knowledge we have gained about the Biblical text in particular, but about the world and its inhabitants in general must inform our religious philosophy and our moral choices. The sages of our Mesorah certainly did, and we can do no less. We are in no way impugning their spiritual stature or relationship with God, nor are we repudiating their mission and goals. But we must accommodate our newfound knowledge, because all knowledge is ultimately a gift from God, and any new insight into the world is a new insight into Creation, and ultimately is itself a form of revelation that lets us better understand the mind of God.