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Q & A with… Prof. James Kugel

Prof. James Kugel

STAMFORD — A native of New York, Prof. James Kugel was Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University from 1982 to 2003. He retired from Harvard to become director of the Institute for the History of the Jewish Bible at Bar Ilan University in Israel, where he has also served as chairman of the Department of Bible.
A specialist in the Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Kugel is the author of some 60 research articles and 11 books, including “The Idea of Biblical Poetry,” “In Potiphar’s House,” “On Being a Jew,” and “The Bible As It Was,” winner of the Grawemeyer Prize in Religion in 2001. His most recent books include “The God of Old” (Free Press, 2003), “The Ladder of Jacob” (Princeton, 2006), and “How to Read the Bible” (Free Press, 2007), awarded the National Jewish Book Award for the best book of 2007.
Kugel just published “In the Valley of the Shadow: The Authenticity of Religious Belief and What Matters Most in Our Lives (Free Press, 2011), in which he discusses how the diagnosis of cancer in 2000 changed his way of thinking and his view on life. Kugel is a member of the American Academy for Jewish Research, the Association for Jewish Studies, and editor in chief of “Jewish Studies, an Internet Journal.” He will discuss “What the Dead Sea Scrolls Can Tell Us about the Torah” on Shabbat, Feb. 11, at Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford. Recently, Prof. Kugel spoke with the Ledger about his research on this topic.

Q: How did you develop an interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls and their link to Torah? 
A: Actually, my first interest wasn’t in the Scrolls, but in what’s called in Hebrew “the outside books” – Jewish writings from the end of the biblical period that, for one reason or another, ended up being excluded from the biblical canon. Most Jews don’t hear much about these books: the book of Ben Sira, Maccabees, Judith, the book of Jubilees, and so forth. But early on, it struck me that if you read a bit between the lines of these books, you can learn a lot about how the Torah was being interpreted in the third or second centuries BCE. This is important for us today, because so many of those interpretations became a fundamental part of how we think about the Bible, and about Judaism, in our own day. So, I started working on these.
At that time, only part of the Dead Sea Scrolls had been published. But as more and more of the Scrolls began to appear, I gravitated to concentrating on them, because there was so much new material there.

Q: Does the Cairo Geniza contain any materials useful to your research?
A: The Geniza material is mostly from the Middle Ages, but it also includes some copies of much more ancient material. In fact, the very first text to draw the attention of Solomon Schechter – the Cambridge University scholar who first informed the world about the Geniza and brought most of the material to England – was a medieval copy of Ben Sira. This book was originally written in the second
century BCE, but the Hebrew text had been lost for centuries until Schechter identified parts of it among the Geniza fragments. Now, parts of it in Hebrew have been found as well among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Ben Sira himself was a Torah scholar, and what he writes tells us a lot about this early stage of biblical interpretation.
Along with that book, the Geniza has turned up copies of other texts that overlap with some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. For example, an ancient rule book called “The Damascus Covenant” and a book about Jacob’s son Levi, called by scholars “The Aramaic Levi Document.” Both are really interesting: the Damascus Covenant gives us a glimpse of how some of the Torah’s laws were interpreted and applied by a group of Jews who were the rivals of our own spiritual ancestors, and the Aramaic Levi Document reveals a lot about the rules governing the kohanim, the priests who served in the Jerusalem Temple, in the second century BCE.

Q: What were some of your more surprising discoveries? What were some of the most rewarding?
A: I suppose for me, and for most people, the Dead Sea Scrolls library itself was the biggest surprise. Here, for the first time, were ancient manuscripts of most of the books of the Bible in Hebrew – copies going back to the biblical period itself, and older by about a thousand years than our previously oldest copies. Then there were the Hebrew fragments of those “outside books” I mentioned:  books that, for the most part, had only survived before in Greek or Latin or other translations. There were also lots of books previously unknown, books of biblical interpretation, of course, but also collections of wise sayings, new psalms, books of purported divine revelations, last wills and testaments attributed to various biblical figures, and on and on. And in addition to all this were the writings by and about the Dead Sea Scrolls community itself. They lived at a place called Qumran, on the shores of the Dead Sea, and their writings explain their way of life, their religious practices and prayers – some of them strikingly similar to those in our own siddur – and so on.
I suppose in all this the thing that has occupied me the most lately is the book of Jubilees – a book sometimes described as “the oldest commentary on Genesis,” but that only describes its outward form. An amazing book in every respect.

Q: Can you give us a preview of your Feb. 11 presentation in Stamford, “What the Dead Sea Scrolls Can Tell Us about the Torah.”
A: I plan to deal with two particular questions that bothered people in ancient times. No one even thinks of the first one nowadays: Why did it take two stone tablets to write down the Ten Commandments? In late biblical times, everyone knew that you could easily fit 10 commandments on a single tablet – so why did Moses get two? The other question is very much in the news these days: Is a baby to be considered a human life even before it’s born – and if so, at what point in the pregnancy does it start to be viewed as such? This obviously had implications in ancient times for the permissibility of therapeutic abortion, but it also had lots of other consequences, as the Dead Sea Scrolls make clear.
“What the Dead Sea Scrolls Can Tell Us about the Torah:” Shabbat, Feb. 11, 4 p.m., Congregation Agudath Sholom, 301 Strawberry Hill Ave., Stamford | Info: (203) 358-2200 / www.cas-stamford.org.

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