A standing-room-only crowd turned out at The Jewish Theological Seminary to hear Professor James L. Kugel address the question, “Can The Torah Make Its Peace With Modern Biblical Scholarship?”
Author of the acclaimed How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, cited by the New York Times as one of the fifty most notable nonfiction books of 2007, Professor Kugel discussed the provocative topic at the Ben Zion and Baruch M. Bokser Memorial Lecture last month at JTS. Close to six hundred people filled Feinberg Auditorium and the “overflow auditorium" created by the JTS New Media Department in the JTS Dining Hall. A podcast of the program is now available.
The lecture was established by Mrs. Kalia Bokser and her daughter-in-law Mrs. Ann Wimpfheimer as a tribute to their late husbands, Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser (father) and Rabbi Baruch M. Bokser (son), z”l, with the goal of furthering their academic areas of interest, namely Talmud, and ancient and rabbinic Judaism.
In welcoming the crowd, JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen described Professor Kugel as "a reader always insightful and careful. He is a thinker who is deep and original." He also acknowledged Mrs. Bokser and Mrs. Wimpfheimer for their generous support of the program, as well as Dr. Richard Kalmin, JTS Theodore R. Racoosin Chair of Rabbinic Literature, who worked with the Bokser family to bring the program to fruition.
Professor Kugel, who is director of the Institute for the History of the Jewish Bible and chairman of the department of Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel has written that:
. . . modern readers of the Bible are caught between two opposite ways of reading.
On the one hand, the ancient interpreters’ way is crucial for what most people still
wish to believe about the Bible and its message. On the other hand, the way of
modern scholars, which seems to make good, scientific sense, has undermined
a great deal of what those ancient interpreters said. So what are we to do? If we
adopt the modern scholars’ way of reading, in a very real sense the whole Bible
will be undone—much of its ethical instruction, its basic commandments, prophetic
visions, and heartfelt prayers will turn out to be something other than what they
have always seemed; indeed, the divine inspiration of all of Scripture will be seen
to be undermined. But surely we cannot simply hide our heads in the sand and
pretend that modern scholarship does not exist.
Professor Kugel's talk centered on the question of whether it is still possible for Torah to occupy its central place in Judaism when modern scholars have done so much to throw into question its unity and historical accuracy.
According to Professor Kugel, "The Bible never was merely the original meaning of its various components. Its authority as the word of God was from the beginning a shared affair . . . Whatever modern Biblical scholarship has shown us about the original meaning of Biblical texts, that original meaning has always been only the beginning of the text, its full significance only develops later on. . ."
The annual Bokser Memorial Lecture is one of many public lectures sponsored by JTS. For information on upcoming programs, visit or contact the Department of Public Events at (212) 280-6093. To access podcasts of other JTS lectures and the weekly Torah Commentary, visit JTS Podcasts on iTunes.