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James Kugel and Wellhausen’s Resignation

Curious Jew has posted notes from of a very interesting talk giving by Prof. James Kugel at YU. (Also linked to here.) While the title of the talk was “Midrash Before Hazal: Why It’s Important For Orthodox Jews,” Kugel touches upon a number of other topics. During his talk, Kugel mentions that Julius Wellhausen resigned from his faculty position at a Protestant seminary over the conflict that he saw between what he was teaching his students and his having to train them to be Protestant clergy.

I became a theologian because the scientific treatment of the Bible interested me; only gradually did I come to understand that a professor of theology also has the practical task of preparing the students for service in the Protestant Church, and that I am not adequate to this practical task, but that instead despite all caution on my own part I make my hearers unfit for their office. Since then my theological professorship has been weighing heavily on my conscience.

See here for the source of the quote and more details about this episode in Wellhausen’s life. I think that Wellhausen’s doubts and trepidations are shared by many who practice the critical study of religious texts while still believing in their canonical and religious status. A bit awkwardly formulated, but I think that you get the idea.

15 Responses to “James Kugel and Wellhausen’s Resignation”

  1. 1

    This despite the implict Protestant agenda in Wellhausen’s work?

  2. 2
    Harry Perkal:

    I really respect DR. James Kugel’s clarity in his scholarship and in his writings, especially his latest book. But when it comes to any questions how he reconciles his proof of the Documentary Hypothesis with his Orthodox beliefs and or practices, obstufication rules. This is true at the end of his book ” How to Read the Bible”, his web site, or the current YU forum. I think of myself- perhaps wrongly- as a reasonably intelligent person, but I have no idea what Dr, Kugel is talking about when he claims that scholors who claim the truth of Documentary Hypothesis does not contradict the the divine nature of the Torah. Yes it does -in any rational world that I live in. There is that slight trick of hand claiming that the Torah is ” divinely inspired”- as if it is the same thing as the revelation at Sinai. Besides, the phrase “divinely inspired” is an intellectally meaningless phrase. How is someone actually “inspired”, can we believe that person, how do we measure inspiration, what authority do we give it, can anyone claim ” Divine Inspiration”, etc,etc ? The real problem is that once the major myth of any revealed religion is brought into question, the very basis of authority in that religion can crumble. If we want to maintain Judaism as a living religion for the future one needs to confront this major problem, and not use words to confuse the issue. I expect more from Dr. Kugel. Harry Perkal

  3. 3


    100% agree. I read his latest book and thought “wow, what a well-written, easy to understand, yet current, survey of biblical scholarship.” Then I got to the last 20 pages and thought “wow, is this guy fooling himself or what?”

  4. 4
    Menachem Mendel:

    Kugel is not a theologian and maybe it took a frum bible scholar of his stature to say that there is a problem which needs to be addressed. Now serious theologians should try and offer answers which might be clearer and more comprehensive.

  5. 5

    >This despite the implict Protestant agenda in Wellhausen’s work?

    But not Protestant orthodoxy. Le-moshol, a great deal of non-orthodox Judaic scholarship may nevertheless be saturated with Judaic content; but this would not make much of a difference to many a truly Orthodox Jew, and it might even seem orthodox to the outsider.

    Menachem Mendel: Orthodoxy needs a Leiman, not a Kugel to identify the problem needing to be addressed. I am not a tzitzit checker, and nothing against Kugel, but there are certain signifiers L has which Kugel does not, which make someone like the former the right person for the frum community, but the latter one who won’t reach too many ears.

  6. 6
    Menachem Mendel:


    It depends on which sub-set of the Orthodox community one is trying to approach. You are right that S. Leiman would be able to “speak the language” of certain sectors that Kugel probably couldn’t reach, but neither of them are theologians or even skilled polemicists.

  7. 7


    Well, I’m probably a bit more left-wing than S., and am probably at the extreme left wing of MO. I have problems with Kugel’s approach. Many of the folks in my shul who read his latest similarly have problems with it. He is not viewed, even in our world, as a “frum scholar”. He is viewed, at best, as an academic who happens to be Orthoprax.

    I don’t have a problem with his academic work — not that I agree wholeheartedly with it, but he’s an academic, that’s what they do. My problem is with him trying to say that it’s ok for a frum Jew to believe this, particularly since he doesn’t do a terribly good job explaining how one can reconcile critical scholarship with a belief, heck any belief, in divine revelation.

    We may read Kugel to be edgy, but I keep my copy in my office and not in my house, and we’re not going out agitating for more discussion of Bible Crit in shul.

    S.: I think R. Prof. Leiman does a good job in exploring historical oddities of halacha, but does he tackle core issues like Biblical authorship? I don’t know that I’ve seen anything like that.

  8. 8

    jdub- see Leiman’s response to M. Breuer in ‘Modern Scholarship in the Study of the Torah.’

  9. 9

    Is that one of the Orthodox Forum works? Do yo know if it’s available online?

  10. 10

    >Well, I’m probably a bit more left-wing than S., and am probably at the extreme left wing of MO. I have problems with Kugel’s approach. Many of the folks in my shul who read his latest similarly have problems with it. He is not viewed, even in our world, as a “frum scholar”. He is viewed, at best, as an academic who happens to be Orthoprax.

    Thanks for articulating better what I meant. That’s the point: no one views James Kugel as “frum.” I don’t even think he would use the word to describe himself, and not only because of his non-Ashkenazic roots.

    As for Leiman, whether he is a jack of all trades and master of none, or jack of all trades AND master of some, he does indeed know a lot about biblical issues. In fact, his doctorate is on the canonization of the Bible, and one of his early publications was as editor of a collection of seminal (and some not so-seminal) articles on the Bible canon and masorah. And as Andy said, he addressed the issue head on in that Orthodox Forum essay (albeit, not necessarily to anyone’s satisfaction – he acknowledged that the issue is a problem [for Orthodoxy], and maintained that Breuer’s solution is no solution for Orthodoxy.

    It is indeed available online:

  11. 11

    s- thanks for mentioning that website, he has some articles there that I did not know were available online.

  12. 12

    S- you rock. What is the parent website for that? I love reading Prof Leiman’s stuff.

  13. 13
    S.: . He is the principal of the sort of day school I think I would have enjoyed attending as a child. There are some good resources there.

  14. 14

    Gotcha! Like Geiger whose works were decidedly pro-jewish and anti-christian but who definitely can’t be called Orthodox.

  15. 15

    wolf- a better mashal might be Ginzberg’s experience with HUC.




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