Arts and Culture

After cancer, biblical scholar James Kugel considers religious belief

Biblical scholar James Kugel speaking about his new book, "In the Valley of the Shadow," in Pasedena, Calif., Feb. 3, 2011. (Sue Fishkoff)

PASADENA, Calif. (JTA) — When Jewish biblical scholar James Kugel was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cancer in 2000, he didn’t find religion.

The world-renowned academic and author of numerous books, including the acclaimed “How to Read the Bible,” already was a practicing Orthodox Jew.

Instead, Kugel used his own very sudden confrontation with mortality to explore the roots of religious belief in general.

The result, “In the Valley of the Shadow,” published last month by Free Press, is an examination of what happened to Kugel after his diagnosis and how it helped him understand why people believe what they do.

Now cancer-free, Kugel retired in 2003 after 20 years as the Harry M. Starr Professor of Classical and Modern Hebrew Literature at Harvard University. He lives with his wife in Jerusalem, and he serves as chair of the Institute for the History of the Jewish Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan.

In his book, Kugel explains his theory of the “small self” versus the “big self.” The small self, a concept that has existed throughout most of human history, posits the individual as a finite piece of the network of the universe. By contrast, the big self, a concept common among Western people today, refers to those who view the world through the prism of their own all-encompassing presence.

This radical difference in the ancient and modern conceptions of the individual’s place in the world, Kugel writes, affects how we conceive of God: When we are in our small self, we are able to perceive the truth that is outside and greater than ourselves; but when we are “big,” imagining ourselves as filling all of reality, the only place we can conceive of God’s existence is within ourselves.

Kugel discussed these ideas with JTA during a recent visit to the United States.

JTA: This is a very different book for you, less academic than your previous books. Yet you still don’t reveal much about yourself beyond what you experienced when you received your cancer diagnosis.

JK: My wife says I’m the only person capable of writing an autobiography that has no personal details. I don’t like talking about myself and wouldn’t have done it in this book, but it was the only way to get into this state of mind. Books about religion are endlessly abstract. They don’t really touch reality. Cancer has a reality for people. It had a reality to me. This wasn’t an academic exercise. It’s about the things that matter the most to us: Life and death and who we are. There’s nothing less academic than that.

JTA: What happened to you when the doctor said you had maybe four years to live?

JK: Suddenly the music stopped, the music of daily life that is always going in the background and catches you up. It just stopped, and was replaced by nothing at all. Just silence. I was one little person with a little time left to do everything one could possibly do.

After the chemotherapy, which was very hard for me, six months went by and the music came back. I got back to what it means to be a modern, Western self. It didn’t happen all at once. A little bit, then a little bit more. Now it’s practically going all the time. But I can still make it stop sometimes.

JTA: I found this a very sad book. You paint a tragic picture of human development, as we move from an ancient self that is open and able to access the divine, to a contemporary way of being that you describe as “hardened” and “big,” unable or unwilling to conceive of anything beyond our all-important selves.

JK: I wouldn’t characterize it as happy or sad. It’s a tale of human development. But it is true we see the world differently nowadays. We have a certain way of fitting into the world that one would characterize as modern and Western, which is very different from the way people used to conceive of themselves fitting into the world even a few centuries ago in the West. It’s different from the way lots of non-Western societies work even today.

It seems to me that something very basic that lies at the bottom of religious sensibility is something we’re not in touch with very often. It’s pretty elusive — namely, a state of mind. If we were completely divorced from that old state of mind, that old way of fitting into the world, then we would just have to make the best of it. But I think that state of mind is not all that remote from our daily experience. Still somewhere, in some part of our brain, we know that we are essentially pretty small in a big world that isn’t our own creation no matter how much the way we live today seems to make it so. There have been moments of my life, and I think of everyone’s life, when suddenly you see yourself differently, without the background music. Moments of fitting inside your own little space. That interested me. I’m not here to bemoan our modern state, but to try to understand it, particularly in connection with religion.

JTA: What’s Jewish about this book?

JK: This is in some ways my least Jewish book.

JTA: You write that neuroscientists now posit that the human brain may be hard-wired for religious belief.

JK: This is definitely an avenue of research that’s being avidly pursued, and it has been taken up by two rather opposite schools. The religious debunkers want to say religion got started because of a brain abnormality. People for more than a century have known about the connection between epileptic seizures and moments of religious enlightenment, or visions. According to some people, that’s the whole story of all religion — some poor epileptic who has a seizure.

But just before the seizure, there’s a moment called “the aura” by neurologists. That’s a much less violent period. It can last a few minutes, or much longer. In that period, people often report they feel themselves in the presence of a larger being, or part of a larger being. They sometimes even report religious visions.

You can say this is a brain malfunction. But you might just as easily explain what’s happening as a privileged moment, a point at which something in the brain opens up that for one reason or another is usually closed, and you see something that people normally don’t see. We accept that idea when it comes to actual physical vision. We know that the spectrum that the human eye can capture is far less than the whole spectrum of light. There are sounds a dog can hear that we can’t. So the pro-religion side of the argument might say, this is a privileged moment when a person is suddenly able to see.

JTA: You talk about the semi-permeability of the older, small self, and its ability to access what is “outside.” You’re not saying it’s a human need that creates belief. As a believer, you seem to be saying that achieving that small sense of self allows one to access something already out there.

JK: That’s true. But I would also say that both formulations are characteristic of two different senses of self. The issue isn’t God’s sovereignty over the whole world so much as God’s sovereignty over the cubic centimeter of air that sits right at the tip of our noses. Our way of being is to fill the sky with ourselves. That’s really what the music going is all about. We’re ”way up there,” and we’re “way over there.” That wasn’t true of earlier ways of thinking of the self.

Ultimately, we know they’re right and we’re wrong. We don’t fill the sky.  We don’t fill the world. Our whole notion of ourselves is somewhat skewed, rather mythical. From that view of the self, the only way for a human being to account for the divine is to see it somehow as “part of me.” That’s the voice of liberal Judaism, of liberal Protestantism, that God is the force inside each of us. But that’s a reflection of their sense of self. If they had what I’m calling a pre-modern sense of self, they would locate the divine outside themselves in that great “Outside” that is everything that they are not.