The Bible for dummies — and experts

James L. Kugel figures his book will attract readers from diverse religious backgrounds, both those who are well-versed in the Bible and those who’ve never read the ancient text. He understands both audiences well.

He begins with a cautionary note to those of traditional faith — and he counts himself as part of this group — explaining that the book deals with modern biblical scholarship, including many ideas that contradict the accepted teachings of Judaism and Christianity.

In “How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now” (Free Press, $35) — which recently won the 2007 Jewish book of the year prize of the National Jewish Book Awards — Kugel’s interest is not only in what the text says, but in what a modern reader is to make of it.

Kugel’s approach is compelling and original: A professor emeritus at Harvard and professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, he looks in tandem at two different approaches to studying and understanding the Bible — those of the ancient interpreters and those of modern biblical scholars. The former was a largely anonymous group of scholars, living from 300 B.C.E. to 200 C.E., who set about explaining the meaning of the texts; their stories, prophecies and laws have been passed on for generations. As Kugel, who speaks 10 languages, explained, “For most of our history, what the Bible meant was what the ancient interpreters had said it meant.”

The latter, scholars at work for the last 150 years or so, integrate the work of archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and historians, trying to find the original meaning of these texts, before the ancient interpreters added their own meaning. They study the Bible the same way they would approach any literary text, and theorize that the texts are from different sources and by different authors.

The author of several books including “The God of Old” and “The Great Poems of the Bible,” Kugel spent 21 years at Harvard, where he taught one of the most popular courses: an introductory Bible class that enrolled more than 900 students each semester. This more than 800-page book has its basis in that course.

Kugel believes that the author of a work of scholarship should remain in the background, but he recognizes that readers will want to know who he is and where he stands. An Orthodox Jew, he says he sees the divine origins of the text, but has also devoted much of his life to studying and teaching modern biblical scholarship. Brutally honest throughout, he admits that certain aspects of his studies have been troubling to him over the years.

“If we adopt the modern scholars’ way of reading,” he writes, “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.”

His advice to readers: “Keep your eye on the ancient interpreters.”

The ancient sages, scribes and teachers shared four assumptions: that the Bible was essentially a cryptic text and one thing could mean another; that the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day; that the Bible contained no contradictions or mistakes; that the Bible was entirely a divinely given text. Modern scholars try to undo these assumptions.

Kugel writes with ease and wit; he’s at home in the world of serious scholarship and makes it accessible, as he leads the reader through the Bible. He also enjoys an occasional pop culture reference, like citing, in his chapter on Isaiah, Woody Allen’s cautionary reworking: “The lion and the calf shall lie down together, but the calf won’t get much sleep.”

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.

Krazy for Kugel

It has a solid, stodgy presence on any dinner plate; it comes in as many flavors as Baskin-Robbins, but the most popular are noodle and potato. It can be served as side dish or, in some cases, a dessert. It can be sweet or savory, soft or firm, and though almost everyone can recognize a piece if placed in front of them, most would have a hard time defining what a kugel actually is.

The crude English definition of the Yiddish word is pudding, but that is not only an inadequate way to describe that square piece of — well, kugel that graces so many Jewish meals but incorrect also, given that “pudding” has a distinct dessert connotation, of which a hearty piece of kugel often has no part.

No, kugel is definitely more than pudding, and how much more will be seen this Sunday, when kugel aficionados will gather to wow the cognoscenti of the food world with their kugel creations at Yiddsihkayt Los Angeles’ Kugl Kukh-Off.

Any kind of kugel is eligible for entry — noodle, potato, zucchini, sweet potato, etc. A panel of celebrity food judges, which will include Gourmet Magazine’s New York restaurant critic Jonathan Gold and Gastronomica magazine’s Darra Goldstein, will be on hand. The winner will receive a coveted blue ribbon. Other prizes will include restaurant vouchers and cookbooks.

“People can get really passionate about their kugel,” said Aaron Paley, founder of Yiddishkayt Los Angeles. At a “board meeting, I asked, ‘Where can you go to buy kugel?’ and everyone said, ‘Oh no, kugel is not something that you buy, kugel is something that you have to make!’ Food is still a critical way that people connect to their Yiddish culture, so we thought that this would be a great way to reach out to the community.”

Yiddishkayt Los Angeles’ first Kugl Kukh-Off is
co-sponsored by Valley Cities Jewish Community Center and the USC Casden
Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life. The event will take
place on Sunday, Feb. 15, 1:30-5 p.m. at Valley Cities Jewish Community Center,
13164 Burbank Blvd., Sherman Oaks. For more information, call (323) 692-8151 or
visit .

For the Kids

This year Rosh Hashana was on Sept. 6 and Yom Kippur will start Sunday night, Sept. 15. In between them, during the 10 Days of Repentance, was Sept. 11. It was a day of sadness when we remembered the 3,000 people who died, and it was a day of looking toward the future. The ruins are cleared away and it is now time to think about rebuilding.

On Yom Kippur we do the same. We spend the day clearing away the ruins of the last year: saying goodbye to mistakes and bad feelings. In the evening, when all is clean and pure, we rebuild: will we be respectful sons and daughters, students and friends? Let’s match the building of new structures at Ground Zero with the building of stronger inner selves.

A Finger-Lickin Break Fast Kugel

1 1¼2 sticks (3¼4 cup)

salted butter or margarine

3¼4 cup dark brown sugar

1 cup pecans, halved

1 pound wide noodles

4 large eggs

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1¼2 cup sugar

2 teaspoons salt

1. Melt half the butter in a 12-cup mold or tube pan.

Swirl it around the bottom and up the sides.

2. Press the brown sugar into the bottom and press the pecans into the sugar.

3. Boil the noodles according to the package directions and then drain. Mix with the eggs, the remaining butter, melted, cinnamon, sugar and salt and pour into the mold.

4. Bake in a preheated 350 F oven for one hour and 15 minutes or until the top is brown. Let sit for 15 minutes before unmolding. The top will become slightly hard like a praline.

Serve cold or at room temperature.