On the “Aesthetic of Religious Simplicity,” Political Theology & Pre-Monarchical Israel


Up until his departure in 2003 for Bar Ilan University, James Kugel was teaching Biblical Criticism at Harvard University for two decades (where he was the Harry M. Starr Professor Emeritus of Classical and Modern Hebrew Literature).   His book, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, draws on these two decades of teaching and condenses them into one large volume (numbering over 700 pages) which spans the entire Bible from Genesis to the Book of Daniel.      What makes the book special is that it reads Biblical Criticism against what Kugel (drawing on Rabbinic, Apocryphal, the New Testament, Christian interpretation, etc.) calls “ancient interpretation.”  The book brings in the insights of Biblical Criticism, archaeology, and history to offer a major challenge to how people ordinarily think about the Bible. The book is, in this sense, truly troubling for a person of faith.   Although Kugel numbers himself amongst those who are Orthodox, he steps outside of that box to present the many challenges that Biblical Criticism offers to Orthodox Judaism and Christianity.

What does his book have to do with schlemiel theory?   Since the schlemiel is often thought of and described as a simpleton, one wonders how far back the notion of the Jew as a simpleton goes. Kugel’s book offers an interesting hypothesis about simplicity that suggests that it has deeper roots in an ancient aesthetic.  And it emerges out of something at once political, theological, and topographic.

One of the most thought provoking reflections I have found in his book are on the Book of Judges and his notion of the “God of Old.”  In this section of the book, Kugel, drawing on Max Weber, discusses the notion of “charismatic leadership.”    Kugel begins this section by noting that “whatever the system of rule, one of the trickiest problems is that of succession” (388).    He shows that the question of succession speaks to a deep crisis and he links this crisis to the emergence of the charismatic leader:

Who will be the next leader?  Unless this question has a clear answer that has been accepted in advance by all members of the society, the old leader’s death can lead to a protracted power struggle, bringing with it the gravest consequences: civil war, economic collapse, or conquest by outsiders.  (388)

But what happens when there is no fixed system for “automatic replacement” (388)?  Kugel explains: “So dangerous is the chaos that might result from not having an established process of succession that, all over the world, people have been willing on principle to accept the king’s son or daughter…without proof that the new ruler will be any good for the job…. almost anything is better than chaos” (388).  This is the background for the Book of Judges: “Israel in the Book of Judges was a society without a king…. There was no successful coordination among the tribes.  Instead, they seem to have had a succession of temporary, ad hoc leaders, the “judges” (388).

They did “not come from a dominant family or rise up through the ranks.   Instead, their rise to power was created by a crisis; something occurred that required someone to take over, and the person in question suddenly emerged” (388).

This unexpected nature and the suddenness of this election, for Kugel, speaks to what Max Weber called “charismatic leadership.”

The first example Kugel uses to explain this sudden and unexpected rise to power is by way of Gideon.   He cites Judges 6:11-15.

11 Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the terebinth at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites. 12 And the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.” 13 And Gideon said to him, “Please, my lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.” 14 And the Lord[a] turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?” 15 And he said to him, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” 16 And the Lord said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.” 

Kugel’s description of this passage is telling.  He describes Gideon as a total simpleton and the scene as comical:

What is relevant in the present context is the angels’ commissioning of Gideon to lead the people.  One can hardly image a less qualified candidate.  The scene opens with Gideon so intimidated by the raiding Midianites that he has to hide his spare grains of wheat inside a winepress.   What a pathetic figure!  The angel’s opening words to him – “The LORD is with you, you mighty warrior” – seem almost a joke in view of his timorousness…Most important, the passage spells out Gideon’s political unfitness to become a leader: he comes from a not particularly powerful tribe, Manasseh, in fact, from the “poorest clan” in that tribe and he himself is “the least in my family.”  (389)

He is, in other words, a simpleton, a schlemiel-like character.  But he, like the Clark Kent character, undergoes a “divine transformation: the “spirit of the Lord” comes over him” and he, like Deborah and other judges in the Book of Judges, is “suddenly capable of great feats (Judg. 11:29; 14:6, 19, 15:14). They are the very model of charismatic leadership” (390).

The people, in Judg. 8:22-23 ask him to rule over them after they are saved from the Midianites.  However, he, like a Simpleton who doesn’t want power, says no.  He is not a total superhero of sorts; he retains his simplicity:

But Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you.” (Judg. 8:22-23)

At the end of his chapter on Judges, Kugel argues, contrary to the Biblical account and drawing on archaeological speculation, that the people who wrote Judges and the people to whom it spoke mark the emergence of the Jewish people in Israel as a people who lived in the mountains.   Kugel speculates that the dislike of kings by many of the Judges – especially Gideon – had to do with the topography of the land in Israel:

According to archaeologists, what was later to become the distinct “Israel group” in Canaan is first attested to in little, undefended settlements on the mountaintops of the central highlands.   There is a reason why they were undefended: conquerors are generally not interested in mountaintop settlements.  In terms of real estate, mountaintops are not nearly as valuable as the fruited plain below…. To capture that land, with its relatively dense population and its other riches, is to win a prize.  By contrast, the sloping rocky terrain of the mountaintops is not particularly easy to farm and is not thickly settled…The fruited plain thrives; the mountaintop survives. (409)

In other words, the Israelites were left to themselves and the culture that they developed reflected this lifestyle.   Kugel argues that they were radically independent and this affected not just their political view but their religious views as well:

The central highlands of the land of Israel are not as high as any of these other mountain ranges (in Kurdistan, Switzerland, etc.), but they are high enough, scholars theorize, to have led to a somewhat comparable state of fierce autonomy in the twelfth or eleventh century BCE.  The people up in the mountains soon grew used to being left alone (that’s why they settled there); scholars do not imagine that they were particularly enthusiastic about any grand reamalgamation of themselves with the valley dwellers, or even with other mountaintop tribes.  (411)

This argument supports Kugel’s argument that many of the Judges dealt with a population that was turned off by Kings and didn’t desire unity with other tribes.   It shows a picture of a people that is fiercely independent and would rather have God for a king that a man.  Only the threat of war brings up the issue of having a leader.

In his chapter on “The Other Gods of Canaan,” Kugel returns to the other aspect of the Israelite people: simplicity.  In the final section of that chapter, he discusses the mountaintop settlements and takes note of their simple life.  He takes note of this in terms of their homes and even in terms of what he calls an “aesthetic of simplicity” that one also finds in the patriarchs (perhaps reflecting an “older” deity):

There was nothing elegant about these houses – in fact, the family members shared their living quarters with some of the family’s livestock, who lived on the bottom floor during at least part of the year and whose pungent odor filled the air.  (Keeping a donkey or cow or two inside the house not only gave these valuable animals safe shelter but also provided additional warmth for the family during the chilly months of winter.)  (433)

Kugel goes on to describe how all families lived together and how they were in tune with the cycles of nature: “The crops they grew and ate, like the animals they raised and bred, kept them altogether tied to the cycles of nature” (433).   Their religion reflected this simple life:

The religious practices of these people were quite in keeping with the other aspects of their life, archaeologists say; here too, simplicity reigned…. The archaeological remains suggest…. a rather uncomplicated religious regime, practiced in individual homes or village wide, in “cult rooms” and local shrines (“high places”), on in the open-air, hilltop areas like the twelfth-century “Bull site discovered in northern Samaria. (433)

Delving into the Bible, Kugel depicts much of the aesthetics in the Bible as reflecting such simplicity:

He must have somehow seemed – despite other similarities and synchretisms – different from other deities.  He did not (as we have seen to be the case with gods and goddesses in Mesopotamia) dwell inside a statue set off in a magnificent house (that is, a temple) constructed for Him.  Instead, He was worshipped at what appear to be deliberately crude installations: He might infuse or appear above a standing stone (massebah) or in a sacred grove (asherah) for a time, or else reveal Himself to a chosen servant at an oak tree or another outdoor site; then He disappeared.   His presence, in any case, was not captured by the skilled work of human hands. This practice may be said to reflect a similar aesthetics of religious simplicity, perhaps a historic descendant of the outlook of those early hilltop settlers.  Under this same rubric of simplicity one might list the blunt laws of the Ten Commandments – “Do this!” and “don’t do that” (so different from the complicated case law of Mesopotamian legal codes) …. In keeping with this same aesthetic of religious simplicity is the Bible’s commandment to build only plain, dirt altars, or, if stones were to be used, then only unhewn stones (Exod. 20:24-25).  (434)

But he doesn’t stop there.  He goes on talk about the Patriarchs and argues that “no professional clergy exists in their world…instead the Patriarchs themselves slaughter and sacrifice animals to God at their homemade altars, spontaneously turning to God in prayer and acknowledgement, wherever they may be.  God sometimes appear to them in the guise of a fellow human being, at least for a time – then they recognize the truth and fall to the ground in worship” (434).   Kugel uses the word “God of old” to describe this simple experience of astonishment.

He concludes his argument by arguing – as all Biblical Critics do – that the authors (plural) of the tales of the patriarchs and of the Judges may have come from pre-Monarchical Israel.  This hypothesis suggests that with the election of a king and the construction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, new ideas took shape that went contrary to these less elaborate views of life and religion.

Simplicity was replaced by complexity and an aesthetics that was far from simple, more ornate, and connected to a different political theology.   Nonetheless, Kugel argues that this is where monotheism got its first roots.   The God of Sinai had migrated, in his view (drawing on what is called the “Midianite Hypothesis”) from the south (on Mt. Sinai) to the mountaintops of Israel and eventually to Mount Zion.

Kugel’s read on Gideon, coupled with his read on simplicity in the context of archaeological gleanings, suggests that the simpleton (which Ruth Wisse sees as the ancestor of the schlemiel) may have deeper roots in the hilltops of Israel and in a time when monarchy was shunned in the name of a kind of a libertarian spirit.  

Who knows?  As Kugel, well understood and all Biblical critics know, this reflection is based on a hypothesis that hinges on an interpretation of archaeological evidence.  New evidence can always emerge and change things all around.  Even so, Kugel found it necessary to portray the Jewish people as a simple people whose simple roots have a topographical and political basis.

The charismatic leader he portrays in Gideon suggests a situation that we would find in many a schlemiel tale.  After all, he didn’t want to lead – it comes out of nowhere – and when they want him to – despite the fact that he wins a major battle – he abdicates power. 

Like any schlemiel, he would rather live the simple life than take on the role of the charismatic leader.  Clark Kent may love justice and saving lives but, despite this charismatic role, perhaps he, like Gideon, would rather be Clark Kent?

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