Best known for his series of books on reading and understanding the Bible, James Kugel, emeritus professor of Hebrew literature at Harvard University who now lives in Jerusalem, turned to a more-personal subject in his latest book — his confrontation with an aggressive form of cancer a decade ago.
In “In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief” (Free Press), Kugel shares part of his experience of confrontation with a potentially fatal illness, and his perspective on mortality through a lens of scripture and Jewish tradition.
The book is both searingly honest and academically detached, offering the Kugel’s personal story with a theological flavor, which apparently is the author’s personality. “If you have been diagnosed with a dangerous cancer,” he writes, “you don’t stop being the person you were before the diagnosis — in fact, you end up doing a lot of the same things you used to do — but you are not even remotely the same.”
The Jewish Week reached Kugel in Israel and asked him about his time dealing with cancer.
Q: Bookstores have shelves of medical autobiographies, replete with diagnoses and medical treatments and side effects. And there are books of classical theology, with learned theories. “In The Valley of the Shadow” is neither, and both. Why did you choose to write such a hybrid book?
A: I suppose it looks a bit like a hybrid, but I think that that’s a result of the book’s overall subject — as well as a reflection of how it came to be. I didn’t decide to write this book right after getting cancer. After I finished chemotherapy and the rest of my treatment, I was in this sort of “waiting mode” that most people who have had the disease will recognize. You can’t really just leave it all behind you, because you don’t know if it’s over yet. But with time, you start to settle a little less tentatively into your chair: I began working on other things, other books.
Still, I never really lost the reality of the state of mind I had in the weeks and months after getting the diagnosis — that sudden realization that the background music of everyday life is now just stopped, completely silent, and the very real feeling that goes with it, what I call “smallness” in the book. So that state of mind is really what the book is about, from start to finish.
It seemed to me so important to try to capture that feeling for readers and dig into it, because it has always seemed to me profoundly connected to being religious. (In fact, long before I got sick I wrote a little chapter about it in another book of mine, “On Being a Jew.”) So after about seven years, I thought I would try to think myself back into that state of mind and understand why it seems so real, and so important for what it means to be a religious Jew. Books about Judaism are often full of high ideas, but they sometimes spiral off into abstractions. I thought that if I kept coming back to cancer, it would help me stay honest and down to earth.
The book’s title omits the rest of the biblical expression, “the shadow of death.” Everyone knows the actuarial reality of cancer — why did you leave “death” out of the title?
I guess I liked the idea of stopping just short of quoting the whole phrase, because that’s what we do in our own lives. The simple fact is that we are all under the shadow of death, and we all know it. But you can’t live your life obsessing about death, so we tend to leave it out most of the time, without quite forgetting it entirely. We get as far as “in the valley of the shadow…” and then go on to something else.
People facing possible terminal illnesses often turn to God for solace, or turn away. You were already a man of faith, a biblical scholar. How did that faith help you face cancer?
I suppose people who are religious are somehow almost always conscious of living in God’s presence, so in that sense they don’t “turn to God” at all. In any case, that’s the way it seemed to me: just a continuation, kind of “this is what’s happening now.”
What’s the best — or worst — advice friends gave you when you got your cancer diagnosis?
I do remember talking to a friend-of-a-friend, who was an oncologist. He was nice enough to look over my medical reports right after my diagnosis. This wasn’t an official “second opinion” — we just met at my friend’s house one night. But what he said was it didn’t really matter what kind of treatment I got, since the game was pretty much over. Was this good or bad advice? I’m sure it was what he really thought, but I don’t think he should have said it quite that way. In any case, I remember not finding it particularly disturbing, because somehow (I don’t know why) I just didn’t think he was right.
How did facing — and beating — cancer effect your spirituality? How are you a different person now?
I certainly don’t think I beat cancer. I was given some very rough chemotherapy, and it seems to have been effective, so far. But I think what this experience did was to help bring the matter of fitting into the world into clearer focus for me. “Smallness” has nothing to do with physical size, or even some character trait like modesty or self-effacement; it’s really about a particular state of mind and how it affects our understanding of how we fit into the world.
The more I looked into it, the more this state of mind seemed an inheritance from our ancient past, and fundamental for the various subjects I ended up writing about — those hunter-gatherer societies and the looming Outside, and everything neuroscientists know (and don’t know) about how our brains seem to be configured in advance to be religious. Because it’s really all about how we see ourselves fitting into the world. That’s the point: our own place in the presence of God.
Do you think you understand the Bible — especially some of the Psalms, which you indicate could have been written by someone with cancer — better now, having faced your own mortality?
I think what I’ve come to understand better is why Tehillim, the Psalms, is such an important book. You know, as Jews our attention is mostly focused on the Torah — that’s what we read aloud and discuss every week in synagogue. But Tehillim is so direct if you read it with an open mind.
“Why do we expect the world to be a fair place?” you ask in your book. Was it “fair” that you got cancer?
I don’t say this to my own credit, but after my diagnosis it never occurred to me to ask “Why me?” Honestly, I’m just not set up that way. It was only after a while, and in the context of thinking about religion in general, that I got around to asking what I call the “sickening question”: You see all those other people, old guys in their 70s and 80s; why is it that this one life of mine is going to end so much sooner than theirs? And that, in turn, leads to what seems a much more interesting question: Why should human beings assume (as they seem to assume all over the world, and despite all the obvious evidence to the contrary) that life is somehow fair? Is this something else that’s hard-wired into our brains?
You were working on “The God of Old” when cancer struck. How did cancer affect that book?
I think the ideas in that book were in my head before my diagnosis. But having cancer probably had something to do with the way I wrote it. I have a friend, a Bible professor who is also a Protestant minister and works part-time as a chaplain in a hospital. He gave “The God of Old” to a patient in his ward. After he read it, the patient said to him: “I’ll bet this guy has cancer.” (My friend didn’t know at the time, but later he told me the story.) So I guess some of what I was going through came through that book too.
You write about Job, the biblical figure tested by God in many — to us — hard-to-understand ways. Did you ever feel like Job when you were ill?
No, really not. I am quite awed by the book, but Job himself… That’s just not me.