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In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 1, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


Praise for In the Valley of the Shadow:

"Kugel has the great critic's knack for making difficult poetry seem much easier than it is...When he talks openly about his new, chagrined grasp of his all-too-human condition, he adds something raw and beautiful to his exegetical prowess." (The New York Times Book Review)

"Kugel has used his wide-ranging knowledge to affirm religious faith,doing so richly." (Publishers Weekly)

"[Kugel] is a powerful academic mind...a captivating miscellany of sweetness, hope, information, scholarship, sobriety, uncertainty and humour...His elegant prose, his extreme literary competence, and his tone -- not at all maudlin -- together make watching him tenaciously pursuing the fleeting a welcome pleasure." (Winnipeg Free Press)

"Rich with original, exciting ideas...[In the Valley of the Shadow] is about a man's sense of wonder as he ponders being a self-contained being in a vast universe." (The Seattle Times)

"Kugel has always worn his great erudition not just lightly but alluringly, anda memoir/polemic frees him as never before." (America Magazine)

"Written with eloquence suitable to a scholar of Biblical poetry, Kugel's memoir-cum-meditation will appealto thoughtful Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike." (Library Journal)

About the Author

James L. Kugel is Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University, and a regular visiting Professor of Biblical Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.  He is the author of a number of books of biblical scholarship, including How to Read the Bible (2007), for which he won the National Jewish Book Award for best book, The Great Poems of the Bible (1999), and The Bible As It Was (1997). In 2001, Kugel was awarded the prestigious Grawemeyer Prize in Religion.  He lives in Jerusalem, Israel, and in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; First Edition edition (February 1, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439130094
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439130094
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #819,915 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

James L. Kugel, Starr Professor of Hebrew at Harvard from 1982 to 2003, now lives in Jerusalem. A specialist in the Hebrew Bible and its interpretation, he is the author of The God of Old and The Great Poems of the Bible. His course on the Bible was regularly one of the two most popular at Harvard, enrolling more than nine hundred students.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Braunschvig on August 12, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A great study of religion from the inside.

Kugel is basically a Jewish biblical scholar, but in writing this book, he has put together snippets from other religious traditions as well: and analyzed them with help from the writings of contemporary ethnographers, evolutionary biologists, and neuroscientists. All this is part of his attempt to understand why religion seems to be such a universal phenomenon. Is it something that is just hardwired into the human brain? A bit like what Steven Pinker says about grammar?

What Kugel suggests is that "how we think about God or the gods is very much connected to how we conceive of ourselves". By this he seems to mean that our now-fading, primal sense of human smallness--which he describes so vividly in talking about his own feelings after having been diagnosed with cancer--is a state of mind that was simply built into pre-modern man, and it's still present in a lot of non-Western societies today. But in times of crises of life and death, this smallness is brought back with a vengeance. See, for instance, Roger Martin du Gard's Jean Barois, a confirmed atheist, when seeing death come to him in an accident, viscerally prays to the Virgin Mary, to his subsequent dismay.

In search of its origins, Kugel makes his from the Bible to ancient Mesopotamia to the hunter-gatherers of Tasmania and beyond--and then back still further, to what anthropologists and brain scientists have been able to piece together about earliest man's sense of the divine.

This may make the book sound like an abstract, academic treatise, but what saves it is Kugel's constant filtering of these insights through his own illness, which is another way of saying, through the death that awaits us all.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Diamond of the Highlands on July 3, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition
James Kugel, the leading biblical scholar of our time, offers us a truly unique hybrid of impeccable objective scholarship and personal experience in confronting imminent death. Kugel masterfully weaves between modern poetry, literature, ancient biblical verse, anthropology, history, theology, and neuroscience in the struggle to wrest meaning out of the realization that life's end is imminent and the music, as he puts it, that accompanies the vitality of a rich and productive existence has come to an abrupt stop. In an age that is rife with trite and shallow new age ramblings, Kugel's latest book, boldly addresses the ultimate questions we must all face at some point, though hopefully later than he faced it in his own life. He does so with poignancy, historical sensitivity, humour, acute mastery of languages, both ancient and modern, and, above all, an abiding religious faith that is informed by both an unrivalled proficiency in the history of ancient religions and the development of the biblical canon, as well as an existentially dedicated commitment to his own religious tradition. What results is a profound book that offers fresh insights into age old questions that have haunted humanity since its inception.
From here on in it is simply not possible to engage in any serious attempt to grapple with those questions without the aid of Kugel's book.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Shalom Freedman HALL OF FAME on November 12, 2011
Format: Hardcover
James Kugel is one of the greatest living Biblical scholars, especially in his reading of Hebrew Biblical Poetry. Approximately ten years ago he was informed that he had cancer, and most likely had only a short time to live. He describes the way he reacted to this how the background music that had always accompanied his life suddenly stopped playing. His illness however led him to reflect again the origins of Religion and its universality, on in a sense the meaning of it all. In this reflection he made use of wide - reading not only of religious texts but of contemporary research in a wide variety of areas from anthropology to neuroscience. In the course of this he speaks of how Mankind has developed increasing control of areas that once were considered exclusively under the domain of God, or Divine Mystery. This increasing human control, this increasing human sense of greatness Kugel contrasts with a traditional human sense of our own smallness, and his present sense of his own smallness. In another sense there is the feeling that Kugel is somehow making an argument for our ultimate smallness, and our ultimate connection with the Mystery and Being of God.
But my summary here does not do justice to the variety and richness of insights he has on religious life, and on human historical development.
The book concludes with the spontaneous and mysterious cure from cancer, which his doctors of course inform him, may possibly recur. Kugel does not go into great depth in dramatizing the whole process of his illness development and his feeling about it. But he does provide a broad and interesting perspective on the human situation and its meaning.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By tspencer on October 29, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This book is superb for what it is: the reflections on religion--and sometimes even religious reflections--of a card-carrying Ivy League intellectual. What do I mean by that? You can smell Steven Pinker down the hall, and the world remains basically disenchanted. That being said, Kugel brings us right up to the edge of enchantment with a sensitive religious phenomenology. He brings us into a world--which he persuasively presents as the "real" one--in which the Western ego is cut down to size and we feel the "starkness" of our existence. The Outside becomes the real "self" to the religious cast of mind. It is moving how Kugel spins all of this with his own recent brush with death as a cancer patient, and his broad range of literary, scientific, and historical reference is genuinely impressive. The only melancholy thing about this book--apart from the constant reference to death--is its inability or unwillingness to accept anything like the supernatural. "God" seems to be no more than the world-as-seen-from-the-Outside, and thus a state of mind. But I liked the book very much. It is both personal and rigorous, which is a good combination.
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