When the Harvard scholar James Kugel was in his mid-fifties, he was diagnosed with a particularly nasty form of cancer. He was not expected to live too many more years.

In the process, the everyday background music of his life began to recede. The gossip, the arguments and the small to-do lists that comprise a life's internal racket all began to disappear.

You can hear James Kugel's story on Ideas, on CBC Radio One on Wed., Sept. 28, at 9:00 p.m., 9:35 p.m. NL.

It was as if the cancer turned down the volume control in his mind and an eerie silence took command.

Like so many in his situation, Kugel began treatment and now, more than a decade later, he's still alive.

The hubbub of a (nearly) normal life has returned and it has left us with a beautiful testimony of those earlier years, with his new book, In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief.

God is bigger

This is not your usual cancer survival story (those being complex and particular to each sufferer). Kugel doesn't even tell us what kind of cancer he was diagnosed with. In a way, his illness plays a background role to something much more grand — his relationship with his Creator.


Biblical scholar James Kugel. (Photo from his website)

A little context here: For Kugel's entire professional life, for over 20 years at Harvard and now at Bar Ilan University in Israel, he has studied the Hebrew Bible and the God of the ancient Hebrews. He's a leading authority in his area, a successful teacher. He's written several books on this subject, including The God of Old.

Another thing he doesn't tell you in this scholarly meditation is that he is an Orthodox Jew.

Odd, perhaps, to leave out such significant details. But in age of too much information about too little, Kugel's tale is a moving exploration about the way humans experience the sacred.

The nature of God, of course, can fill volumes. Many, like Thomas Aquinas's classic Summa Theologica or Moses Maimonides's The Guide for the Perplexed are systemic works that read like law books. Tough stuff — even for God's angels, I suspect.

But Kugel has a poetic sensibility and he likes to tell stories, like the one he tells in The God of Old and now again in The Valley of the Shadow, that cut through the fog and the confusion of how to think about the Creator.

In this case, it is a story he heard from an old Iraqi Jew who told him to forget the complexity and remember that, in the Middle East, we think God is very big, while humans, on the other hand, are very small.

The formulation has an elegant simplicity and works with the parallel structure you find in so much of the Bible (and hear from the more literate of today's politicians). But what the heck does it mean?

God isn't just very big, like some giant from "Jack and the Beanstalk," squashing humans at will. You can't even draw an analogy: God is to us as we are to ants. God is simply, Kugel tells us, in a different existential category.

But for secular people, that relationship has changed over the past few hundred years.

Today, humans are very big. Or at least we think we are. And God, though he might seemingly be everywhere, is remote. You might barely even think about him, until you face death, perhaps. Then the existential doors part wide.

Facing death, you might come to the conclusion that man is not the measure of all things, to twist the famous saying around. There's something else, whispering, calling, giving hints here and about. As James Kugel asks of the silence, "Who is calling?"

A mysterious stranger

God was certainly very big when He was talking down to Moses, for example. But, as Kugel informs us from his study of the ancient Hebrews, God could also appear in the guise of a human being, or as an angel (who is later identified as simply God).


A piece of an ancient parchment believed to be part of the most authoritative manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, the Aleppo Codex. Software developed at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, has researchers looking into the multiple authors who wrote the Bible.

He shows up as a mysterious stranger and the biblical folks don't even know who is before them.

In fact, for the ancient Hebrews, the world of ordinary reality and the world of the sacred were divided by a slim curtain. Sometimes the curtain opens and an eerie presence appears and, as Kugel says, sits "in front of our own noses."

Today, though, we no longer have this feeling of the ready otherness of God. Instead, our conception (if we have one) is of a distant tribune who holds sway over the universe, having set down His laws in an earlier time.

For raging atheists and uncertain agnostics, non-belief is liberating. For them, God is simply a creation of the human imagination.

But for James Kugel, belief in God "is a kind of openness" to life's mystery that allows him to maintain an awed but intimate relationship with a transcendent God and His commandments. As a cancer survivor and poet scholar, he must also be profoundly grateful that, for whatever reason, the music of his life has been restored to him.