Kugel’s most recent and most personal book, In the Valley of the Shadow, does not profess to be a work of scholarship, although it does reflect his deep and wide-ranging knowledge. It is, rather, the fruit of Kugel’s reflection on his state of mind when he learned that he had a serious form of cancer. He describes this state as a moment when the background music of life abruptly ceased, leaving him suddenly small and alone, surrounded by a great silence. Looking back on this moment, Kugel finds in it something of (as his subtitle puts it) “the foundations of religious belief”: a sense of stark confrontation with the divine.
There’s much more. It’s fascinating how the words ‘you have cancer’ change people. It’s bizarre as to why, unless we somehow or other think we’re going to live in this world forever. Or maybe we just never believe that we will die.