Zornberg constructs an interpretive biography that examines Moses from many points of view. Joan Roth In “Moses: A Human Life,” Aviva Zornberg offers fresh insight into a familiar story, while reconciling us to our deepening awareness that so much remains unknown. Zornberg never argues for or against the historical veracity of her character. Rather, she constructs an interpretive biography that examines Moses from many points of view and illuminates his lasting legacy for literature, religion and world culture. Nor is she daunted by the limitation of her source material to one main text, the Bible. Zornberg overcomes constraints with her signature embroidery of Midrash, Talmud, chasidic lore, psychoanalysis and secular literature. Sometimes taken together and at other times considered separately, these references form a complex overlay on the source text. Input from thinkers and writers as diverse as D.W. Winnecott, Emanuel Levinas and George Eliot enrich her reflections on Moses, the man and his mission. This book is a good introduction to readers not yet familiar with Zornberg’s approach to biblical narrative. Those well-versed in Zornberg’s earlier commentaries will re-encounter some familiar motifs: the unthought known, the exile of speech, the murmuring deep or underground stream of the biblical unconscious reappear. Many of the themes of her last book, “Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers,” are re-examined from the perspective of Moses as reluctant leader: he who stutters and fails while carrying a rebellious people across the desert, a man who arguably completes his mission but must leave his deepest desire unassuaged. Here, as in “Bewilderments,” it is words and speech (in Hebrew, “dibbur”) that attempt to express “the dynamic of longing,” that which animates the human spirit and leads us “to choose life over death.” Moses is a man delegated by God for a great mission yet from his earliest years, he is afflicted with a speech impediment. Zornberg quotes the French philosopher Levinas, “The language of the Old Testament is so suspicious of any rhetoric without a stammer that it has as its chief prophet a man slow of speech and of tongue.” One of Zornberg’s messages, conveyed through the pathos of Moses’ human life, is that Jewish core values cannot come into being without the cracked or incomplete; it is in imperfection that we find the seeds of spiritual growth. Zornberg, who lives in Jerusalem and is a devoutly Orthodox Jew, is both reverential and iconoclastic in her approach to Moses’ inner life. She provides a thoughtful reading of Moses’ response to the Israelite’s orgiastic worship of the Golden Calf. Moses prays so fervently for Divine forgiveness of the erring people because, in this moment of entreaty, he is shaken to his core by an image of his own (yet-unborn) grandson serving a graven image. Thus, “he comes to a realization about himself: that the fire of idolatry burns in his own bones.” This flash of psychoanalytic insight comes to Zornberg through the Talmud as interpreted through a more modern commentary, Meshech Chochma. In her most accessible chapter, “Moses in the Family,” Zornberg traces Moses’ rivalry with his older brother Aaron and his more complex relationship with Miriam, his older sister. Moses must navigate God’s assignment with sensitivity for his older brother’s compromised prestige. Then he must forge harmony with Miriam, the sister who enabled his birth and ensured his survival in genocidal times. What to do when “her little brother grows bigger and eclipses her. Her prophecy ceases; his begins and flourishes.” The Moses-Miriam relationship remains fierce, fraught and to many modern sensibilities, unfair. In Zornberg’s view, it is in his family dynamic, beginning in the trauma of his abandonment by his birth mother, that Moses finds his formative emotional truths. It is these wounds, lacunae and tensions that serve as both obstacle and pathway to his greatness. “Moses: A Human Life” culminates in the moment of utter defeat when Moses realizes he will not enter The Holy Land. This is, above all, a book about the aspirations and pitfalls of leadership, appearing at a time when we too are witness to the startling rise and fall of political figures on the national stage. (Zornberg’s emphasis on the procreative and destructive power of speech seems particularly important in the current climate.) Her lingering on Moses’ profound disappointment at his failure to touch his people deeply enough for them to rally to his cause is also eerily timely. There is in this book a shade of unprecedented intimacy between the author and her readers. Zornberg writes of a workshop when she portrayed Moses in the thwarted supplicant scene. Putting her “I into the role of self as Moses,” Zornberg began to weep, wondering at the stirring of “such unsuspected depths of pain.” This book reads as a disciplined processing of that pain; it gives rise to a journey that is as personal as it is political. In a moment of self-seeing, Moses’ and Zornberg’s grief mirrors — and makes sacred — our own. Zornberg evokes human truths, striking different chords in each individual. In her encounter with Moses, she confesses to “a harrowing transpersonal experience.” Like her many faithful readers, she “undergoes something that comes from the outside but evokes a profound inwardness.” We may not reach the Promised Land, but we can fold our hearts a little deeper into our own defeat. In her retelling and refracting of the life of Moses, she has brought us closer to Moses, to herself and to the hidden truths about ourselves. Susan Reimer-Torn is the author of the memoir “Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return” (Blue Threads).
Yale University Press 2016 240 Pages $25.00 ISBN: 978-0300209624
Review by Maron L. Waxman The Hebrew Bible is largely silent on the inner life of its characters, leaving their actions to speak for them. In constructing a human life of Moses, prominent Bible scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg turns to a far-reaching range of sources. “Mi anochi—Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” responds Moses when God summons him at the burning bush. Mi anochi? Zornberg takes these words as one of the keys to Moses’ complex and conflicted identity and his painful and personal relation with God. Who is he, son of both an Israelite mother—the mother who bears and suckles him—and an Egyptian princess—the mother who rears him? Who is he, “slow of speech and slow of tongue,” to confront Pharaoh and rally the Israelites? Who is he, prophet, leader, most human of men, prone to anger, bitterness, disappointment; chosen to lead the people for forty years but not allowed to enter the land with them? To address and explore Moses’s core question, Zornberg opens a trove of sources. The rich narratives of midrash see Moses in many lights, but ultimately he remains an evasive figure. Zornberg calls into play literature and psychology, psychoanalysis and literary theory, trying to feel the otherness of this man uniquely chosen to speak on God’s behalf to a people whose senses are often blocked, who do not comprehend their place in God’s plan. In many ways the reader senses that God, Moses, and the Israelites are caught in hide-and-seek with one another, alternately finding and losing their connection. Moses: A Human Life challenges readers to see Moses in an original and thought-provoking way—not as a leader or a prophet, but as a man whose disabilities and conflicts make him uniquely qualified to speak for God and to achieve God’s purpose. Only when his nation’s long journey is almost finished does Moses speak to them in his own voice, recalling his memory of the Exodus and journey through the desert. Zornberg illustrates a touching picture of a man whose speech is limited but reaches not only his people—God’s chosen people—but the hopes and future of all humanity. Index, notes.
New York Times review https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/01/books/review/moses-human-life-biography-avivah-gottlieb-zornberg.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fbooks&action=click&contentCollection=books®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=3&pgtype=sectionfront&_r=1 MOSES A Human Life By Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg 225 pp. Yale University Press. $25. “Moses fails to enter Canaan, not because his life is too short, but because it is a human life.” So read Franz Kafka’s diary entry on Oct. 19, 1921. The subtitle of Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s new biography of Moses, “A Human Life,” is a tribute to Kafka. By casting her psychological portrait of the prophet under the auspices of the Prague writer, Zornberg ushers the reader into the sinuous, metaphysical angst of a man facing the divine and the elusive meaning of life. A celebrated biblical scholar, keen on weaving together traditional Jewish exegesis, psychoanalysis and postmodern criticism, Zornberg always displays minute attention to the psychological subtext of the Scriptures. Her previous work, “Bewilderments,” had already captured Moses in the desert, ridden by skepticism. Expanding her inquiry to his whole existence in this current book, she shows how Moses’ flaws and shortcomings function as a metaphor for humanity as he confronts God’s will and struggles to convey his word. Moses is a stammering leader whom God prevented from entering the Promised Land. When he glimpses that place of milk and honey shortly before his death, it only emphasizes the incompleteness of his life’s work. Since the Jewish tradition holds Moses to be the author of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, and even more specifically of the fourth book, Numbers, Zornberg claims to find autobiography in the biblical text. She conjures up the world of Moses as an adopted infant, his origins cloaked in silence, a Hebrew raised at the Egyptian court whose identity was revealed to him only as an adult. Zornberg sees these beginnings as the reason for his “fragmented state of being.” It is the lot of prophets to accept their task reluctantly — it is even more accurate for Moses, whose own identity as a Hebrew was fraught with uncertainty and who, as a result, could never act as a natural leader. Zornberg’s central and boldest proposition is that Moses was “born into a world of genocide” and unconsciously “nurtured in fear.” She posits him as a survivor and examines his life in the light of abundant scholarship on memory and trauma studies. Her use of the term genocide — coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944 — might be questionable or anachronistic, yet Zornberg builds on this comparison to offer an insightful dialogue between Moses, “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue,” and the poet Paul Celan. Celan’s post-Holocaust poetry tests the limit of what can be uttered, of what it means to be a witness in the wake of the catastrophe. Certain things cannot be articulated. Both the divine and the disaster exceed our faculty of representation. In “Moses,” Zornberg captures a man and prophet of melancholy. This distinct pensiveness is, in the words of another post-Holocaust writer, W.G. Sebald, “the realization of the impossibility of salvation.” Moses is, in fact, the scribe of an interminable mourning. Bringing together copious, diverse and sometimes dissonant references (spanning Hasidic masters, George Eliot, Zizek and Beckett, among others), Zornberg gives a new tour of the life of Moses. However, she may amalgamate a bit too far, as she herself seems to imply when she quotes the philosopher Stanley Cavell: “To attribute the origin of my thoughts simply to the other, thoughts which are then, as it were, implanted in me . . . is idolatry.” And as she herself claims, “The hazard of idolatry is the wish to have an object perfectly adjusted to our needs.” The failure of the book is also its success: It could be no such object.
Clémence Boulouque is an assistant professor of Jewish studies at Columbia University and a novelist and essayist in France.
Moses: A Human Life Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg Yale University Press 2016, pp. 240 pages What Makes Moses Human By Linda Tucker “I am compelled to complete the biblical act of creation: to trace Moses’ birth into a world of genocide, his infancy with two mothers, his youth as an Egyptian prince, his calling by God into a life in which he is to speak for God to the Israelites and for the Israelites to God,” says Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg of her latest book Moses: A Human Life. Zornberg, who has gained world acclaim for her writing and teaching of biblical commentary, wants to show us what it is that makes the life of the towering figure of Moses a human one. Using various literary sources (such as Martin Buber, Sigmund Freud, George Elliot and Franz Kafka), biblical commentators (such as Rashi) and rabbinic and midrashic narratives, Gottlieb shows us a multifaceted Moses: He is a man whose sense of identity is fraught with ambiguity and insecurity, and he is also a man worthy of leading a nation to greatness. Zornberg shines a light on the importance of speech in Moses’ life. “The greatness of Moses was always involved with language. It is only in his identity as speaker for the sake of Israel that he can speak at all,” says Zornberg. “I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue,” says Moses (Ex.4:10). “I am of uncircumsized lips.” In a very human way, Moses asks an essential question: Who am I? How does my identity qualify me to extract the Israelites from Egypt? When Moses speaks to God, it is the first time a human being addresses God with the question, Why? Why did God do evil to the Egyptians that forced Pharoah to do evil to the people? “The voice of Moses represents areas of human experience never before plumbed,” says Zornberg. “Asking why, constitutes a human being.” Words are the key to Moses’ greatness. His singular ability to speak both in God’s name and in the name of “vulnerable flesh and blood” constitutes his mission: He is the mediator between the divine and the human. Getting his message to the people has become a difficult task. But Moses’ voice, in all its fragility, is wanted by God: “God tells Moses that his voice is necessary, in all its inadequacy, to speak to the people, as well as for them. No matter what language he speaks, the community of Israel needs his voice,” says Zornberg. Language is what constitutes a human being. “His voice must be faithful to itself, not a recording of divine words. ‘They must hear your voice,’ says God.” Zornberg’s explanation of Moses and the Golden Calf is impressive: She says that Moses had become a sort of idol for the people; they worshipped his ideas and adored him. “So great,” she says, “is the human desire to adore.” When the people see that Moses isn’t returning from the mountaintop, they feel they are being abandoned. For them, Moses represents divinity, and in his absence they have to find a substitute—hence, the Golden Calf. God is furious about the Golden Calf, but Moses pleads for his people. God tells him that the people need human interpretation of God’s word, and Moses understands that the fate of the world depends on him. So when Moses descends the mountain with the second set of tablets, he “joins his soul with his people and also with God.” “The skin of his face was radiating with light from speaking with Him (Deut 34.29). The people can see his radiance. He must teach them for their own sake. Thus he becomes Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher.” Zornberg says: “When he is speaking in his own voice—to God, his people, to the Egyptians, and to himself—there is clearly a self, a subjectivity at work, which is, with all its difference, a recognizable human subjectivity.” We feel Moses’ isolation when he speaks to God about the burden he feels involving his people’s lack of understanding—and his troubled relationship with them. He asks God why he’s been given this burden; he speaks to the people about this burden and appeals to them to help him out of his isolation. But they don’t hear. Moses becomes human when he expresses his sadness in not being allowed to enter the Promised Land, not being able to cross the Jordan River into Canaan. He speaks to the people in a more human way, not commanding, not reproaching, not exhorting. When he describes his humiliation, he stammers. He doesn’t have control over his speech and so the people do not understand. “The main issue,” says Zornberg, “is not God’s decree but the fraught relations between Moses and his people.” Moses feels a terrible disappointment when the people don’t intercede on his behalf. However, says Zornberg, “instead of a passion to cross over the Jordan, Moses is now possessed of a new passion—to reach across to his people, before he dies.” Moses speaks to his people not as a messenger of God, but as one human to another. “At the end of a life conveying God’s word to them and of speaking on their behalf to God, he addresses them as a storyteller, as a poet.” This time, the people finally listen to him. In Deuteronomy, Moses writes of his own death. “The man who has always spoken for Israel now speaks for his personal self in a way that stirs the depths in those who hear him,” says Zornberg. “In his incompleted humanity, he comes to represent the yet-attained but attainable messianic future.” Zornberg achieves what she set out to do: She brings us a Moses who, with his flawed speech and insecure relationship with the Israelites, still brings the divine words to a people in need of spiritual direction. With the help of numerous outside commentators who have different views on Moses’ life, she brings us new insights into one of the Bible’s—and Judaism’s—greatest figures.
Source: Alamy The Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, is as much about personalities as about events and laws. The grandest figures are Abraham, Moses and David. Abraham was the founder of the Jewish people, and the first Jew. Moses led the Jews, or Israelites, out of slavery in Egypt, across the desert, and almost into the Promised Land. He also gave the people the Ten Commandments. David was his people’s greatest king and general. One conventional question about these figures is whether they actually lived. A century or so ago, the tendency was to deny their historicity. These figures were instead deemed “mythic” – to use a term that I myself would not use negatively. But then more and more of the Hebrew Bible has come to be seen as possibly historical. It is not that evidence of Moses himself has appeared. (For the record, there are those who deny that Jesus ever lived.) It is, rather, that a figure like Moses might have lived. In this exceptionally well-written book, which has the elegance of literature, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg sidesteps the historical question. She treats Moses as a fictional character – not because she rejects his possible historicity but rather because she focuses on him as a personality. She strives to go beyond the external facts of Moses’ life, itself extraordinary, to his inner life. What was Moses really like? What was going through his mind when he faced the turbulence of being a Jew raised as an Egyptian, of being chosen by God to lead his people to the land promised to Abraham, of trying to placate both God and his people, and of finally being denied entry into the Promised Land? Zornberg stresses conflict. Moses, for her, was continually torn between one inclination and another. Was he a Jew or an Egyptian? “Or perhaps, more accurately, we may say that he exists in a metonymic relation to the people who are, at first, both his and not his.” Were he and his brother Aaron allies or rivals? Of Moses and his sister, Miriam, the same is asked. Was he masculine or feminine? “In rabbinic parable, his assertiveness, his unceremonious behaviour, his girding of his loins in prayer – these constitute precisely the persona of the wife making demands of her husband.” And above all, was Moses merely human or ultimately divine? For Zornberg, Moses is always “both and” rather than “either or”. She revels in calling his status a “paradox” – although she misuses the term, as a paradox is meant to be resolved. Zornberg teases out Moses’ ambivalent feelings from the text itself, which means from Exodus through Deuteronomy. She seeks to go beyond the text to Moses’ state of mind. Yet she never ventures that far into Moses’ mind. While she occasionally uses the word “unconscious” and now and again cites Freud, for Zornberg, Moses’ motivations are almost wholly conscious. And some of the tensions that she attributes to him are obvious, not least his insecurities. Scores of authorities of all stripes, from philosophers to literary critics to novelists, are enlisted in Zornberg’s arguments. She also relies on mainstream rabbinic commentators through the ages, Rashi most of all. The result is a thoughtful and highly literate read. Robert A. Segal is sixth century chair in religious studies, University of Aberdeen, and author of Myth: A Very Short Introduction (2015).
Moses: A Human Life By Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg Yale University, Press, 240pp, £16.99 ISBN 9780300209624 Published 7 March 2017
In the end, no one could even find his grave. Throughout the 120 years of his life, Moses had been a wanderer, a fugitive, a sojourner through foreign lands. For four decades he had served as the mouthpiece of the Lord God; giver of His laws; liberator and leader of the Hebrews through years of flight, revelation, rebellion, and imminent triumph. Yet now, as he took his last breaths on the banks of the Jordan River, no great funeral awaited him, nor any monument to mark his resting place. The book of Deuteronomy tersely describes the moment: So Moses the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Lord. He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beth-peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day. A lonely end after a life of wandering and hardship. But look again at that description of his burial, the astonishing detail slipped casually into the dry statement of fact. The hand that buried moses was the same hand that commanded his fate. The Lord himself dug Moses’ grave. The contradiction inherent in this story — the startling contrast between the humblest and lowliest of men, and the most exalted of prophets — helps to explain what has made Moses such a compelling figure for the past three millennia. As the central character of four-fifths of the Pentateuch or Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), and as the designated amanuensis for God’s laws, he is of course the human figure at the core of modern Jewish religion. But he is also a strange and tragic narrative figure in his own right, whose rise and fall is rivalled (on a purely literary level) only by that other great founding father of Jewish nationhood, King David. Yet there is no single, straightforward story of Moses, told from start to finish in the Old Testament. Rather, the arc of his life is an amalgamation of different and sometimes contradictory stories, songs, speeches, laws, and even building instructions that collectively add up to the sum of a life. Only viewed from the distance of time and space (from, as it were, a God’s-eye perspective) can the trajectory of the man’s life be seen. This is one of the key challenges facing Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg in her book Moses: A Human Life, the newest entrant in Yale University Press’ series of Jewish Lives — and to this must be added the inescapable fact that Moses, technically speaking, never lived at all. Very much unlike King David, whose legends accrued around the life of an actual Iron Age ruler, Moses is almost certainly an imaginary construct, whose life and personality take shape wholly from the accumulated writings of authors, poets, and theologians. Writing his life ought to be akin to biographing Hercules or King Arthur: entertaining for fans and true believers, but ultimately an exercise in futility. Which makes it all the more surprising that Zornberg has not only succeeded, but achieved the seemingly impossible: contributing a fresh and original interpretation to a figure pondered over for more than 2,500 years. She does it by dispensing from the outset with questions of reliable historicity: despite the book’s title, this is not a biography at all, but an extended theological and psychological essay, taking as its basis a personality that is both the product and the origin story of the civilization that created it. That origin story begins where it might have ended: with western literature’s first recorded act of genocide. Throughout the book of Genesis, the embattled children of Israel have been perpetually threatened with extinction through the sheer difficulty of reproduction. Despite their status as God’s chosen people, the Biblical patriarchs from Abraham onward all required divine intervention simply to produce another generation of offspring. But as the book of Exodus begins, the Israelites, now settled comfortably in Egyptian territory, find themselves imperiled by their success at fruitful multiplication. The Bible describes the bleak irony (here, as elsewhere, I’m quoting from the New Jewish Publication Society translation) : A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground… The King of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiprah and the other Puah, saying, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, look at the birthstool: if it is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” In the midst of this primitive ethnic cleansing, with its unwitting but unavoidable shadows of the Jewish future (note that casual reference to the shifty political loyalties of Israelites in Egypt, which might have been drawn straight from the columns of Der Sturmer), Moses survives by the unlikeliest of chances. Again, the Bible narrates: A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived a bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months. Then she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child into it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him. The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. When she opened it, she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child.” Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?” And Pharaoh’s daughter answered, “Yes.” So the girls went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will pay your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, who made him her son. She named him Moses, explaining, “I drew him out of the water.” A fairy tale origin, then, but in reverse: not a peasant boy secretly a prince, but a prince of Egypt secretly a Hebrew slave. The curious reader is left to wonder how much Moses knew about his ignoble origins. The Bible itself is characteristically unforthcoming (stories of Moses’ youth are left to the province of Midrashim, the body of post-Biblical interpretive literature composed by rabbinic sages), but it isn’t long before the young man is forced to take sides. When Exodus next takes up the story, we find a full-grown Moses rashly dealing a death blow against an Egyptian overseer abusing a Hebrew slave. News about the murder soon gets out, and Moses makes a beeline for the wilderness of Midian, his days at court now vanished. Zornberg keenly observes that the reader’s uncertainty about Moses’ self-knowledge — does he or doesn’t he know that he’s a Hebrew, too? – means that the moment carries both a layer of irony, and moment of discovery: Perhaps, as we originally assumed, the young prince does not know of his connection with these slaves. Perhaps it is the narrator who refers to the uncanny bond of brotherhood between prince and slaves…Or, perhaps, fraternity of precisely what Moses discovers, when he emerges from a clear and untroubled Egyptian identity. Precisely when he witnesses human suffering, a new fraternal consciousness arises within him. Once he allows himself to see, he arrives obliquely at a knowledge of brotherhood. This is the meaning of va-yigdal – “he grew”: this is his first crisis of maturation. In any case, the slave turned prince is now a prince turned fugitive from the law. And his transformations are not done yet. Having assumed the life of a humble shepherd in Midian, and taken a wife from among the friendly locals, Moses one day encounters an unusual sight: “a bush all aflame, and yet the bush was not consumed.” This is the God YHWH of the Israelites, awoken as if from extended slumber to the plight of his people, and ready to task Moses with the liberation of His chosen tribe. But why this man? Why, when so many full-fledged and well-pedigreed Israelites are ready and available should God make a prophet of a scraggly refugee with an identity crisis? The question certainly occurs to Moses, and the dramatic scene descends almost to comedy as the would-be liberator musters every excuse at his disposal to turn down the job: But Moses said to the Lord, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” and the Lord said to him, “Who gives a man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say.” But he said, “Please, O Lord, make someone else your agent.” The Lord became angry with Moses… Here, within moments of meeting each other, Moses and God have established a Punch-and-Judy relationship that will persist throughout the prophet’s career: Moses hems and haws, evades and bickers, feels genuinely unable to perform the tasks God has assigned him, and engages the Lord in endless rounds of arguments and justifications. But to Zornberg, these seemingly disastrous personality traits are precisely what make Moses an indispensable leader. His identity, perched on the uncertain border between Israel and Egypt, gives him the unique capacity to be born anew into the fresh identity of prophet and leader. At the same time, his unfeigned lack of assurance is a sign of his essential humility: Moses can lead a battered people because he feels, despite his aristocratic upbringing, a part of them. He is an outsider at his core, and a prophet must be able to see the world from the outside in. Zornberg writes: The nature of this process is perhaps best summed up in the singular description the Torah gives of him: “Moses was very humble, more than any human being on the face of the earth.” (Num. 12:3). The Hebrew formulation — kol ha-adam — suggests not simply that he was the humblest man, but that his humility transcended the human range. Moses’ essential difference from the whole of humanity lay in his “humility,” his anava. Moses is in fact the only individual in the Bible to be described in this way. Perhaps this refers to his social situation as well as to a moral dimension of his life. Because of his ambiguous origins and his solitary encounter with God at the Burning Bush, he has no social standing among the people. He has no clear position in the class structure. He is both inside and outside, anomalous. Thus, Moses the man shades into Moses the metaphor: not for nothing has he been the mascot of a people who, for 2,000 years, have lived uncertain lives in foreign lands. Through Moses, the Jews turned the traditional vices of diaspora existence — questionable loyalties, nebulous ethnic identities, lack of clear placement in the social structure — into divinely-ordained virtues. Zornberg is at her best when she reaches far and wide to present this case, drawing not just from the Bible and its commentators, but from a vast constellation of art and literature, including Renaissance painters and postmodern novelists. Here, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz are used to illustrate the Mosaic metaphor of the displaced Jew: Between the Deronda image of the redeemer, who will lead his people from exile to the Promised Land, and the inconsolable sorrow of history embodied in the figure of Austerlitz, the Moses figure is identified in kabbalistic literature as the soul-root of Israel. His history is the history of his people. All will receive the Torah through him; when when he moves his lips to convey the sacred text, their lips move as well. But to return to the narrative: YHWH does, in the end, have his way, and Moses returns to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and demand the liberation of the Hebrews. The dramatic episode of the Ten Plagues ensues, in which God batters Egypt with a succession of chastisements until Pharaoh finally, albeit temporarily, agrees to release his slaves. Then, after a race through the desert and a miraculous parting of the Sea of Reeds, the Chosen People are free to make their way through the wilderness and toward the Promised Land. For those of us reared on Charlton Heston and Cecil B. DeMille, and thus inclined to see this as the dramatic high point of the Moses story, it may come as a surprise to see just how briskly Exodus whisks through these events (they occupy only 11 of the book’s 40 chapters). For traditional Jews, however, it is not the exodus itself that provides the climax of the Moses story, but the revelation that follows: the magnificent sound-and-light spectacle on Mount Sinai at which God hands down his eternal Torah. Indeed, from a historical perspective, one could argue that this is the only part of the story that matters: the rest of the Moses narrative is mere filigree around the marble column of God’s law. And the Bible certainly gives us a scene to match the moment, with the whole of Israel gathering trembling at the foot of the mountain while Moses alone ascends to gaze upon the majesty (but not the actual face) of God. This singular honor, afforded to no other mortal in the whole of the Hebrew Bible, has a physically transformative effect on Moses: returning to the Israelites, he is said to exude “beams” or “rays” from his own face, and is forced to veil himself in public lest he overwhelm them with the reflected power of YHWH. He has been, quite literally, irradiated by the Lord. Here, again, Zornberg is intriguingly far-flung in her choice of illustrative sources, turning to the work of 19th century painters (specifically the late works of J.M.W. Turner) to capture the effect of Moses on his people as he repeats the words of God: “Wonderfully effective” thick gobs of white paint driven by hog tools into the surface — Turner’s painting becomes itself an image of the effectual imagination which reshapes reality. Seeing through the lumpy world, his perspective intensifies so that we, too, will see what is, after all, there. Words are the equivalent means at Moses’ disposal. They generate rays that are at once God’s, his own, and Israel’s. Yet from a reader’s perspective, Moses’ ascent toward God marks the start of his decline here on earth. Having received from YHWH the divine revelation, and spent half of Exodus and the entirety of Leviticus dutifully repeating it to the assembled throng, Moses proceeds to lead his people through 40 years of forced wandering through the desert, waiting for the faithless generation of slaves to die off before the conquest of Canaan can begin. These disconnected episodes of dissolute wandering punctuated by periodic rebellion, which make up the Book of Numbers, represent a steep decline from the earlier, heroic period of Moses’ life. It is as if, his task as the Lord’s messenger having been completed, Moses has now become an anachronism: a hindrance and an irritant to a young generation for whom slavery in Egypt is only history. All this would be poignant enough were it not for the final, tragic twist of Moses’ career: having given his life to lead the Israelites to Canaan, he is now forbidden by God from entering the land himself. Writers and commentators have long observed that this ultimate knife-twist gives the Moses story the arc of a Greek tragedy: in the 2nd century B.C., a Greek-speaking Jew called Ezekiel the Tragedian wrote exactly that, in a theatrical work entitled the Exagoge. Yet what Moses’ fatal act of hubris actually was remains something of a mystery. The Bible’s own explanation is famously, almost comically, insubstantial: having been commanded by God to order a certain rock to produce water, Moses chooses to strike the rock with his staff instead. For this minor (and conceivably accidental) deviation from God’s precise wording, Moses is fated to live an incomplete life. Pious rabbis have historically chosen to see this episode as a lesson that no man, however exalted, is above the commandments of God. For a modern reader, the greater impression is that God is simply looking for excuses. What, indeed, are we to make of a deity who forces obedience from reluctant prophet, only to smite him when he proves as imperfect as he had feared? In the exodus story, Pharaoh is depicted as the flighty and authoritarian tyrant par excellence against whom Moses must resist. Yet has not God here outdone even his earthly equivalent? On this question, Zornberg does not quite bring herself to propose an explanation. But there is at least a suggestion that the relentless confrontation Moses brings to his role as prophet — the Catskills bickering we observed back at the Burning Bush — might possibly have something to do with it. Quoting from a rabbinic Midrash imagining Moses as a “defense counsel” for Israel against a wrathful God, Zornberg asks: What gives Moses license to behave in such a vigilante manner? Particularly surprising is the dramatic detail of replacing the prosecutor inside the court: in effect, Moses is changing places with Satan, from an external to an intimate position (before the king’s face). By a kind of sleight of hand, he substitutes himself for Satan and defends the people from a “satanic” (aggressive, oppositional) place… This audacious dynamic lies at the heart of many rabbinic interpretations of the biblical text. Moses acts as His Majesty’s Loyal opposition, as Yochanan Muffs aptly terms it. He has, in a sense, internalized the function of prosecutor, the angry, antagonistic role; he uses his anger in order to “avert God’s anger.” And so he died, alone but for God in an unmarked grave beneath the sands. But the human life of Moses is, after all, an imagined life: perhaps we are free to imagine its end in our own way. For my part, then, I choose to imagine it as one final act of defiance; one last confrontation with a tyranny beyond control. You may command water from the rock, says Moses, but it will be my own staff that draws it. I may be slow of speech and slow of tongue, yet I will make myself heard. Moses, to the last, kept arguing. Perhaps he is arguing still. ____ Zach Rabiroff is an Editor at Open Letters Monthly. He lives in Brooklyn and works for a consulting firm during his daytime hours.
*** By David Levy *** The Montréal Review, January 2017 ***
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Moses: A Human Life, Yale University Press, 2016. *** One might conceive of Moses as a Kafkaesque figure, a person of uncertain speech and identity, a son of two cultures, commanded by Hashem - the Almighty - to talk Pharaoh into freeing the Hebrew slaves, his people, explain the divine mission to the Hebrews and to achieve this with an impaired vocal skill, lips “uncircumcised.” It is a voice Moses himself very much distrusts. His first act is to refuse to speak, to delegate to older brother Aaron the task of conveying Hashem’s words for him. But Aaron can only speak the words. Withholding his voice disrupts the process. As Zornberg explains: “Ventriloquist for God, Moses’ voice might have inspired the people more poignantly than could the divine words alone.” It will not do for Moses to be a neutral recording device. The Hebrews must, says Hashem, hear your voice. Moses when first confronted by Hashem at the Burning Bush expresses doubts. They will not, he says of the Hebrew slaves, “believe me, they will not listen to my voice, they will say: God never appeared to you.” Moses understands that his “personal history is fragmented, his identity complicated.” In the encounter with the Burning Bush he regards himself as anav – lowly - uncertain who he is and how given his speech impediment he could possibly undertake the mission. He has after all little in common with the Hebrews: “They will not believe me!“ Turns out the Hebrews believe him but do not listen to him: “…in the complex encounter between them, he is from the outset unfathomable…. he continues to be, in a profound sense, ‘unheard’ by them, unknown. Moses however will become aware of the “bare reality of language and of how it emerges from within the voice.” Initially, as Zornberg explains, “the children of Israel would not listen to Moses because of exasperation and hard labour. His words were inaccessible to them.” Some sages have advanced the view that the speech issue is not physical but rhetorical, that Moses believes he lacks the speaking eloquence demanded by the mission he has with some reluctance undertaken. Might the difficulty only be a matter of how certain words need to be pronounced? *** Zornberg enters the Moses story from a post-modern perspective, which is to say one involving complex dealings in words. To excavate the meanings lurking within the Torah narrative Zornberg seeks out connections wherever they may be found, some at times quite far afield. Enter along with the insights of Midrash sages philosophers of language and theology and others including Samuel Becket, Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Lacan, the Vietnam war journalist Michael Herr. The problem in ‘Nam, said Herr, “was that you didn’t always know what you were seeing until later, maybe years later, that a lot of it never made it in at all, it just stayed stored there in your eyes.” Reminding us that the Oral Torah is a Torah of the mouth, Zornberg draws our attention to the likelihood of misreadings, misunderstandings, of the danger of message failure. *** Zornberg makes no direct attempt at historical placement, that is at proposing a true historical Moses, which is to say one may not test her claims beyond certain hermeneutical procedures. The textual focus avoids the question of whether Moses was an actual person or a figure of mythology. One is thus left to assume Moses, as a consequence of his upbringing, and Pharaoh, spoke the same language. In what language do Hashem and Moses converse? Moses and the Hebrews? Do they share a mode of speech? Does this explain why there might have been pronunciation issues? Why Moses goes unheard? There is likewise no suggestion that Moses was some sort of Spartacus leading a slave revolt. Torah, we know, has little time for revolutionaries. Zornberg stays well clear of the Sigmund Freud claim contained in Moses and Monotheism that Moses was an actual historical figure, a “distinguished Egyptian –perhaps a prince, priest, or high official” who placed himself “at the head of a culturally inferior throng of immigrants” and left the country with them in order to perpetuate a monotheism that originated with the pharaoh Amenhotep IV aka Ikhnaton. *** Himself a person of complex, troubled relationships, with older brother Aaron, with older sister Miriam, with wife Zipporah, with cousin Korach, with fellow Hebrews, Moses experiences both the “power and the powerlessness of his intimacy with the divine.” Hashem had warned Jacob that because he did not believe and had refused to climb the ladder his children would be enslaved to the kingdoms of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Hashem threatened to kill Moses for failing to have his son circumcised though there was a quite logical reason for the decision. No human, Hashem says, can see my face and live. He will only allow Moses to see the back of his head on which the Midrash tells us Moses may have seen a knot of the phylacteries – the tefillin. *** The worship of the Golden Calf is understood as a panic reaction of the Hebrews to Moses apparent disappearance on Mount Sinai to receive the Tablets, a fear of having been abandoned. Much back and forth. The response of Moses is to smash the Tablets, “the most,” says Zornberg, “dramatic moment in this history.” More power to you, pronounces Hashem, that you smashed them. “Cut two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets.” *** “Never again,” says the Torah, “did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses – whom Hashem knew face to face.” “Not like others,” declares Hashem, “is my servant Moses.” Nevertheless Joshua will be the one to lead the Hebrews into the Promised Land. Let me, Moses pleads, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan. Hashem would not listen: “Enough! Never speak to Me again of this thing!” I have asked rabbis to explain. They discourage me from challenging the judgment, referring me, as Zornberg does, to the incident at Meriva. To provide water for the Hebrews out in the desert wilderness at Meriva Moses was asked to take his staff, gather the community and with brother Aaron "speak to the rock before their eyes, so that it gives forth its water.” Instead of commanding the water out of the rock with words, Moses struck the rock with his staff. Water flowed. But, declares Hashem, Moses has by that action failed to sanctify (Him) "before the eyes of the Israelites." Words inaccurately heard? Incorrectly understood? No matter. It has been decided: Moses will not be the one to take that final step. The sages explain that Moses in that terrible final private moment frees himself from the role of messenger and voices his feeling of abandonment by his people who have failed to bring him with them into the Holy Land. They might have with their prayers moved Hashem to relent but they would not. As Zornberg puts it: “Speaking in his own voice, not to God but to his people, he grieves their lack of attentiveness to him.” It is, Zornberg observes, “precisely after God has finally dashed his hopes of crossing over that Moses achieves a new force of language.” But to no avail: “The inner world of Moses emerges into a higher relief in the final phase of his life. For it is in the last months of his life that he describes to his people, in the first person, their shared experience in the wilderness. At the heart of his apparently neutral account of experiences and divine communications already narrated for the most part in the third person, are moments of almost uncanny personal intensity – notably Moses’ account in Deuteronomy 3 of his entreaty to God to allow him to cross over to the Promised Land. Moses relates to the people the moment when God refused to listen to him. This story, like a cry of unassuaged anguish, stands out from the chronicles of conquest in which it is embedded.” Zornbeg recalls that years earlier she participated in a bibliodrama workshop. Asked to enter into the role of a biblical character, she chose to portray Moses in the scene where he implores Hashem to permit him to cross the Jordan River and enter Caanan, the culmination of the narrative. Zornberg found herself suddenly “weeping” as she read the passage: “I couldn’t help wondering why the use of the first-person form had stirred such unsuspected depths of pain… By switching to the first person,” - i.e. away from the traditional third person singular – “I had released a flood of grief.”
http://reviewsbyamoslassen.com/?p=53026 Zornberg, Aviva Gottleib. “Moses: A Human Life”, (Jewish Lives), Yale University Press, 2016. Meet Moses Anew Amos Lassen I am a huge Aviva Zornberg fan and have been lucky enough to study with her twice here in Boston. She has opened my eyes to so much of what I have missed in Torah and I eagerly await my next study session with her. Zornberg’s new book is a look at Moses and his inner world and a look at his perplexing character as well. Of all of the characters in the Hebrew bible, none is as large or important as is Moses…. and not just in the bible but it Jewish culture as well. To look at Moses in a new light, writer and scholar Zornberg looks at both literary and psychoanalytic sources and many Jewish texts that she places alongside such writings by George Eliot, W. G. Sebald, and Werner Herzog. What develops out of this is an original portrait of Moshe Rabenu. His personality has always been enigmatic; we know little about from whence he came or his relationships with others. This is where Zornberg focuses and where she truly shines. She sees his story as one that has been told and retold for generations and it is still as crucial to not only to the biblical past but also to the future of Jewish history. She sees him as on the threshold of the “sacred and the human” and he is part of and participates in both. We are aware of his creativity and we learn about his anguish ultimately seeing that each depends on the other. He was the ultimate insider having direct access to God yet he was also an outsider because of his physical disability. There is indeed something to be learned here about being an outsider who becomes close the Supreme and we see that Moses, even with his disability, is a prophet who is fully realized and still important to the modern world of today. After reading what Zornberg has to say, Moses moves into our lives some 3000 years after he led his people from slavery to freedom and in freeing them, he freed himself to be with the divine who created him for his job. Zornberg, by using the traditional and the postmodern approach to Moses, introduces us to a man who was and remains a leader of the Jewish people. It is important for us to look at him in profundity and in playfulness, imaginatively and honestly. Since many of us cannot do by ourselves, Avivah Zornberg takes us by the hand and leads us to Moses.
Genesis:TheBeginning of Desire also in soft cover (retitled:The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis), can be ordered from
Laurie Schlesinger, Director of Sales & Marketing, The Jewish Publication Society
Gensis: The Beginning of Desire, by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. Jewish Publication Society, 1995, 456 pp., $35.
One version of the commonplace that there are seventy faces to Torah has it that each face is revealed in a different generation. If that be so, then it might fairly be said that the face for our generation is the literary, not as a reduction of the text from its status as Holy Writ or even revelation—the "Bible as Literature" paradigm—but for what literary analysis can reveal of meaning and structure that is left unread, using other modes of interpretation. The literary methods have, moreover, providentially provided a "postmodernist" answer to "modernist" historical/critical methods that fragmented the text and left it nonexistent except as a window to other, reconstructed prior texts (the documentary hypothesis) or reconstructed histories. Just as methods drawn from the Arabic grammatical tradition or early modern rhetoric once informed Jewish Bible interpretation, now tools of analysis of the New Critics, the New Historicists, feminists, and psychoanalysts aid those who search the Scripture for meaning(s).
In the last decade or so, Avivah Zornberg has established herself in Jerusalem and—through teaching tours—beyond as the premier contemporary teacher of Torah (Bible) through literary analysis. Although a written text could never live up to the magic of her shiurim (teaching), we are nevertheless privileged to see the publication of the first volume of her interpretive work.
It is perhaps characteristic of our postmodern moment that where once scholars, critics, and interpreters strove above all to divine order within apparent disorder, reading disorderly texts as the signs and remnants of orderly ones (source criticism) or as the verbal icons of ambiguity (new criticism), we now, in Zornberg's words, seek "to detect the intimations of disorder within order, instability within stability, the tensions evoked by questions about human life and the search for God that the midrash expresses to such ambiguous effect." Somehow, disorder in our texts, even in our sacred ones, has become a source of great comfort to us, as if it somehow validated and made bearable the disorder in the world around us.
The univocal modernist Bible has become a forbidding one; its meanings are clear, so it bespeaks to us oppressions, social and intellectual, dogmatism and doctrines that we, no longer in any simple sense of the word, can "believe." Zornberg's literary, postmodern reading of the Torah restores it as unfinished, unclear, deeply engaging in its mysteriousness, not forbidding at all. Thus, for instance, rather than reading the Esau/Jacob narrative as the working out of a divinely ordained destiny for the Jewish people, basing herself on midrash and classical Jewish commentaries, Zornberg creates for us an exquisite meditation on power and powerlessness, one in which the imperfections of Jacob and the attractions of Esau are ever-present. Instead of the reductions of both scholarship and homily, her discourse reproduces the ambiguities and mysteries of the text itself. The Bible is transformed in her hands to a great work of literature, not because it is "beautiful," but because of the expressive manner in which its multiple layers of meaning are disclosed.
Zornberg's work is accordingly a good guidebook for a postmodern religious quest. And it is, perhaps, ultimately this characteristic, in addition to the sheer creativity and brilliance of her teaching of Torah, that has made her the mentor that she is.
Let me conclude this brief account of a superb book by giving one example of how Zornberg's reading "works." With reference to the verse that states, "Isaac loved Esau, because game was in his mouth" (Gen. 25:28), Zornberg comments:
The Zohar makes the most challenging comment, undercutting our vague assumption that this love is a case of "attraction of opposites," that the blind recluse needs the lusty, outdoors energy of Esau to nourish some inward hunger. On the contrary, the Zohar claims, "Everyone loves his own kind—one who is similar to himself." What Isaac loves in Esau is precisely the hunter, the alienated "disintegrated consciousness" of one for whom all the "noble" privileges and promises of life have dissolved in blood.
Isaac recognizes the fury evoked by animal life: the desire to extirpate what has no proper existence. In his own case, existential helplessness led to withdrawal, to a rigid respect for the priorities and structures of the given world. To Isaac, the spectacle of Esau's despair turned to destructiveness suggests a passion for truth, an intolerance for palliatives, a kind of tortured authenticity. To Isaac, Esau is the analytical mind, obsessed with the unreality of existence. A figure of Byronic melancholy, Esau appeals to his father's heart: this is a son who deeply needs blessing from a father who, despite all external differences, intuits the rhythm of his despair.
The paradoxical similarity of Isaac and Esau is indicated by the notation of "the field." Isaac is first encountered by Rebecca, "meditating in the field toward evening" (24:63). "Meditating" translates the word la-suah, for which many translations are offered, ranging from "walking among the shrubbery" (sihim) to "praying." The more mystical understandings of the phrase include in their palette the melancholy coloring of "toward evening," and the midrashic decodings of "the field" as referring to Mount Moriah, the site of the Akedah.
What emerges from such a subtle layering of meaning is a portrait of Isaac imprinted with the deep death-knowledge of his Binding, face turned toward the dying of the light, darkly narrating his story to God. The field in which Isaac walks he transforms into the language of prayer. The field of Esau's darkness, however, is a field of silence; the tension of ambush, the release of bloodshed provides the illusion of a vital heartbeat in emptiness. Isaac's love for Esau is a knowing love that seeks to bless—that is, to animate and populate—that emptiness. (p. 163)
This is, I submit, a rich and beautiful translation of the somewhat alien expression of both Bible and midrash into a language that we can read, and, in the next sentence, we find Isaac interpreted through a comparison to Walter Benjamin's essay on Baudelaire as wanderer. This is not a book to be read but to be studied, slowly, week by week, as each of the Torah's portions is encountered, a modern midrash in its own right.
Daniel Boyarin, Taubam Professor of Talmudic Culture at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash.
Review in Commonweal (scroll down)
The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis. Author: Oakes, Edward T. Article Type: Book Review Date: Mar 14, 1997 Words: 1347 Publication: Commonweal ISSN: 0010-3330
For my money the best Old Testament scholar of the twentieth century was Yehezkel Kaufmann, a Russian Jew who emigrated to Palestine in 1920 and became professor of Bible at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He subsequently wrote a six-volume history, in Hebrew, of the religion of ancient Israel, only a much-abridged version of which was ever translated into English.
But even that truncated husk of Kaufmann's original was enough to show the English-speaking world what Old Testament scholarship can look like when freed of the Hegelian hammerlock that became so dominant in the German scholarship of the nineteenth century, a developmental outlook on historical causation that then went on to influence almost all the rest of later scholarship (much to its detriment, in my opinion). In contrast to the vague evolutionism of the German school, Kaufmann was able to show - without ever straying from strict historical-critical principles - that Israel did not grow into its monotheism: its religion neither arose from a "dialectic" with its neighbors nor did it achieve its final (universal) monotheism because of the later influence of the more theologically elaborate and self-consciously literary prophets. And correlatively, whatever conceptual borrowings Israel made from its Near Eastern environment, these borrowings were fitted into a world view that from the outset was at fundamental odds with the mythological polytheism of its neighbors.
Crucially, in pagan religion the gods have a genealogy: they are born and, in most tellings, usually take over the pantheon by usurping the earlier generation of divinities, as when Zeus rebelled against his father Chronos. But the God of the Hebrews, in Kaufmann's lapidary words, "has no pedigree, fathers no generations; he neither inherits nor bequeaths his authority. He does not die and is not resurrected. He has no sexual qualities or desires and shows no need of or dependence upon powers outside himself."
Reading Kaufmann makes clear how revolutionary the book of Genesis has been to the religious legacy of humanity, how at a single stroke it altered the implicit metaphysical presuppositions of paganism, and how much contemporary scholarship misses the point if it is solely bent on tracing influences and not radical differences. Upon reflection, it is obvious that if the gods have a genealogy, the world-womb out of which they were born is greater than themselves, and so "in myth the gods appear not only as actors but as acted upon. Fate, says myth, apportions lots to the gods as well as to men." This is also why the gods are not only sexually differentiated but are subject to sexual needs, desiring and mating with each other; moreover, they eat and drink, fall sick and require healing, need and invent tools, etc.
When I first read Kaufmann I asked myself why these perfectly obvious truths seemed to be slighted in other scholarship: Was it Kaufmann's native fluency in Hebrew, his Jewishness, or his innocence of schooling in the German/Hegelian tradition? I do not have answers to these questions, but they provide, I believe, the right context for understanding the vividness, clarity, and insight available in these two books under review. Here, under Alter's and Zornberg's ministrations, Genesis looks different, startlingly different.
Alter's book is first and foremost a translation - and only secondarily a commentary. But as Kaufmann was for history of religions, Alter is. to translation: a man uniquely positioned to counteract the tendentious posturing of most other modern translations and the extratextual spin-doctoring of, for example, so many panelists in the recent PBS talk-fest on Genesis hosted by Bill Moyers, too many of whom would indulge in embarrassing fatuities like accusing Abraham of child abuse, etc. It is hard to describe in the space of a short review the many felicities of this remarkable translation, but surely Alter's dual competence as biblical scholar and literary critic has uniquely positioned him to give us a translation that is both vigorous and contemporary.
My only regret in reading this work is to realize how much the translation of the whole Bible nowadays transcends the capacities of any one individual, at least if the translator wants to take into consideration the vast expanse of recent research in biblical semantics and philology. For the churches and synagogues desperately need a translation of all the books of the Bible of this quality. Although the Revised Standard Version is still the best overall translation of the whole Bible, Alter convincingly shows in his introduction, but more especially in the success of the translation itself, that the time has come for a fresh rendering, one that is vivid, vigorous, biblical - and so completely contemporary that one does not notice the language but lives in the telling of the story itself.
Avivah Zornberg's reflections on Genesis are as different from Alter's approach as might be imagined: where he is sober, she is expansive; where he insists on the spare narrative, she builds on those later embellished narratives called midrashim. This habit of expanding on the biblical material grew up in Jewish Bible-based cultures because of a feature everyone immediately notices about so many biblical narratives, especially those in Genesis: their laconic telling. So brief, so spare are the narrative interventions of most biblical tales that they positively invite later elaboration.
Because of what struck me as, on the whole, the rather silly things some of the panelists said on Moyers's special on Genesis, I have grown rather leery of specifically modern embellishments on Genesis and so I approached this book with wariness. My fears were misplaced. Not only is Zornberg's book leagues removed from popular trivializations, it does what all successful midrash is meant to do: open up new perspectives on ancient texts. She does not weave her tales from whole-spun modern cloth, leaving the reader with a queasy feeling of just having watched a soap opera of negligent fathers and neurotically repressed mothers; rather she takes only traditional semicanonical midrashim for her theme. Indeed this is the usual practice in many Jewish homes that have a weekly study group: the "Bible" they study is the Bible and the semicanonized tradition of stories that go with them.
And fascinating they are! Abraham, for example, is a "philosopher" who comes to monotheism through rational speculation and then smashes his father's idols in disgust. In another version, Abraham is living the high-life: he feasts and entertains but neglects to sacrifice to God, and when Satan points this remission out to the good Lord, God is provoked to ask Abraham to atone for this negligence by sacrificing his son. Sarah swoons and dies when she hears of her son being bound to the altar; in another story Isaac goes blind on the altar because the tears of angels falling from heaven at his plight get into his eyes. (Although she does not mention it, some of Zornberg's stories have interesting parallels with those in Greek mythology: Niobe's tears, Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia, the wife who died of grief under the mistaken impression her husband had died in the Trojan War, etc.)
This book also casts a rather uncomfortable glare on modern sensibilities. Because the midrashim Zornberg selects for her treatment are all traditional, they provide a refreshing alternative to modern homiletic sentimentality. (How has God suddenly become so nice in all our preaching?) And while the comments she makes on these midrashim ransack contemporary authors (Ricceur, Kermode, Kafka, etc.), these authors usually have something disconcertingly, well, Kafkaesque to add - a dimension which is very much in line with the midrash tradition itself, where indeed Kafka got so much of his material and his sensibility. And that only highlights how far we have moved from the inner world of the Bible. It's going to be a long haul back up Milton's Mount Moriah again, whence alone we can sense the majesty of Genesis in all its radiant distinction and eerie difference from us.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., is associate professor of religious studies at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. The paperback edition of his book Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar has just appeared from Continuum. COPYRIGHT 1997 Commonweal Foundation Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.
Washington Post Review of THE PARTICULARS OF RAPTURE: Reflections on Exodus
Washington Post Featured Reviews:Signs and Wonders Reviewed by Paul William RobertsSunday, April 1, 2001; Page BW01 WALKING THE BIBLEA Journey by Land Through The Five Books of Moses By Bruce Feiler
THE PARTICULARS OF RAPTURE Reflections on Exodus By Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg
It would be difficult to conceive of two books ostensibly dealing withthe same subject that are more different in every way than "Walking the Bible" and "The Particulars of Rapture." Different as they are, both are also, in every way, equally marvelous if not indispensable reading for anyone remotely interested in the Torah. And as the great literary critic Northrop Frye showed, in his book "The Great Code," the Bible is the collective myth of Western civilization. So that should exempt no one.
Bruce Feiler makes a pilgrimage in "Walking the Bible," which is literally that: a 10,000-mile trek around the places mentioned in the Torah. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg takes us on a more complex and difficult journey, down the midrashic rabbit hole that leads into the many layers of esoteric meanings that give the text its power and -- dare I say it? -- reveals its holiness.
"The Particulars of Rapture," Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg's reflections on the Book of Exodus, is quite simply a masterpiece. I know of no other book that presents the enormous subtleties and complexities of rabbinic Biblical interpretation with such skill, intelligence, literary flair and sheer elegance of style. Zornberg's dazzlingly eclectic erudition would be oppressive in the hands of a lesser writer, but such is the beauty and succinctness of her writing that her references to Thomas Mann, Wordsworth, Isaiah Berlin, Wallace Stevens, Susan Sontag and Freud, to name but a few, seem more like the illuminated letters in medieval manuscripts, heightening both beauty and meaning.
Her purpose here, however, is not so much to explain the midrashic technique -- revealing the significance of a Biblical text through later commentaries by rabbinical scholars -- as to show that technique in action. She explains her approach by quoting the hermeneutics scholar Gerald Bruns: " 'the rabbis imagined themselves a part of the whole, participating in Torah rather than operating on it at an analytic distance. . . . It follows that the words of interpretation cannot be isolated in any rigorously analytical way from the words of Torah itself.' "
This is what makes the Torah a living text, endlessly relevant to now, not just to then -- in a sense eternal and, if you like, holy. For her examination of Exodus, Zornberg adopts the psychoanalytic model, suggesting that the plain meaning of the text functions as the conscious layer of meaning, while the midrashic commentaries intimate unconscious layers, encrypted traces of more complex meaning. The public, overt, triumphal narrative of redemption is therefore diffracted into multiple, contradictory, unofficial stories. The result, as Zornberg writes, "is a plethora of possible stories of redemption. Some of these will be attributed to 'the enemy': they are false, adversarial narratives, Egyptian narratives, narratives of obtuse misunderstanding. These counternarratives, the demonized expression of unthinkable thoughts, construct the official Israelite history of the Exodus as incomplete, inflated, or mythic invention."
The very concept of multiple, alternative narratives would seem to be alien to any religious tradition, but the midrashic rabbis embraced the idea. In fact, as Zornberg points out, the Biblical text itself seems to give warrant for such retellings. On several occasions, the Torah itself emphasizes the importance of telling the story to one's children and grandchildren. At times this imperative to narrate the Exodus becomes the very purpose of the historical event: It happened so that you may tell it. Indeed, at the heart of the liberation account, God prepares Moses with a story to tell a future child; and this rhetorical narrative, astonishingly, precedes the historical narrative of liberation itself.
It is not possible to deal here with even a fraction of the points and insights made and gained in a book of this length and density, but one more example may serve both to illustrate the caliber of Zornberg's elucidation, and to answer a question that may perhaps be on many readers' minds: Why would a woman become so involved with a religion that seemingly requires little involvement from women?
As Zornberg observes, by contrast with the Genesis sagas, the absence of women from the narrative of Exodus -- and indeed from all the later books of the Bible -- is quite striking. It is not, of course, a total absence. Pointing to the exceptions -- Jochebed, Miriam, Pharaoh's daughter, the midwives, Moses' wife, Zipporah -- Zornberg observes that all of them are related to the theme of birth, "all are dedicated to what Vaclav Havel calls the 'hidden sphere' that endangers the totalitarian structure: to the baby crying within the brick."
Once this theme has been established, however, women essentially disappear from the biblical text. This omission of women from the narrative can, of course, be seen as simply that -- an omission, a lack of specific interest in the feminine. But, Zornberg continues, "Rashi precedes the feminist movement by many centuries when, in an extraordinary midrashic comment, he excludes women from the most intense moments in the biblical drama: they simply did not participate in the major rebellions of the people in the wilderness. Rashi comments on the final census of people before entering the holy land: 'In this [census], no man survived from the original census of Moses and Aaron, when they had counted the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai (Num 26:64): But the women were not subjected to the decree against the spies, because they loved the holy land. The men said, 'Let us appoint . . . a leader to return to Egypt (14:4); while the women said, 'Appoint . . . for us a holding among our father's brothers. That is why the story of Zelofhad's daughters is narrated directly after this.' "
Rashi's point, Zornberg tells us, is simple but revolutionary in its implications. By taking the word "man" literally, he limits the destruction of a generation, in punishment for the sin of the spies, to the males only. While all the men over 20 died in the course of the 40 years' wandering, the women survived -- because, unlike the men, they loved the Land of Israel.
However, it is not the demographic implication that Zornberg finds compelling; it is rather that the absence of women from the text does not necessarily mean that they are assimilated into the general children of Israel, as the plain meaning of the text might indicate. Women have a separate, hidden history, which is not conveyed on the surface of the text. This history is a faithful, loving and vital one, which excludes them from the dramas of sin in punishment that constitute the narrative of the wilderness.
Indeed, the midrashic source includes both the major crises in the wilderness as dramas in which women were not incriminated -- the other being the building of the golden calf, where they refuse Aaron's request to donate their earrings for the task. In Rashi's midrash women emerge as exemplary: They repair what men have torn down; they reaffirm the value of love of the holy land and loyalty to the one God that men, in the rebellions of the spies and of the golden calf, have eroded. But this wholly laudable history of women is, of course, found only in the midrashic texts. Within the biblical narrative it is barely intimated.
The implication of this is profoundly paradoxical. In the written text, the absence of women would seem to imply that they are included in the larger dramas of the Israelites in the wilderness; it is precisely in the midrash that women figure as having a separate, hidden history. In fact, the midrash makes the reader aware of the mistaken reading: All along, women who were absent in the text were really elsewhere.
"Women's story," Zornberg tells us, "can be seen, then, at least at certain critical junctures, as the repressed narrative of the biblical text. . . . women remain a latent presence in their very absence; they represent the 'hidden sphere' which must remain hidden if it is to do its work with full power, but which must be revealed in some form if that work is to be integrated."
Thus it is the interplay of conscious and unconscious motifs that makes for the grand narrative. The "particulars of rapture," in Wallace Stevens's phrase, can evolve only where "Two things of opposite natures seem to depend / On one another, as a man depends/ On a woman, day on night, the imagined / On the real."
Those who feel that the Bible is no longer relevant, or is indeed simply nonsense, would be well advised to read Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg's extraordinarily brilliant book in conjunction with the biblical text. In fact, it cannot be understood without the aid of the various commentators -- few of whom possess anything like the penetrating insight of Zornberg, let alone her unique ability to open up a door into the esoteric worlds below the surface of the text that, once opened, stays open. Zornberg has here provided a very significant tool for both the layman and the scholar to use in their readings of not just the Bible but any other mystical text in the Jewish tradition. We owe her an enormous debt of gratitude. •
Paul William Roberts has written extensively on the Middle East and its
religions; his most recent book is "The Demonic Comedy: Some detours in
________________________________________ Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of seventeen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides. The Orthodox Union (OU) and Yeshiva University publish weekly chapters of Drazin and Wagner's book Let's Study Onkelos on www.ou.org/torah and on email@example.com. His website is http://booksnthoughts.com. ________________________________________
Review in the Forward By Ilana M. Blumberg
The Other Side of Silence: Listening Into the Bible Books
The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious By Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg Schocken Books, 480 pages, $27.95.
Virginia Woolf famously said that George Eliot’s novel “Middlemarch” was one of the few English novels “written for grown-up people.” “The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious,” Avivah Zornberg’s new study of the biblical unconscious is, likewise, a study for grown-up people, asking of its readers the courage to leave behind the soothing convictions of religious infancy for the demanding recognitions of religious maturity.
Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg’s writing exists in quiet but splendid isolation from both secular analysis and contemporary Bible criticism. Zornberg, a Jerusalem-based Bible scholar, has previously published acclaimed books on Genesis and Exodus, but here she sets out to consider the psychoanalytic resonances of the biblical and rabbinic depictions of the relations between human beings, between human beings and God, and between parts of the self. As she notes, the first two categories are the traditional division made by the rabbis in considering Jewish law. Zornberg’s third category explores the internal divisions and ruptures within individual human beings; this dimension, she claims, is present, if not always explicit, in the texts she studies. It is by adding this third category that Zornberg transforms the other two and renews the biblical texts in ways that make her the foremost scholar of the Hebrew Bible for readers who seek not only intellectual and creative achievement (which her book offers in abundance), but also that rare sensibility capable of explaining, exploring and deepening our sense of what it means to be a human being of faith in a world as fractured and fragmentary as ours.
This is not a reassuring book, except if truth is reassuring. The religious life, as Zornberg reads it in the Bible and in the rabbinic exegetical texts, is no opiate, no escape from the deep pains and haunting half-knowledges we host unaware; it’s a demand upon us to become aware of them, to live fully with others, with our fullest selves and with a God who knows the difference. How wonderful to find a psychoanalytic account of the religious life that would have challenged Freud himself. Whereas Freud analyzed the need for religion, Zornberg turns to the content of religion and finds it richer than Freud might have imagined.
In considering biblical figures as mysterious to themselves, subject to traumatic erasures of experience and memory, and moving slowly toward the beginnings of a fuller consciousness, Zornberg hears entirely new murmurings in a wide range of stories, from the first patriarchs and matriarchs to the prophet Jonah and the heroines Ruth and Esther. Whereas on their own, Zornberg suggests, these characters can only begin to attend to the “murmurings, whisperings, restless cracklings of life [that] animate the space between us and within us,” when we afford God the role of psychoanalyst, the murmurings can become more fully audible to human beings.
If the idea of God as a sometimes-psychoanalyst seems surprising, Zornberg reminds us of the varied roles in which the Bible casts God: father, lover, artist, man of war. Why not psychoanalyst, as well? Yet her study does not depend on this analogy, nor does it demand specialized knowledge of psychoanalytic theory. In Zornberg’s account, what it means for God to be a psychoanalyst is that God gives potent hints and speaks in messages that cannot be fully understood, but rather “initiate work for those who take the hint.” As Zornberg reads the biblical text and its rabbinic interpretations, from early midrash through the Hasidic masters, she proves to be a masterful taker of the hint. Over and over in this volume, Zornberg presents her own readings by beginning with “I suggest” — and how apt a verb “suggest” is, for the entire volume eschews forceful argumentation in favor of what Zornberg calls “seduction,” using it in its etymological as well as usual sense, drawing out and drawing forth in conversation, in thought experiment, what could not be previously imagined or tolerated or thought. And yet by the time the thought experiment has been tried out, the suggestion has an extraordinarily suggestive force, even a momentary necessity to it.
“The Murmuring Deep” is convincing, even for a skeptical reader not inclined toward the marriage of psychoanalytic thought and Torah. By the halfway point, it comes to seem as if only a highly repressed reading would not have noticed how the Bible deals in traumatic events in which the horizontal and vertical ripples shape the inter-biblical account as well as centuries of rabbinic commentary. Zornberg’s multi-chapter reading of Isaac’s binding presents it as the traumatic event par excellence, shifting shape in the life of a doubting Abraham, who seeks the clarity of a sacrificial moment and thus forces God’s hand to test him; in the life of a surviving Isaac, who confronts the “unthought known” of the binding only at the much later moment, when he blesses his own sons, blind and trembling, and in the life of a near fatherless Jacob, who can become a father only once he faces his “unwilled collision with the avoided place” in an unchosen marriage.
Zornberg illuminates the problem of prayer for Noah, for Jacob, for Jonah; the radical suspense of human toil and female pregnancy in the generations before the flood; the essential contingency faced by the Moabite Ruth and the powerful desire for answers, for the closure of narrative, felt by the dreamer Joseph. These stories merge and stand alone in Zornberg’s poetry of Jewish seeking.
As in her previous books, Zornberg ranges widely among Jewish sources from the ancient, medieval and modern periods; from classic works of psychoanalysis by Freud and Winnicott to more recent interventions by Julia Kristeva, Adam Phillips and Christopher Bollas; from literary critics Frank Kermode and D.A. Miller to the philosophy of Kierkegaard and Stanley Cavell; from Henry James and Eliot to Paul Celan and Marguerite Duras. The book, however, does not flit between these sources. Zornberg builds a framework from these thinkers and writers, one that gives form and heft to her conceptions of the biblical drama, often illuminating these sources as she goes.
It’s also striking that perhaps the thinnest part of the vast bibliography comes from contemporary Jewish scholars and writers. Today’s great many writers of biblical criticism and Jewish thought play only the most peripheral role in this major and profound study; likewise, so far as this reader can tell, Zornberg’s book does not participate in any current trends, nor is it part of a critical conversation, though it offers much for members of that conversation to consider and emulate.
Is Zornberg’s separation from contemporary work in Jewish studies a dismissal of it? My own speculation is that this difference is a function of tone and sensibility. “The Murmuring Deep” is a private book, a book of intimate sorrows and loves, that speaks and answers to itself and to any listening reader. It is a case study that is unique and overflows its uniqueness. Or, as Zornberg herself writes in a final sentence to this most luminous study, “This is the Torah that, like its teacher, can never be fully known, that is always discontinuous, of which we ask, Who are you? And rejoice in the silence that animates its response.”
Ilana Blumberg teaches literature and Jewish studies at Michigan State University. Her memoir, “Houses of Study: A Jewish Woman Among Books” (University of Nebraska Press; this year, Bison Books), won the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature Choice Award.
The classic Taoist text teaches: “Thirty spokes meet together in a single hub. The wagon’s usefulness depends upon their nothingness.” Everything depends upon the space between the spokes.
Absence can be more powerful than presence, nothing than something. Often the words another does not speak are the most eloquent.
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s new book is called “The Murmuring Deep” (Schocken, $27.95). This might be read as a book about everything the Bible does not say. Or at least, what the Bible does not say out loud. In a phrase she borrows from the French writer Maurice Blanchot, Zornberg is the one who “keeps watch over absent meaning.”
We know what Noah does, but we are never told how he feels. Zornberg’s skill is to wring significance out of the mute text. The story of Jacob and his sons is thick with unspoken meanings. How does the Akedah, the binding of Jacob’s father Isaac by his grandfather Abraham, reverberate through the generations? Isaac never refers to it. Neither does his son Jacob. Joseph similarly never speaks of it. Surely they knew. It is the kind of family story unlikely to be ignored.
Zornberg points out that God (in Genesis, Chapter 28) identifies God’s self to Jacob as “the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.” Abraham, of course, is Jacob’s grandfather. But we know that Isaac expresses a preference for Jacob’s brother Esau. Perhaps Jacob feels a kinship with Abraham, and God’s words epitomize the estrangement.
Although Jacob is married (to four women, actually) and has many children, he is described as “levado” — alone. It is the word used for the very first comment on human nature in Genesis — “It is not good for a man to be alone.” If we ask ourselves why Jacob is called alone at this moment, we are forced deeper than the usual pat, moralistic lessons that pass for biblical preaching.
If you have read this far, then the questions that Zornberg teases from the text are your questions. If you read the Bible in the hope that ever deeper layers will unfurl, Zornberg is a demanding but remunerative guide. Rebecca’s troubled pregnancy leads her to question the purpose of her existence. Zornberg illuminates this question with a range of references. She draws the provocative comparison of Rebecca and Job, both of whom question the worth of their existence — and by implication, of all existence. The travail of pregnancy impels Rebecca’s doubts. Sylvia Plath peeks in, as does Freud. Zornberg crowns the analysis with an apt anagram: “Rivkah” (Rebecca) uses the same letters as “kirbah (interior).”
Those who have read Zornberg before should know that her writing is no less knotty in this work. Each page is studded with references and quotations to the renowned and the obscure. Her erudition in both secular and sacred literature bubbles up irrepressibly. It is usually a delight, but can — in its very profusion — be a hindrance to the reader.
Still, there is something beautiful in the clotted style; it adds a sort of exegetical fiber to our white-bread intellectual diet. We tend to read too quickly. Only superficial books can be digested at high speed. Nabokov once wrote that properly speaking, there are no readers, only re-readers.
If you are trying to hear what the text does not say, rushing through the words will not help. Zornberg’s style forces us to slow down, to puzzle out meanings that are deep and powerful. Zornberg delivers what we ask of an interpreter, that when we return to the text we find the Bible — and ourselves — changed.
More goes on beneath the surface of the biblical text than any single book can encompass. But the payoff of careful, trained listening is profound. The poet Keats taught that “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter….” We may not always recognize the unheard melodies, but that is OK — Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg is listening.
David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple. His column on books appears monthly in The Jewish Journal.
There are not many great commentaries on the Book of Numbers By Anglican Bishop Joel Marcus Johnson on March 2, 2015: There are not many great commentaries on the Book of Numbers, but now comes Avivah Gottleib Zornberg’s “Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers” (Schocken 2015), hot off the press. I have long been an admirer of her work, first with “Genesis: The Beginning of Desire,” thence “The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus.” All three of these should grow to classic importance. I would assume at this point that she may be planning volumes on Leviticus and Deuteronomy, as well, giving us a full set of reflections on the entire Torah. More power to this marvelous literary commentator and philosopher. … But there is something new about this work, making it to stand out. She seems to me to have grown in literary dexterity, making this work far more accessible than those previous, even a joy to read. … First, buy “Bewilderments,” then go read the other two in reverse order, so as to receive the full Avivah impact. Second, I ask you, when was the last time you were jumping up and down to study Numbers? My answer is that you have never realized its historical and literary genius until you read Avivah.
Superb By Grant Barber I had feared that no more volumes by this superb author on the books of the Torah were forthcoming after those on Genesis and Exodus. One of those unexpected surprises that brightens up the day was to find this! Her mastery of her field might be rivaled by other Jewish scholars...I can barely keep up with my own Christian writers, let alone other faiths...but how could any surpass her? Edifying, insightful, encyclopedic...excellence and clarity.