Avivah Zornberg and the ‘Biblical Unconscious’

By Jake Marmer

Published March 17, 2009.
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Dr. Avivah Zornberg is a Jerusalem-based educator, Torah scholar, and philosopher. Her weekly lectures on the current Torah portion have an impressive following — bringing together, among others, rabbinical students of all denominations, artists and professors. Her lectures, like her books, are a sophisticated mix of traditional Jewish exegesis, Hasidic texts, Western philosophy, poetry and other sources. Though Zornberg’s two previous books have followed the traditional Torah-commentary format, her new book, “The Murmuring Deep Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious” (Shocken) comprises a collection of essays on various characters and themes in the Hebrew bible. She recently spoke with writer Jake Marmer about her own creative processes, storytelling, and connections between Jewish thought and psychoanalysis.

Biblically Speaking: Avivah Zornberg’s new book is a collection of essays on a variety of biblical characters and themes.
Debbi Cooper
Biblically Speaking: Avivah Zornberg’s new book is a collection of essays on a variety of biblical characters and themes.

Jake Marmer: How did you come to the idea of combining the traditional Jewish exegesis with contemporary textual analysis?**

Avivah Zornberg: I was always looking for ways of integrating my reading and thinking in “sacred” and “secular” areas. Since my quest in studying Torah was to understand myself and the world I live in, psychology and literature were natural disciplines to bring into play. The fields of psychoanalysis and narrative theory have become important to me in recent years — especially the work of Donald Winnicott, Wilfred Bion, Jean Laplanche, Marcia Cavell, and Shoshana Felman. This reading has deepened my understanding of issues of memory, trauma, the complexity of the self and of communication, as they appear in the biblical narratives and in their rabbinic commentaries.

Psychoanalysis seems really prominent in your work. Do you feel there’s something in particular about it that connects with Jewish thought?

I feel that Freud’s interest in understanding that which is not on the surface has deep Jewish roots. The very idea that the mind is not constituted only by its conscious knowledge is a spiritual idea, as is the respect given to human love, hate, and fear, and to the paradoxes of memory and forgetting. There are good reasons for the reservations that orthodox Jews sometimes have about this theory and practice. But for me it has opened up fruitful areas of reflection.

It seems to me that in your new book, even more so than in the previous ones, the real core of the project is neither the literary analysis nor exegesis per se, but rather, existential, epic storytelling. What is your relationship with storytelling?

In a sense, I have always been telling stories. Even as a child, my school essays somehow modulated into narratives. I don’t see a sharp dividing line between exegesis and narrative. It is possible to be analytical, to seek out the nuances and structures of a text, and to embody one’s findings in a story. Or to move from one mode to the other quite fluidly. The voice of the speaker or writer turns inwards and outwards. I was taught first by my father in this mixed mode of commentary, grammatical rigor, large inter-textual reference, and anecdote. In my work, I increasingly take pleasure in the role of storyteller.

Do you feel that you’re going through imaginative creative processes similar to that of a fiction writer or poet?

The midrashist writes — or speaks — in constant dialogue with other related texts and traditions. The authority of tradition lies behind the words, giving them force and also challenging the reader’s frame of meaning. Fiction and poetry also live in a field of traditions, but in a less authoritative mode. I do feel that in my work I go through similar imaginative processes to those artists experience, in the sense that unconscious movements of knowledge seek their forms of expression. This is a difficult process, but the result often has the feeling of a revelation.

Speaking of revelation, the myth of Sinai [giving of the Torah] is one of the most thoroughly discussed themes in your work. Do you have a non-mythic, historical, vision of Sinai, as well? How do you reconcile these visions?

I place myself in the tradition of midrashic and Hasidic accounts of Revelation, which has always been interested in its human meaning, rather than in its historical truth claims. Dogmatic issues — when, where, what — are of less interest to me, since the Torah itself is written in a language that de-emphasizes such questions.

You often bring to light unusual, previously glossed over, female narratives of the Tanach. As a modern female scholar and a religious woman, how do you deal with the patriarchal nature of the text?

It would be a platitude to talk about the historical and cultural context in which these narratives play out. What I find stranger and more significant is the resonance of biblical language that allows the reader to bring to it a contemporary feminist sensibility — and not simply to repudiate it as misogynistic. For women, these vigorous texts — sometimes difficult, sometimes beautiful, sometimes both — offer a field of knowledge about unconscious feminine desire, whatever we decide to do about it. In the world of biblical commentary, we can find readings and responses of all kinds to these texts.

Both of your previous books, as well as the new book, engage the metaphor of sexual intimacy to describe the relationship between the Divine and humanity. Why is this metaphor so crucial to your work?

I would call this the area of the erotic, rather than the sexual in a narrow sense. The erotic provides the closest analogy in human experience for the movement to transcend oneself — to reach out for a knowledge that always partially evades one’s grasp. From The Song of Songs, and throughout the Bible and its literature of commentary and meditation, this metaphor has held a more or less central place. Issues of longing and loneliness, emptiness and fullness play themselves out here. I look for ways to register a sense of the movement behind the words — that they are not static, but always reaching towards something. Perhaps like music, or poetry. The Torah is called “shirah,” or song, partly for this reason, I think.

If you had to pick one biblical character you associate yourself and your project with most closely, who would that be?

I would say whichever character I am currently thinking about — a world opens up as I approach each figure.

Jake Marmer is a doctoral candidate at The City University of New York, and managing editor of the Mima’amakim Journal of Jewish Art. He is spending a year in Jerusalem as a Dorot Fellow.

For a review of “The Murmuring Deep Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious” click here.

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