A Torah Scholar With a Rock-Star Following

By Eve Grubin

Published September 03, 2004, issue of September 03, 2004.
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For most scholars, Midrash is an analysis of or commentary on the text of the Bible. But to Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, the literary and Torah scholar with an enormous following on several continents, Midrash is “the repressed unconscious of the Torah.”

The difference speaks volumes. Specifically, Zornberg sees Midrash as coming out of what the Torah cannot say, as the hidden truths that are too painful for the Torah to reveal blatantly. Interested in the Torah’s gaps, she speaks with a poet’s awareness of how meaning lies in the white spaces between words. Her assumption is that while the unconscious (Midrash) can hold opposing viewpoints at once, the conscious mind (the Torah) cannot; it is the pregnant silences in the Torah that generate Midrash. And as Zornberg consistently suggests in her teachings, which use secular literature and philosophy to illuminate an analysis of the Torah, redemption stems from embracing paradox.

Zornberg, a Torah scholar of exceptional caliber, as well as a literary scholar with a Ph.D. from Cambridge University and the author of two books — “The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis” (Doubleday, 1995) and “The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus” (Doubleday, 2001) — holds a unique status that is hard to define. In addition to her regular teaching schedule at various schools in Israel, Zornberg lectures widely in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom at both Jewish organizations and secular universities and institutions; she holds a visiting lectureship at the London School of Jewish Studies, an affiliate of the University of London, and she appeared on Bill Moyer’s PBS special on Genesis. And perhaps most importantly, she has acquired an unprecedented following of men and women, Jews and non-Jews, Orthodox and non-Orthodox — many of who will be present during her fall tour in New York next month, which takes her to Drisha, the William Alanson White Institute and The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

During her spring tour, Zornberg offered a lecture titled Desire in the Desert, about the moment when the Israelites complained to Moses that they were tired of the manna and that they desired meat. Themes that address desire and the erotic often trail through her talks, but an awareness that these themes ultimately stem from the divine allows her to speak about them with an untainted yet sophisticated openness. She exuded a femininity that was welcoming although reticent, and she smiled shyly as she spoke with a gentle British accent quoting the Hebrew by heart from the Torah and Midrash to an audience of people with diverse backgrounds.

“She is so frum,” a young Orthodox woman from Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Boro Park said afterward. “Her manner, her references, all of the beautiful ideas are so clearly based deeply and unconsciously on frum assumptions.”

On the other side of the spectrum was poet and novelist Donna Masini, a professor of literature and writing in the graduate program at Hunter College, who is also from Brooklyn but was raised Catholic in an Italian neighborhood.

“Her work is so searching, goes so much further than ‘lit crit’ goes because it addresses the spirit — it speaks directly and a bit explosively to imagination,” Masini said of Zornberg. “I mean by this is that it is exciting, and inciting.”

Zornberg owes her love for the language of religious texts to her father. Her parents were refugees from Europe who met in Vienna just before the Nazi takeover and escaped to London. They soon moved to Scotland, where her father eventually became head of the Rabbinical Court in Glasgow, held a doctorate in philosophy, and was a community rabbi and a Zionist from a Hasidic background. From a young age, Zornberg conducted a learning program with her father: They learned the whole Tanach, the Mishna and philosophical texts; Rashi and Midrash always were important. Even on vacations they would sit at the beach and learn.

Zornberg later went on to learn at Gateshead Seminary, the right-wing Orthodox yeshiva for girls in northern England, and at Michlala, a top learning center for women in Jerusalem. Even so, her father remains her most important teacher.

“He had a humanistic approach to Torah,” she said in an interview with the Forward. “It was the milk that had nourished him, and he was passing that on. He really dedicated himself to this project of educating us in spite of the vacuum around, and I am very grateful. Everything goes back to that.”

Recently Zornberg has begun to focus increasingly on psychoanalytic thought and how it can be used to understand a nuanced moment in a complicated set of Midrashic texts. She often draws on Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Adam Phillips and others. Her use of psychoanalytic thought is so developed that the William Alanson White Institute in Manhattan, a well-regarded psychoanalytic institute, invites her to speak regularly. In fact, she will give a lecture at their upcoming conference, “Longing: Psychoanalytic Musings on Desire,” next month.

“I appreciate the beauty and freedom of the body,” she said recently. “I saw a modern dance in Israel that was so beautiful, it brought tears to my eyes. It was a man and a woman with shaved heads. They were curling around each other; they looked like two birds. They revealed their awe as they approached their relationship. There was almost a sense of dread at the power of sexuality. But they also expressed great tenderness. There was a paradoxical modesty in this portrayal of physical passion; it moved me deeply.”

Eve Grubin teaches at New School University, and her poems and articles have appeared in The American Poetry Review, The New Republic, The American Jewish Congress’s Congress Monthly and elsewhere. Her first book of poems, “What Happened,” is forthcoming in 2005.

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