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The Other Side of Silence: Listening Into the Bible

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.

Unique: Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg?s writing exists in quiet but splendid isolation from both secular analysis and contemporary Bible criticism. Image by DEBBI COOPER

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.

For a Q&A with Zornberg click here.

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