Enraptured by Torah with Avivah Zornberg

Last week the British-born, Scottish-raised, Israeli-based biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg visited Los Angeles. She lectured twice, first at Sinai Temple in Westwood and then at UCLA Hillel. Both nights I weeped through her words.

I’m not going to attempt to encapsulate what she taught, because that would be like trying to unzip fog, but I wanted to say something about the sheer seductive power of her Torah. Because it is a Torah the world needs; a Torah of poetry and art, love and sexuality, psychology and fantasy. I’ll save some of the beautiful things I learned for another post.

There are two basic reasons why I find Zornberg’s biblical scholarship astounding. The first is that she draws upon an extraordinary amount of the most erudite secular literature. It is indicative of her approach, for example, that two of her books, while concerned with biblical subjects, make reference in their titles to the poetry of Wallace Stevens—“The Beginnings of Desire” and “The Particulars of Rapture.” Marrying sacred and secular literature is a foundational element of Zornberg’s style; it is how she writes, teaches and thinks. And it is a testament to her background in both religious and literary worlds, as she is a descendant of a long line of Eastern European rabbis and earned her PhD in English Literature from Cambridge University. These discrete but complimentary sensibilities infuse her style, and speak to the bible’s vitality as a living document. Last week, Freud, Lacan, Kafka, Henry James, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and even the Hollywood movie “Letter from an Unknown Woman” found expressions and reverberations in various Exodus stories. 

Zornberg revels in paradoxes and contradictions. At the same time she celebrates the rabbinic tradition of adding to the original text (the Talmud after all are the words of rabbis interpreting the words of God), she also subverts the tradition by exposing its inadequacies, or what she calls, “gaps”.

In “The Particulars of Rapture,” she writes: “In my approach, the biblical text is not allowed to stand alone, but has its boundaries blurred by later commentaries and by a persistent intertextuality that makes it impossible to imagine that meaning is somehow transparently present in the isolated text,” adding, “it continues, in a sense, the rabbinic mode of reading, where ‘the rabbis imagined themselves as part of the whole, participating in Torah rather than operating on it at an analytic distance…”

The difference is that for Zornberg, revelation does not stop with the rabbis. The written biblical text is not a totality unto itself but a kind of core architecture that could be decorated different ways, by different designers. Additional modes of interpretation articulate gaps in the story which she considers “repressed”, which brings me to the second reason I adore her work.

Zornberg reads the Torah from a woman’s point of view (I dare say she wouldn’t call this “feminist” since she made a sort of haughty comment about feminist readings of the bible at UCLA). But it could be said that what defines Zornberg’s Torah is its attempt to unearth the “unconscious layers” of female experience in the bible. Acknowledging that women are mostly “absent” from the Exodus story, but with few transient exceptions, after which “women essentially disappear,” Zornberg turns to Midrash—and Rashi, in particular, whose commentary she refers to as biblical “second nature”—to retrieve or reconstruct what is hidden. “Women have a separate, hidden history, which is not conveyed on the surface of the text,” she writes in “Rapture”. And it is this “hidden sphere,” a phrase she borrows from Vaclav Havel, that most preoccupies her.

And it is her distinctly feminine reading of the bible that I find most enrapturing. Because it is investigating through these eyes that Zornberg illuminates desire, sensuality and love in the bible. And yet, those elements figure in only when there is a relationship in which to contextualize them. They symbolize being drawn, lured, attracted, compelled. For central to Zornberg’s teaching is discovery of the self, which is premised upon the engagement in relationships. Zornberg teaches that every human journey is defined by how the individual responds to the challenges of being in relationship—with oneself, with others and with God.