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An Erudite Adventure

A psychoanalytic approach to the Bible brings insight and consolation

The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg (Schocken Books, $27.95) presents 12 Bible stories and rabbinic elaborations of those stories from a psychoanalytic perspective.

Zornberg’s method resembles collagemaking more closely than conventional critical argumentation: She juxtaposes texts from medieval midrash, Hasidic commentaries from centuries later, contemporary philosophy, and poetry — typically beautiful and profound snatches of texts — that (magically, “before your very eyes”) re-create the Biblical original, in each case, as a profound expression of psychic life, a case study of humanity’s struggle to sustain relationship with God, (a divided) self, and others. The effect in each chapter is one of tumbling citations, a humble display of quoted erudition. The art of these readings, like that of collagemaking or quilting, resides in the unique coherence of the final assemblage.

In the concluding pages of her representation of the Book of Esther, for example, Zornberg summarizes her reading of the midrash as situating Esther “on the cusp of changing time.” Reminding us of Jose Ortega y Gasset’s comparison of true living to the feeling of shipwreck, that is, a sincere search for the genuine idea to which to cling, Zornberg glosses Maharal’s appreciation of Esther as “the realization that the human being is… lacking, incomplete.” To this shipwrecked, incomplete self Zornberg brings Kierkegaard’s conviction that dread inevitably tends towards faith and William James’ observation that in the spiritual process, “something must give way, a native hardness must… liquefy.” This chapter, which opens and ends with Yeats’ “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” includes Professor David Weiss Halivni’s recollection of prayer in a concentration camp, Kafka’s futile couriers, rabbinic apprehensions of Esther’s desperate prayers, and J. M. Coetzee’s assertion that “other voices” speak through “cracks and chinks in our lives.” At last, we appreciate the psychology of a tradition that treats Esther as a final prophet, who, “in the twilight of prophecy” in an anarchic world, “falls back inside herself ” into the “unknowable future,” where, possibly, “is the chink through which another voice may be heard.”

Although Zornberg describes her readings as a study of the rabbinic unconscious, I would tentatively call this work “psychoanalytic theology.” The mutually resistant ideologies of psychoanalysis and theology are revealed to share methodology and healing purpose; the compelling explanatory power of these faith systems is associative, and both strive towards truth. On the one hand, the psyche (like the timeless Jewish cosmos in which souls from every generation were at Sinai, and like Zornberg’s reading strategy) has no respect for linear, chronological time; on the other hand, psychoanalysis, Judaism, and Zornberg have in common a profoundly moving respect for the accrual of loss in human experience, our shared fragility, and that resilience that is born of exchanging words.

The Murmuring Deep begins with the surmise that if Adam was “placed in Eden,” he must have begun somewhere else. God “seduces” humanity into the Garden, activating desire, and thereby awakening us to a want in the self that seeks fulfillment. The book concludes with Ruth’s story as a lesson in rejoicing in “the gap” and the animating “silence” of discontinuity, like that space between grandparent and grandchild, in which we can find love, Torah, and “Torah’s teacher.”

Avivah Zornberg has a kind of fan club, a mixed multitude of students who follow her classes when in Jerusalem or when she is on lecture tour, and devoted (re)readers of her first two books, the chapters of which take us through, systematically, Genesis and Exodus, according to the “parasha” divisions of Torah. Devotees will recognize many moments in this new book and delight in discovering how they create new illuminations. Zornberg’s work is worth expending the effort it takes to read her. The trusting reader is rewarded with that deeper, more vivid experience of life that comes from confronting the existential, traumatized self and from finding consolation in Torah’s prolific, elusive meanings.

Lori Hope Lefkovitz, Gottesman Professor of Gender and Judaism, directs Kolot, the Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies, at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.