Genesis: The Beginning of Desire

GENESIS: THE BEGINNING OF DESIRE by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg [Jewish Publication Society], $34.95

Avivah Zornberg—doyenne of Jerusalem Torah study—is perhaps the only scholar in the world equally at home with the difficult American poetry of Wallace Stevens and the medieval homiletics of Ephraim Solomon ben Hayyim of Luntshitz. In this beautiful, but dense and demanding, commentary on the book of Genesis, Zornberg invites readers to enter the “restlessness” of Genesis, to discover that what is “hidden there is, essentially, the reader’s most intimate life.”

Drawing from a remarkably wide range of sources (from George Eliot to Paul Ricoeur to Ba’al Ha-Turim), Zornberg’s Genesis usually reads as rhetorical brilliance, but once in a while reads as indulged free-association. The author’s rabbinic (and English lit. crit.) style of over digesting a word or phrase can feel obsessive and suffocating. On the whole, though, the effect is dazzling. There is no question that, as a female Torah scholar, Avivah Zornberg breaks ground (along with Nechama Leibowitz) that’s been hungering to be broken for centuries. As Blu Greenberg has heralded: “A great teacher has arisen in Israel!”