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Avivah Zornberg’s Intricate Patterns

Avivah Zornberg’s Intricate Patterns

Avivah Zornberg overlays a dizzying tapestry of midrashic, psychoanalytic and literary sources on her biblical themes. Her most satisfied listeners allow for the unmooring of the categorical mind. Zornberg, most recently the author of “The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious,” suggests that the hidden meaning of our classical texts is best perceived with our own porous and poetic unconscious minds.

Zornberg, who was raised in Scotland and has a PhD from Cambridge in English literature, is an orthodox mother and grandmother living in Jerusalem. Earlier this month, she concluded her annual, coast to coast lecture tour in New York City, with talks at Skirball, Congregation Shearith Israel, Bnai Jeshurun and the JCC in Manhattan. She does not merely dazzle her audiences with her erudition. Her unique sensibility reorients our personal relationship with text. Zornberg’s remix of traditional midrash and world literature weaves new connections and induces profound, often paradoxical, insight.

The soft-spoken Zornberg cautions against facile assumptions. She has misgivings about people “who need to tie up all the loose ends” or “who proclaim that they fully understand.” Instead, she offers intricate and associative encounters with what Christopher Bollas calls the “unthought known.”

Zornberg reminds us that our tradition is uneasy with complacency. Just when the patriarch Jacob assumes he will be settling into a peaceful phase, he is undone by the news that wild beasts have torn apart his beloved son Joseph. Zornberg encourages humility when it comes to the dark side; she urges respect for the hidden spheres.

To some, Zornberg is disconcerting in her complexity; to others, the depth of her insight offers comfort. She brings a woman’s capacity for empathy to her consideration of biblical characters. In one lecture, she cites a passage in Genesis when Rachel cries out to her husband Jacob about her childless state from the core of her despairing soul. Jacob, however, dismisses her: There are clearly regions of soulful angst where Jacob – and perhaps by extension, most men – do not dare to go. Zornberg evokes a sense of abandonment familiar to many women. In this shared moment of insight, they are no longer alone.

Might we assume feminist leanings from Zornberg’s empathy with women? Paradox displaces politics. Zornberg speaks of the daughters of Zelophehad who petition Moses for the right, heretofore denied women, to inherit their father’s land. God acquiesces, adding that the women have spoken justly. According to Sefat Emet, this represents a new “epoch of the feminine.” It is these reform-seeking sisters who usher in the more expansive period of the oral law. However, this is a system from which women’s wisdom is largely excluded.

There is no facile solution or predictable party line. The loose ends become threads with which we hope to embroider new patterns as perceptive and provocative as those we have learned from our teacher.

Susan Reimer Torn, a writer who lives in New York City, blogs at

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