Lucy Slurzberg, a relational psychoanalyst and couples therapist, offered a struggling couple a book of biblical commentary by Avivah Zornberg, bringing their attention to the story of Adam and Eve. “I did this so they could share the ability to live with uncertainty and find their humanity as they explored their darker side and their quest for passion,” Slurzberg told The Jewish Week.
On another occasion, when a non-Jewish spouse was in the process of converting to Judaism, Slurzberg pointed the couple to Zornberg’s commentary on the Book of Ruth. “I wanted to deepen their understanding of what it is to be known by the other and to give them a deeper sense of what kind of journey they were on.”
Slurzberg is not in the habit of turning to the Bible for support in her therapeutic practice, nor were these couples specifically seeking spiritual guidance. But Slurzberg knew that “they needed to share a profoundly bonding experience” and she thought that an exploration of Zornberg’s writing would also enhance the therapy. (Her intuition turned out to be right.)
Zornberg is among the leading, and perhaps the most original, biblical commentators at work today. A devoutly Orthodox woman who feels at home in her Jerusalem community, and a Ph.D. in English literature from Cambridge University, she is the author of three major books of Torah commentary — one on Genesis, a second on Exodus and her most recent title, “The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious” (Schocken, 2009). A new work on the Book of Numbers is forthcoming next spring.
Biblical scholarship usually stays hidden within the academy or appeals to a limited audience of lay people, but Zornberg’s penetrating takes on the Torah, interweaving broad literary and analytic sources, are increasingly finding their way to a wider public, with a special appeal to the psychoanalytic community.
When, each year after Passover, Zornberg leaves Jerusalem for her six-week U.S. lecture tour that begins and ends in New York City, she attracts standing-room-only crowds. Admirers alert one another to lecture venues and form study groups to decode her process and better appreciate her teaching.
In recent years, Zornberg’s teachings have come to do more than illuminate hidden corners of Torah and rabbinic thought. Unlike leading Elaine Pagels, who specializes in Gnosticism and emphasizes the historical repression of women, or Robert Alter’s literary biblical criticism, Zornberg’s work is inspired by rabbinical commentators. “The excitement begins with something from the rabbinic imagination that intrigues me,” she said. “It’s a very intimate encounter with something in a midrash that just hits me between the eyes.”
Through her exploration of familiar figures such as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Isaac, Jacob, Miriam, Moses and Ruth, among others, she helps people confront issues such as identity, envy, alienation and the longing to be seen for who they really are. As one faithful fan, hoping to be admitted to a sold-out lecture at the JCC in Manhattan, declares, “Avivah is unique, addictive and life-changing.”
In psychoanalysis, Zornberg finds a tool for understanding much that the rabbis struggled with when commenting on text and structuring wisdom for living. In her analysis of canonical stories, she returns again and again to the interaction of conscious and unconscious levels of knowing, much as psychoanalysis does. This secular discipline, known to be, at times, religion-averse, nonetheless helps Zornberg to formulate questions about the unconscious when she unpacks the multiple layers of a biblical narrative.
“Avivah Zornberg is the psychoanalyst of the biblical text when she attempts to understand the narratives’ complexities,” said Dr. Talia Hatzor, director of training at the Parent Infant program of Columbia Psychoanalytic Center for Training and Research. “It is an exhilarating pleasure to hear her associating, investigating, deconstructing, reconstructing with a mind so rich with sources.”
Dr. Seth Aronson, a psychoanalyst at the William Alanson White Institute and an Orthodox Jew, explained, “Avivah’s unique and distinctive way of looking for the gaps and omissions in the biblical narrative (the white spaces in between the black letters, if you will) and gently pressuring the text to reveal what may be beneath the story is similar to the way I think about working with patients’ narratives.”
Whether reading biblical narrative, midrash, a chasidic tale or our own lives, Zornberg emphasizes that communication is not limited to the lucid testimony of the conscious mind. Judah’s confession to his long-lost brother, Joseph (Genesis 44) is an example of a testimony that erupts from the realm of the unconscious. It is this speech, in the manner of a psychoanalytic breakthrough, that reconnects the estranged brothers and allows the light to return to Joseph’s long-darkened face.
In Zornberg’s world, the spiritual journey has a three-fold expression — in an individual’s relation to God, to the other and to the self. Each of these encounters promises much and risks great disappointment. Each informs the others and all are characterized by mystery: there is much that we might intuit but possibly even more that we cannot know. To enter her world is to enlarge your capacity for the “unthought known,” to refine a person’s receptivity to hints, possibilities, associative flow and all that has been obscured from conscious awareness.
Her work invites a certain risk-taking. In the encounter with the self and the other, we may well meet our own dark shadows. Psychoanalysts say they find something vital in Zornberg’s understanding of relationship as a mutual encounter in which both parties are transformed. They relate to Zornberg’s insight that “the possibility of redemption begins in the most intimate areas of life,” even if some practitioners might prefer more neutral words such as wholeness or balance or completion to “redemption.”
Zornberg explains, “God speaks through human beings. Therefore there is a great urgency for us to clear out anything that does not allow us to become our truest, most conductive selves.” One of the barriers to revealing the true self, she says, is an excessive preoccupation with yirah or fear, whereas allowing for ahavah or love, an impulse she sometimes speaks of as desire or erotic energy, “opens you up as a channel for blessing and wholeness and kedusha or holiness.”
Zornberg is concerned by the joylessness and rigidity with which some people approach text and religious life these days. Just as she looks for a balance between fear and love, the lucid and the spontaneous, she seeks to inject life into that which can lapse into the overly pedantic. “My father came from a chasidic background so that I always experienced learning as an expression of joy and adventure. I look for the emotional liberation within the rigor. I’ve always assumed that what God wants is good for his people.”
Zornberg’s perspectives emerge from the rigors and risk-taking in her method. Jill Nathanson, an abstract artist, compares Zornberg’s process to that of an artist. “She can take an element and elaborate on it, looking at it from every possible angle, like a classical painter, a Titian or a Poussin, would do. The composition begins with a desire, then it surrenders linear clarity for a while to arrive at unity or some sort of satisfaction, only to begin to question all over again.”
Zornberg’s forthcoming book, “Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers,” centers on issues of faith and skepticism and all the spaces in between. “The main question is can you trust God, self and life itself?” In the story of the spies, in God’s killing off a generation in the desert, and Moses’ recurring difficulties relating to the people, she wonders if “a new generation can arise sanitized of the traumas of the past?”
In her next book, contracted for the Yale Series on Jewish Lives, she will focus on the figure of Moses. “Moses,” Zornberg said, “finds the world baffling and dissonant with his apprehension of the Divine.” True to the Zornberg experience, Moses’ struggles in some way remind us of our own.