Zornberg Goes Deep


Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious
By Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg
480 pages. Schocken. $27.95.

“The problem of truthfulness becomes one of being true to a complexity,” writes Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg in The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious. If so, Zornberg is the most truthful of Bible commentators. For this gifted Torah commentator, sacred text is a spiritual theater in which the psyche explores its relations with God, self, and other. Using the method of Chasidic teachers such as the Isbitzer Rebbe who saw all narrative as a metaphor for inner conflicts, and also the method of Freud and other modern thinkers, Zornberg searches for the multifaceted nature of the biblical voice and teases it out. The depth and uniqueness of her approach makes her one of the greatest Jewish voices of our time.

“Voices” is the operative word, as in her new volume Zornberg seeks to uncover the voice of the unconscious as it appears in the biblical text. She associates this voice with the Hebrew word tehom, the deep waters or the pre-creation void. Zornberg connects this concept to words such as “hum, murmur, reverberate”—and uses it as a paradigm for the subliminal messages of the unconscious. Zornberg probes the inner psychology of biblical characters, using rabbinic commentary as a kind of record of analysis. She is seeking for the sound just out of reach, the murmur of intimate messages absorbed by the mind without awareness. Zornberg examines characters from Adam to Jonah, from Rebekah to Ruth, looking for the ways that unconscious fears and desires affect them and alter their spiritual destinies. She suggests to us that the Bible attends to human psychology and that God plays the role of therapist to Abraham and Isaac, inviting them to become fully developed human beings.

Zornberg creates an ahistorical but compelling symphony of biblical narrative, rabbinic commentary, and modern psychology. Some of her readings ring more true to the literal text than others, but her method is unquestionably powerful. Two of Zornberg’s defining characteristics are her faith in the Torah as a healer of human hearts, and her faith that the sages of the tradition understand the depths of the Torah’s meaning and expose hidden messages already in the text.

These characteristics marks Zornberg as a traditional Jewish thinker, yet there are hints of a more radical theology present as well. It makes one sit up straight and take notice when Zornberg casually proposes during her discussion of Noah: “I suggest that we read God in the Torah as a character created by God the narrator.” This is Zornberg’s way of explaining God’s strange punitive moods and apparent regrets, as when God says during the Noah story: “I regret having created human beings.” (Genesis 6:6) These textual versions of God are not God, actually—they are only faces, analyst’s roles, put on by God to draw out humans through “challenging or comforting pieces of himself.” This allows Zornberg to maintain God as the author of the Torah while noting the inconsistencies of God’s portrayal throughout the Bible—even to celebrate those inconsistencies as therapeutic genius. This is a sophisticated view of revelation: traditional, modern, and even somewhat gnostic. One has to be curious to see if others will take up this Freudian-inflected theology. In another chapter, “Law and Narrative in the Book of Ruth,” Zornberg probes the ways that narrative can impact and change law—another game-changing suggestion, reminding readers that the human story can and does impact how we read biblical and rabbinic legal sources.

Zornberg’s existentialist, therapeutic exegetical method has an uncanny way of speaking to the reader. (Zornberg’s own definition of uncanny, “familiar but alien,” is exactly my meaning.) While living in Jerusalem for a year, I had the opportunity to study with her, and week after week I found myself feeling that she was speaking directly to me, as if she knew the events of my life. I checked with other students and found many of them were having the same feeling. This happened to me again while reading Zornberg’s chapter on Rebekah, where she illuminates the subconscious attitudes of mother and child. In discussing Rebekah as she carries Jacob and Esau in her womb, Zornberg writes: “Maternal love is a surge of anguish at the very moment when the identity of thought and living being collapses.” That is, at the moment when the child is born, a part of the mother’s body goes off to live out its own thoughts and feelings, and the mother is forever left with the odd sensation of “confronting the otherness of what had been part of one’s being.” My daughter was born five months ago, and Zornberg’s observation was eerily consonant with my own experience.

The theme of unconscious maternal desires, as well as the theme of death and its repression, permeate the entire work. Just as Zornberg exposes the existential crises of Abraham and Jacob as they confront the almost-loss of their sons, she also sheds new light upon the female characters of the Bible, implying that Freud’s question “What do women want?” is as central to the Bible as any other. In this respect, Zornberg advances the field of biblical women’s studies, by making clear that women too confront the existential angst of union and separation, love and death.

This led me to a question Zornberg herself does not ask: what is the biblical text itself repressing? How does the Freudian point of view make the text less reliable, as well as/instead of more reliable? To take one case in point, the word tehom, which Zornberg places at the center of her narrative, means “deep” or “primordial waters.” Yet the word comes from Tiamat, the Babylonian goddess of the primordial ocean, whose body was torn apart to create the world. This story, itself an illustration of Zornberg’s thesis of the maternal unconscious, is repressed by the Bible but hinted at in the single word “tehom” at the beginning of Genesis: “hoshech al pnei tehom/darkness on the face of the deep.” Might the Bible itself be suppressing God as mother-figure, as later chapters of Genesis repress the death of Rebekah? That’s my question, not Zornberg’s, but I’d love to know what she thinks.

Zornberg’s chapters on Joseph, near the end of her book, summarize her view of the human capacity to repress unconscious fears and wishes: “Joseph’s tears are so poignant because they represent the pressure of his unacknowledged complexity.” Throughout Zornberg’s work, she confronts the pressure of the Bible’s unacknowledged complexity, bringing to light the truths that lie hidden in the shadows of the biblical text. In doing so, she makes it possible to read the Bible in a way that heals, creates, refreshes, repairs. For Zornberg, the biblical God is “the clarity of relations,” shedding light on the unfathomable deep, exposing the foundations of the soul.