Reflections on Leviticus: A seismic literary event - book review

This desire to relate to stories reflects the author’s own background in English Literature and her interest in metaphorical language, which by its nature invites interpretation.

 Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg (photo credit: COURTESY THE AUTHOR)
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg
(photo credit: COURTESY THE AUTHOR)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

A new book by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg is not just another book wrestling with the often obscure meanings of the Hebrew Bible. It is a seismic event. Her books (this latest is her sixth) are profound “reflections” (a description she gives to most of her creations) rooted in an awareness that the material she deals with can best be understood on the assumption that their real meanings lie below the surface. In contemporary culture, psychoanalysis and philosophy provide lenses for such a perspective.

“I never intended to write about Leviticus,” she tells The Jerusalem Report. “I didn’t have a grand plan to write about the five books of Moses.” Even though she has produced perceptive works on three of the books of the Torah – Genesis, Exodus and Numbers – she was initially not drawn to write about Leviticus.

“It seemed rather dry, and full of small details about the functioning of the Tabernacle and the priests (kohanim) who operated it,” she says. “Moreover it has only two stories in it, the death of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, (Lev. 10:1-2 and 16:1), and that of the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian father, who curses God and is stoned to death (24:10-14).”

This desire to relate to stories reflects the author’s own background in English Literature (she has a PhD from Cambridge) and her interest in metaphorical language, which by its nature invites interpretation. Her husband, Eric, encouraged her to look for a way to connect her own proclivities with this text.

“I looked again at the magisterial midrash collection, known as Midrash Rabba, and found, for instance, that the whole introductory section (the Petichta) focused on the opening word, ‘Vayikra’ ‘And he called...’ and its implications. This was rich and diverse material – fertile for the imagination.

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90) SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

There followed a period of thinking through the book. One day, she had a flash of insight about the book as a whole: “I saw it, in the main, as a response to the Golden Calf. This insight gave me a structure and a starting point.”

I raised the question of modern biblical criticism that sees the book as written by a cohort of priests, many hundreds of years after the traditional date, and inserted in the Torah to justify their own role in the community. Although Zornberg is aware of this body of criticism, it does not engage her real concerns.

“There are so many ways of understanding the Torah. So I say to myself, I’ve written this book on Leviticus, what do I do with it? How do I put it into action? That was the idea of the Tabernacle. You had to make it. Create it, fulfill its demands. In later times, study it. The Torah is a work of the mind; of creating a world of inner reality, of sacredness. To understand Torah you must use your imagination.”

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg

What does concern her is the deeper meaning behind the plain text.

For example, when asked about the practice of sacrifices, which takes up a large part of the book, she defends the idea of sacrifice without saying that she believes in the efficacious effect of such practice today:

“The actuality of sacrifices belongs to the ancient past. But as an idea I am drawn to the similarities it suggests between men and animals. It involves a profound sense of the body, of an identification of the flesh of both. A case could be made for learning about sacrifices without wishing to apply them to contemporary practice. The psychological dimension is obviously linked to the notion of sin, committed with the body. Admittedly, there is something in the very notion of sacrifice that is alien to the modern sensibility. This has a great deal to do with our radically changing view of the relations of body and soul. We bring criteria of psychic health to bear on the idea of sacrifice. But I think that we miss something important if we dismiss the idea altogether.”

The idea of sacrifice that Zornberg alludes to is psychological and spiritual. In the traditional Jewish lexicon, it refers to the negation of the self – bittul atzmi in Hebrew – that contains for her a sense of sacrifice. “To achieve that is a form of sacrifice.”

We discuss the 12th-century codifier, Rambam (Maimonides), who felt that sacrifices may have been appropriate in Bible times but were not useful anymore. “He was living in a time of great rationality. Sacrifices evoked the magical, the irrational.”

'The adoration of the Golden Calf’ by Nicolas Poussin (credit: WIKIPEDIA)'The adoration of the Golden Calf’ by Nicolas Poussin (credit: WIKIPEDIA)

This brings us around to the Golden Calf, in which the Children of Israel consciously fall back on idolatry:

“For me it’s quite an elaborate construct. I discuss it throughout my book. It’s central to my understanding of Leviticus. I’m influenced here by the work of the philosopher Eric Santner, The Psychotheology of Everyday Life, in which he brings the thought of Freud and Rosenzweig into conversation. The Exodus from Egypt becomes a metaphor for leaving a constricted life. There are midrashim that speak of Egypt as representing the concept of meitzar – the world of narrow straits from which it is impossible to escape. This is a pun on the Hebrew word for Egypt: mitzrayim. In hassidic texts, this comes to represent idolatry.

“For Santner, Egyptomania is the addiction to psychological defense systems that constrain one from entering into ‘the midst of life.’ Such patterns of thinking and feeling remain a constant force of alienation. For instance, when the biblical text refers to future punishment for the sin of the Golden Calf (Exod. 32:34), Rashi reads this midrashically to mean that a small part of the sin will be paid off in every generation: the punishment will be diffused over the generations. Implicitly, this suggests that idolatry itself always, always makes its appearance in history. It is not a purely historical event but rather a psychological element of human life, for which we bear responsibility.

“For me the notion of idolatry has to do with the appetite for easy answers, or with immediate answers to intellectual or emotional dilemmas. Our tendency is to make objects fetishes, like the child who centers its fantasy on a doll – when its powers fail, the child destroys it and finds another to replace it. A 19th-century commentary, the Meshech Chochma, suggests that Moses himself becomes a fantasy object of idol worship for the people. When he fails to return from Mount Sinai, the Israelites turn to the more conventional forms of idolatry: “The man who brought us out of Egypt is no more.” (Exodus 32:1) There is a shocking ease to this transition from one idol to another. (The calf is a classic god figure in Egyptian culture.)

“For the Israelites, after centuries of assimilation, it is already a fixture in their unconscious minds. The Golden Calf, therefore, represents a profound craving in the human, something obsessive that seeks total satisfaction in the world of objects. This can even include making a fetish of the objects and forms of Jewish religious life.”

The priests in the tabernacle are, in a sense, functionaries for whom details of ritual are central – like their ceremonial clothing, which create a symbolic presence in the lives of the people.

“The danger of this is that the representation becomes all-important. In the reading of Rashbam, the problem with the sons of Aaron the High Priest, Nadav and Avihu, lies in their anxiety to make the rituals that inaugurate the tabernacle produce the outcome that God had promised: the appearance of His presence in the Tabernacle. A kind of technical activism drives them to make the system work, now. They cannot wait for divine fire, but instead bring domestic fire, which is not indicated on this occasion.

“A similar frenzy appears when the people make the Golden Calf: ‘they saw that Moses was delayed’ – boshesh. This is a psychological issue. In our time, it seems to me that something of this impatience has become a positive value: being proactive is a virtue. In this sense, the Golden Calf gives us pause, makes us think again about the alternative virtues of waiting, of a receptive passivity. Didn’t [French philosopher Blaise] Pascal say that all of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone?”

Zornberg describes scenes in the biblical narrative as if they are happening in front of her eyes.

In the story of Nadav and Avihu, she pictures the scene on the eighth day of the inauguration of the Tabernacle (Mishkan), which was meant to be the culminating day on which the glory of God would appear, the shekhina (divine presence) would come to rest in the work of the people’s hands. For months the people had been working conscientiously, pulling out all the artistic stops in order to make the most exquisite and exact version of God’s instructions. They finally finished building this structure, there are seven days of inauguration, and finally, on the eighth day, the Glory of God is to appear and give life and meaning to this structure. God will in some sense dwell among them. His presence will be indicated by fire descending from the heavens and moving through the Holy of Holies to the external altar to consume the offering.

“This will be a sign of complete forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf. This notion is magnified in the midrash, and it is central to my understanding of Leviticus. The Mishkan represents healing for the Golden Calf – atonement and divine forgiveness. As part of this process, the people experience shame and regret for the sin. The moment of forgiveness has arrived. The people wait for an epiphany, which will mean that God has accepted their atonement.

“And God’s fire does appear and it does consume the sacrifices as promised. But at the same moment, Nadav and Avihu enter the Tabernacle with ‘a strange fire.’ A fire that God did not command. And (another?) fire of God comes forth and consumes them. Rashbam reads this in the most dramatic way. The fire that consumes the sacrifices is the same fire that consumes the priests. From a literary point of view, this is an earth-shaking moment. The fire that was to consume the sacrifices, as an expression of goodwill, love and success, the fire that is meant to bring the tabernacle to life, is the same fire as has just destroyed the young priests ‘in the presence of God.’ At the very moment of ecstatic life when the people are rejoicing and falling onto their faces, we read about sudden death. The young priests die without any clear explanation. Through the generations, commentaries struggle to find meaning in this mysterious disaster. But the commentaries continue, since none is finally satisfying.

“It seems to me that the literary mystery represents a genuine theological mystery. What is central here is the priests’ impatience to make the story meaningful. In the biblical story, we simply read the ritual processes, which lead to God’s presence appearing. What the midrash does is to emphasize the delay, the human experience of nothing happening. And with it a feeling of humiliation, shame: ‘All our hard work to build this tabernacle, to go through the lengthy rituals, has come to nothing! All our spiritual work of atonement for the Golden Calf is being disregarded!’

“This is experienced as rejection, a slighting of human effort. They can’t tolerate the anxiety and provide a home-made solution – fire from home, if fire from the heavens has failed us. This would, on any other day, have been a legitimate means of burning sacrifices. But on this day, this is precisely the wrong solution for what they seek – a sign from God that their penitence is accepted.

“The psychoanalyst, Christopher Bollas, creates a new word for a new disorder: normotic. In the same style as the common terms ‘neurotic’ and ‘psychotic,’ normotic describes a disorder of infatuation with the normal, which offers easy solutions to dilemmas. The priests can’t wait for God, for uncontrollable processes to happen. They pre-empt – and prevent - the process of sanctification. Waiting, attending to their desire, making space for the future to unfold – these are, it seems, unbearable experiences. So they resort to the everyday, the well-practiced solutions.

In doing this, they pick up the theme of the Golden Calf. Moses is late – Boshesh – in returning from Mount Sinai. The Israelites feel that they have been left high and dry, and that Moses should have been back by now. The midrash offers a pun on the word bo-shesh; it’s six o’clock! – midday in the time-keeping of the rabbis – he should be back! It’s rather like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, a comic impatience. In the daring reading of the Meshech Chochma, Moses has become for them a figure of godlike power, it was he who brought them out of Egypt. And Moses is absent – the focus of their inner lives has disappeared, ‘we don’t know what has become of him.’ He promised to be back at midday and it is midday plus x minutes! It’s no longer a matter of being 40 days late – a few minutes’ delay is enough to topple their entire belief system. So they fall back on the pagan norms of the past.”

There is much that is paradoxical in Zornberg’s take on the scriptures. But it is paradox on which she thrives. She writes, for example, about the paradox of freedom. Central to her approach is the instance of the Hebrew slave who refuses to go free in the sabbatical year. In the Torah, this slave has his earlobe pierced against the doorpost as a sign of disgrace in refusing freedom. She refers to a hassidic master, the Sefat Emet: according to the midrash, it is the slave’s ear, his hearing, that is at fault. He has not been attentive to the teaching he heard at Sinai – the second commandment, forbidding other gods – and has freely opted for a human master. In doing this, he has undone, in a deep sense, the entire meaning of the Exodus, he chooses Egypt over the Israelite destiny. The commandment of freedom is the spiritually difficult option. Slavery – idolatry – is, in this paradoxical sense, the easy option – authenticity the rigorous path.

It is perhaps paradoxical that when she writes about the Jewish value of this kind of authenticity, she quotes a hassidic source, the Sefat Emet. Does the devotion of the hassid to his rebbe not seriously diminish his freedom?

“That is the paradox of freedom!” she says. “It includes the free choice to submit to the authority of another human being, or to a discipline that limits freedom. A hassid must do inner work to understand his motives for attaching himself to a rebbe. This work makes the choice a serious one, that is, not necessarily an easy one. This makes it a truly free choice. A richer world opens up for such a person.”

The paradox is further sharpened when Zornberg deals with the other story in Leviticus, about the blasphemer. He is described as the son of an Egyptian who enters into a fight with an Israelite. The midrash tells a complicated story of his tragic family history, which leaves him aggrieved about being excluded from the Israelite camp. He acts out his aggression against the God who has given him such a difficult life. His violence is verbal – the cursing of God’s name. It is his authentic expression of his misery and yet it is punished by death. Zornberg offers a discussion of the issues involved, but as she herself says, the reader is left in a state of some turmoil.

“Not every problem can be solved,” she notes wryly. “The question is what part of the story can be used?” Perhaps some stories are meant to create agitation rather than resolution in the reader.

One of the images of God in the Torah is as a consuming fire. Moses’s first encounter with God is in the episode of the Burning Bush. This bush that burns in fire but is not consumed makes Moses turn aside from his path: “Let me see this great vision!” A paradoxical vision. According to Rashi basing himself on a midrash, God says to Moses: ‘Go and save the Israelites in My name. Look at this bush. If it fulfills my mission, it will not be consumed. If you go on my mission you will not be harmed.’ That is the paradox of fire. By its nature it lives by consuming its fuel. If God’s presence is like fire, then coming too close is dangerous. But, the story claims, this fire – Moses’s mission from God – will not destroy him. His life is to be lived in intimacy with the divine and yet he will not be consumed. The fire image evokes both death and life.

“The Jewish tradition has many examples of martyrdom in the name of heaven. The fire that consumes is a realistic image of an extreme event, even of an extreme desire: the desire to annul oneself for God. This idea is not attractive to the modern sensibility. And yet it seems that it plays a real role in religious feeling. At the same time, it contains its opposite: the desire to live life for God. The consuming fire is an image that is free to undermine itself. Most fires do consume, but not this one.”

As opposed to this dynamic vision, there is the Golden Calf. “The idol is a fixed image. The idol is an image whose nature and meaning are clearly known. Your neighbor has one just like it. It’s an icon in the culture – the satisfaction of what I already know that I need. No need to think, no need to dream.

“The Golden Calf appeals to a dead imagination. The life of imagination moves restlessly from image to image – discarding each image as it becomes rigid. Moses asks God at the Burning Bush: “What is Your name?” The people need a name, something that they can grasp. But God answers, “Ehye asher ehye” - “I will become what I will become!” The verb “to be” is repeated without a predicate. What God is, or will be, is left to the open future, to the divine imagination. For the human being, this is a frustrating answer. It names by refusing to name.

“Nadav and Avihu, I think, resort to the automatic powers of ritual. Ritual is obviously significant in the tabernacle. But a space must be left for the God who is not predictable, who cannot be imagined as simply part of the system. We might call this the space of human uncertainty, or even human imagination.”

Another paradoxical moment for Zornberg is the Sabbath day at the core of the Jewish experience.

Zornberg writes that ‘the Sabbath experience is a form of temporary madness,’ in the sense that the norms of productive economies in the Western world are laid aside on the Sabbath, as well as in the Sabbatical year. But she adds that “the Sabbath restores the radical sphere of lost intimacy – every week, every seven years, every fifty years. That’s the paradox of the sabbath experience. We are challenged to enact an intimate relationship with life, an organic sense of being at one with all of creation.”

To summarize a book of this magnitude is perhaps presumptuous. But as Zornberg herself observes:

“There are so many ways of understanding the Torah. So I say to myself, I’ve written this book on Leviticus, what do I do with it? How do I put it into action? That was the idea of the Tabernacle. You had to make it. Create it, fulfill its demands. In later times, study it. The Torah is a work of the mind; of creating a world of inner reality, of sacredness. To understand Torah you must use your imagination.” ■

The Hidden Order of Intimacy: Reflections on the Book of LeviticusAvivah Gottlieb ZornbergSchocken Books, New York, 2022289 pages; $32.50 (hardback)