One on One: Area of the not known

In her newly released book, English literature scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg explores the beneath, below and beyond.

Gottlieb Zornberg 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Gottlieb Zornberg 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
"One of the most important developments in Torah study in my lifetime is the growth of interest in Torah as literature," says Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, in response to being asked whether the secular school system in this country is doing a disservice to students by teaching sacred texts as stories. "Literature has an expansive effect; it opens out the limits. If you study the Bible with a certain quality of attention, something begins to open up, so that even if you lead a secular lifestyle, you may very well find yourself coming to pray, in one sense or another." It should not come as a surprise that Gottlieb Zornberg, herself an Orthodox Jew, takes such a view. In addition to being a world-renowned biblical scholar, she also holds a PhD (from Cambridge) in English literature, a subject she taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from 1969 to 1977, after making aliya from the UK and settling in Jerusalem. Born in London in 1944 and raised in Glasgow, the married mother-of-three got her first taste of the "expansiveness" of the Torah from her rabbi father, who "was very sensitive to its narrative and psychological aspects." And it is these aspects that best characterize the biblical readings unique to Gottlieb Zornberg's lectures, essays and books - interpretations that have gained her international acclaim. In her newly released book, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, Gottlieb Zornberg takes a step further in examining what lies beneath the behavior of figures in the Bible, who are so familiar on the one hand, yet so elusive on the other. Here, she gives a glimpse into what makes them, us and her tick. How much has being a woman affected your interpretations of Bible stories and characters? I hesitate to say that being a woman is an important factor here. Being a woman may color everything, but usually in the most subtle way. It might be interesting at some point to think about what role it has played in my analyses. But even then, it would be easier for someone else to make that distinction about my work than for me to do so. Having said that, I do see that the way I deal with women characters has changed over the years. Early on, I saw no reason to pay special attention to women's experience. I thought that all the characters in the Bible had equal claim on my attention. But, as the years go by, I find that I am more interested in the women characters, and in the way spotlights can be shone on them that reveal them in higher relief than at first reading. Yet you grew up in a religious household, where Torah learning itself is different for girls and boys. Surely, that has an effect... Yes, it does. I studied with my father, and my education didn't focus on Gemara, for example, but rather on Bible, Rashi and midrash. I regard the fact that I wasn't subjected to the full rigors of a yeshiva education, in the male sense, as a kind of a blessing in disguise. On the one hand, men who've had the benefit of that education have an intense immersion in talmudic sources and an ease with talmudic discourse that gives them authority. On the other hand, there's a kind of freedom that comes with not having been immersed in that, and in needing to find a voice of a different kind. It is this freedom that has been very important for me, enabling me to include literature and psychoanalysis in the mix. It has enabled me not to look at things solely through a black-and-white lens where everything is either permitted or forbidden. Which came first, your interest in the Bible or in English literature? Is there a connection between these two passions? I would think so. In my early studies with my father, there was an emphasis on the narrative and psychological aspects of the Bible, which he was very sensitive to. That's what caught my imagination. And, of course, I read a great deal, so it's hard to say what came first - Dickens or Deuteronomy, so to speak. Clearly, it was a tendency I had to be interested in these things, and the two worked very well together. What inspires your books in general, and what sparked your recent one in particular? All my books are based on my lectures. But this book covers a larger area. It covers books that are not in the humash [the Five Books of Moses]. Unlike my other books, which follow the structure of the weekly Torah portion, this one is thematic. Its theme is the interplay between consciousness and the unconscious. The idea for it came to me in the middle of an airport in the United States. Thinking about the lectures I was giving at the time, it struck me that what they all had in common was an interest in the unconscious - in what was not manifest in the description of encounters between people, between people and God and within people's inner speech, their soliloquy. In each of these three areas, what most interests me is the way that elements that are not obvious on the surface nevertheless profoundly affect the meaning of the communication. Can you give an example of the biblical unconscious? There are many examples. My claim is that the sages of the Talmud and midrash and, later, the hassidic masters had a healthy sense of what we now call the unconscious. An expression used by them - "the area of the not known" - refers to the spiritual realm. But I think it is translatable into Freud's idea of the unconscious. The former seems to refer to higher dimensions of experience and the latter to lower elements. But I'm dubious about that higher-lower way of looking at this. I think everything can be reversed. One can excavate upward, and one can aspire downward. It goes in a mirror thrust. One example that comes to mind is the story of Isaac's blessing of Jacob: He is deceived by Jacob into giving him the blessing he intended for Esau. This gives rise to all sorts of questions, such as: What good is a blessing that is given under deception? Why doesn't Isaac withdraw the blessing as soon as he realizes what has happened? What is a blessing? Why is it so valuable that you would be ready to deceive in order to receive one? The view I came to is based on the medieval commentary of Abarbanel: Isaac doesn't recognize Jacob, but he doesn't think it's Esau either. He knows that he doesn't know, which is why he asks all the questions. He asks twice: "Is this you, Esau?"; "Is it Esau or Jacob? It's the voice of the one, and the hands of the other." Being blind, he uses his remaining four senses, as he intensifies his attempt to identify who this is in front of him. The one thing he knows is that he doesn't know. And he needs to know before he can give a blessing. But there comes a point - and it's very moving to trace it in the text - at which he begins to trust his sense of smell: "Come close and kiss me, my son... and he blessed him and he said, 'The fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of the field that God has blessed.'" Now, this doesn't tell him who is standing before him. His sense of smell evokes the field and blessing. And blessing begins to flow in him. In other words, blessing becomes not a conscious, willed expression of what he wants for this particular son, but a spontaneous response of the emotions and the body to the unknown son who is in front of him. At this moment, Isaac, the blesser, experiences the power of an irreducible knowledge. Afterward, when Esau is crying in rage and disappointment, Isaac is bewildered for a moment, though he now understands that it must have been Jacob who received the blessing. Yet he says: "Gam baruch yihiyeh" ["Indeed he shall be blessed"]. Why does he say this? It's the opposite of what he should say in this situation; instead, he should immediately take the opportunity to recant his blessing. The midrash says that he speaks against his conscious will - the blessing was real, irrefutable. He could feel that it had "taken." Normally, we say that words are either true or not true. But here it's more a question of words working, of words connecting on a deep level. And that's what Isaac feels, even though he may disapprove. He is clearly very upset: "He shuddered a very great shudder" - which indicates that he's horrified on the conscious level. Yet he ratifies the blessing. An unexpected response like this suggests that beyond his willed, conscious response, a knowledge and desire of a different kind have come to expression. This is a story of what goes on between man and man, and man and himself. What about what goes on between man and God? Can you discuss the unconscious in the context of the relationship between Adam and Eve and God in the Garden of Eden? There is an extraordinary midrashic narrative about how God moves Adam into the Garden of Eden. It says, "Vayikah hashem elokim et ha'adam, vayanichehu began eden." ["And God took Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden."] This means that Adam wasn't in the Garden of Eden to start with, and God just kind of picked him up and put him there. Rashi comments on the word "take" in this context: He seduced him to enter with pleasant words. How do you "take" a person? Does God simply pick Adam up and deposit him? Clearly not. So "take" must mean with words or what Rashi calls "pleasing words." This is a way of saying that a person can only be "taken" with language, with rhetoric, with persuasion. How do you move people from here to there? By persuading them to go. It's a very powerful observation - the omnipotent God, in certain situations, doesn't use force, but seductive words. Now, we don't know exactly how human Adam is at this point. He's a clay form with God's breath in him. And God speaks to him and seduces him. In midrashic Hebrew, "seduce" has a slightly elusive meaning. In a sexual context, it can mean overwhelming someone's wish by flooding them with words that reframe reality. Here, it's as though Adam has some inkling that this is going to be a difficult story, which is why God has to seduce him into entering the garden. His wish, ultimately, is that Adam should undergo the Eden experience, which will move him into his full humanity. Only in this way will he be able to develop a fully human relationship with God. This is where seduction comes in. If God's desire is that Adam desire Him, He has to seduce him."Seducing" is redescribing a situation so as to make it attractive. Seduction describes that movement beyond the area of one's present will to something else that beckons. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. In the sexual sphere, it is often problematic. Interestingly, the midrashic sages use the word to describe the powerful movement, not entirely voluntary, away from one's present world to another world of meanings. The theme of seduction is, of course, very important in the Garden of Eden. The serpent seduces; Eve seduces; and God seduces. We are affected by others in many ways by their presence, by their words - in ways that may not agree with our conscious views or intentions. This applies to our relationship with God, as well. As in the story of God's trying to persuade Moses to take on a task he doesn't want? Absolutely. In the midrash, again, God "seduces" Moses to go on the mission of saving his people. He spends a long time - seven days - trying to persuade him. Nevertheless, Moses says no. It's not that God is commanding and Moses is refusing. It's that God is pulling out all the stops of language. This is what you do when you want to make another person feel passionate about an issue. You use rhetoric to enable that person to reimagine him/herself. That's what seducers do. And I would argue that this is what language does. Language does not just represent reality. It creates a world, one that will persuade the reader or listener of its power and relevance. Would you agree, then, that all great art is created by people who are vessels through which God is "seducing" humankind, and that this would explain phenomena like Mozart, Tolstoy and Rembrandt? Yes, especially with Mozart, who actually said that his music came to him whole. Many poets and musicians make that claim. They're not conscious of a process. They say it just poured out of them. Which is exactly my point. It is through the unconscious that we communicate with ourselves. Things come up from our depths, and in a sense, we feel as if they come from elsewhere. I think this is one of the ways that God comes to us. One comes to know more about God as one comes to know more about the hidden parts of oneself. Part of the struggle of a religious person is to release herself from the total domination of will and consciousness, and to open herself up to a narrative turn that is different from the story line she would like to impose on events. There is a possibility of dissolving one's ego - of not having one's ego so completely on top of everything - and of allowing a much richer source of meaning to infiltrate. This is seen in a hassidic reading of the story of Jacob blessing his children. According to the 19th century commentator, the Mei Hashiloah - whom I make much use of: When Jacob blesses his children, he starts by saying very harsh things to his first three sons. These couldn't be called blessings by any stretch of the imagination. The midrashic sources say that he wants to bless them, but he is blocked. He cannot bless them because of what they did to their brother, Joseph, and because of all those years they kept their father in torment, withholding the truth about Joseph from him. And Jacob can't let go of his resentment about this. So what does he do? He doesn't merely will his anger away, but rather allows himself to feel and express it. The result is that he says really harsh things to the first three children. But, through a process of "birur" - which, in the Zohar, is the notion of clarification - he allows his real emotional experience to be worked through. He doesn't dismiss it under the pressure of conscious intention. He gives it its due. There is a kind of cathartic movement, and the blessing begins to come out of him to the other children. In the end, all his words are triply confirmed as a blessing - "And he blessed them, each according to his blessing, he blessed them." In our psychological age, when people are aware that they can't simply suppress unpleasant emotional visitors, this passage has the ring of emotional truth. It's interesting to see that this hassidic commentator, about whom there is no evidence to suggest a knowledge of Freud, was willing to invest so deeply in such a psychological/spiritual account of the crisis of blessing between Jacob and his children. Isn't that what religious faith is really about - succumbing, by relinquishing control, and allowing God to guide or flow through us in some way? I prefer the word "surrender." I don't see it as a kind of grim submission, but rather a sense of finding one's true self, and allowing the grip of the ego to fall away, at least at certain moments. These are the moments of spiritual transcendence. They can be moments of prayer or of study. You suddenly see something you didn't see before. You recede in some way, and have a sense of wonder at being caught up in something that's larger than the ego. And the ego will reassert its grip, of course. But the hope is that we can soften that grip a little bit, through spiritual practice of one kind or another. Do you see parallels between literature - secular texts - and biblical stories? Certainly. That's why part of the way I deal with biblical characters in my book and in my teaching is to bring in a variety of sources from literature, psychoanalysis, philosophy and anthropology. But it's a two-way process, which is more integrative than merely using secular texts to illustrate sacred ones. All the texts I cite, whether sacred or secular, are woven into a single tapestry. Is this because what they have in common is the portrayal of the human psyche? Yes. They also share an interest in using words to suggest how the sense of self moves from one position to another - no easy feat. But great writers do it, and I suggest that the writers of the midrash do it, too. They are not merely imposing a sophisticated interpretation on ancient biblical texts; they are describing the movement within the texts. If you really know how to listen to biblical texts, you can hear this movement within the words. Some have a more linear historical sense, according to which first there was the Bible, then, hundreds of years later, came the rabbis with their interests, and hundreds of years later there were the Hassidim, with their interpretations. From a certain point of view, that's true; but from another it's not. The story opens up through time. Everything that is said later about the Bible narratives is, in some sense, implicit in them to start with. That's what makes it a valuable text. And that's what valuable texts do. They make us continue to unfold them. We keep on reading and rewriting Hamlet - without, of course, changing a word - not only in terms of what it meant to its audience at the time. We keep reading it because its language seduces us to re-write it. there is also, of course, the question of literary expectation. We come to it already thinking it is a worthwhile text. We expect to it to speak to us. If words are so crucial, what do you think about our having turned Hebrew into a modern language? Is this not robbing it of its richness and deeper meaning? It's an interesting question. During the time that Hebrew was being mobilized as a modern language, Gershom Scholem wrote an essay in which he said that people don't realize they are walking on a volcano. This is a slightly different take on what you're suggesting, but Scholem said that people may think they've tamed Hebrew into being a modern, secular language - stripped of its ancient, sacred and even dangerous implications - yet what they don't realize is that it is fraught with all these implications, and they are destined to explode. Well, he was absolutely right. They are and they have. What I think is that though there is an impoverishment in using Hebrew as a modern language, there is also, of course, an enrichment. The great thing about language is that it doesn't necessarily submit to the mistreatments of a particular time or place. There comes a time when people begin to want to listen again, to hear that explosiveness. It's not easy to kill a language, certainly not Hebrew. Isn't Hebrew more than merely a language? Doesn't reading a translation of the Bible alter the experience? Yes, I'm always sorry for people who are restricted to reading the Bible and other Jewish sources in English. Nowadays, so much is translated into English, which is great for so many people. But they're living in a kind of shadow world. They're not getting the full sensuality of the way in which Hebrew letters combine with one another with how they sound, and how they feel in the mouth. Now, it's true of any language, that "traduttore traditore" [Italian for "to translate is to betray."] But it's even truer of Hebrew than of other languages. This has to do partly with the nature of its history, and partly with its structure. Its richness is lost in translation. Like Shakespeare in another language, for example? Yes, Shakespeare would be the closest analogy - there is so much more implied in the words than can be contained in any possible translation. Does your attention to words as a scholar have an impact on your praying as a Jew - due to the almost mindless, hasty chanting that is involved in the latter? Indeed, I have a strong emotional response to words, and the trouble with prayer is that it has so many, and that they're normally said very fast, which cuts off the oxygen. This is why the kind of prayer I prefer is slow and meditative. My synagogue is Yakar, where singing plays a very big part. Singing slows you down, and involves a lot of repetition. The music, too, has a profound effect. The way the words take on a shape by being set to a particular nigun [melody] that opens up meditative channels. You become aware of things in the words you might not have thought of before. Speaking of awareness, when you write, for whom do you do it? My tendency would be to say that I write for myself, but I know that it's not so simple. I suppose I'm writing for some other self - for a reader who is myself, but has the advantage of not being me. Someone who is excited about the ideas, but in a different way from the way I'm excited. I'm excited because I know the ideas and am happy to be communicating them, while the reader is coming upon them for the first time. So my ideal reader is someone who is open to the revelations that I'm experiencing, while at the same time being sensitive to language. Torah is poetry, after all. The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious can be ordered on Amazon, or purchased locally at Pomerantz in Jerusalem.