Genesis: The Beginning of Desire

Jewish Publication Society

Philadelphia/Jerusalem, 1995

by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg

Reviewed by Professor Shalom Carmy

The publication of Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s Genesis: The Beginning of Desire was greeted by almost universal acclaim.  Readers and reviewers, awed by her reputation as a lecturer, couldn’t help being impressed by her readiness to bring into play an unusually broad array of Jewish sources, from midrash to the classic medieval and modern exegetes to Chassidic and Musar texts, and they were intrigued by the range of her allusions to Western literature and culture.  Only the academic pedant, shyly peering out from behind his sneer, disdains an approach so redolent of creativity.  Others mingled their adoration with the occasional apologetic complaint about the difficulty of her style.

I am in general agreement with the view that Zornberg’s volume is one of the most important books on Tanach to appear in this generation.  My treatment will seek to identify the distinctive quality that makes her work a genuinely new contribution.  Such analysis will explain, and thus alleviate, if not eliminate completely, the barriers to comprehension that have frustrated readers.  A significant work in the study of Torah must, however, be understood not only for itself, but also in terms of its impact on the future development of limud Torah.  This raises the question of the extent to which Zornberg’s way of talking about Chumash can become a model for others as well.

In her introduction, Zornberg spells out the two key elements of her method.  She writes:  “I am trying to loosen the fixities, the ossifications of preconceived readings.  To do this, a dialectical hermeneutics is essential:  an opening of the ear, eye, and heart to a text that reflects back the dilemmas and paradoxes of the world of the reader (xii).”  The multiple interpretations of the Chumash culled from midrash, Rashi, Chassidut and similar books foster a dreamlike, fantastic comprehension of the text, a web of what she regards as alternative but not exclusive readings.

“Loosening the fixities” is, of course, the hallmark of much post-modernist literary criticism, as the inner landscape of the reader’s mind becomes more important than the virtually inaccessible horizon of the author’s intent.  “Ultimately,” as Zornberg says of this approach, “the interpretive act becomes similar to the creative act (xix).”  The great danger in such an interpretive method is that one can impose any interpretation on the text and get away with it, if the audience is willing to play along.  Much contemporary tenured lit-crit, with its worldly-wise, tiresomely precocious jargon, affects a jaunty creativity barely distinguishable from caprice.  Much current writing on the Bible, both the pop psychology books for middle-brow coffee tables and some of the turgid, earnestly with-it labors of the academic vineyard, consist in loose reconstructions of the text glibly authenticated as “the practice of midrash.”

An interpreter like Zornberg, for whom the meaning of Chumash, and the encounter with its Author, is of ultimate significance, must be more committed to a reader’s humility in the face of the text than representatives of the trends just mentioned: “there should, of course, be rules, decorums, a sense of traditional understandings (xvi).”  Her primary methodological defense against arbitrariness is her allegiance to the library of Jewish literature with which she is equipped.  By setting traditional sources as her origin and constant point of reference, she can appeal to the reader of post-modern sensibility without falling into the excesses characteristic of such readings.  Whether this defense is totally adequate to the task of formulating a satisfactory derech halimud [method of study] will concern us later.

The other indispensable component of Zornberg’s approach appears in a formulation taken from George Steiner:  “The aim of interpretation is, I suggest, not merely to domesticate, to familiarize an ancient book:  it is also, and perhaps more importantly, to `make strangeness in certain respects stranger’ (xv).”  Zornberg admits a dialectic of familiarity and strangeness, but she prefers the latter:  “the midrash invites us to read the text with the truest — that is, with the least conventional, platitudinous, or even pious — understandings available to us (xv).”

Her preference for strangeness derives from the fact that Torah cannot be grasped passively.  According to Zornberg, it requires the kind of strenuous “making,” that is consonant with her sense of the restlessness of midrash.  One cannot take literally her implication that the truest reading is the least conventional, let alone the notion that truth inheres in the least pious understanding.  Yet the fundamental premise, that the complex reality with which we are confronted in the Torah defies static formulation and that simplification can falsify rather than clarify, seems eminently sound

And if strangeness is a value in itself, then the much-noticed recalcitrance of Zornberg’s style becomes a corollary of her entire interpretive undertaking, rather than an accidental impediment.  Making the familiar strange, inhibiting the conventional, banal response, is facilitated by calculated resort to obscurity and other techniques of complication.  Zornberg’s strategies of quotation from Jewish sources, and even more so her deployment of literary and philosophical works, can be partly understood in the light of her preference for strangeness.

At first blush, all this may seem perverse.  The study of Torah is strenuous enough without adding further obstacles.  The work of interpretation should be a revealing, not a re-veiling, should it not?  Nonetheless, the faithful reader of Zornberg frequently gains an awareness of the Torah’s elusive fluidity and fundamental mystery that is less evident on a more linear, familiarizing reading.  Her peculiar discourse thus succeeds in evoking an essential dimension of real Torah study.

Let me illustrate Zornberg’s predilection for strangeness over familiarity with two examples.  In the first one, her mode of writing gives an idea gravity and value that, if worded differently, would demean the Torah and its most revered figures.  In the second, however, it is not at all clear that the Zornberg model is superior to an alternative formulation of the same insight.

Esau as the “Presenting Patient” in the Family

Therapy-inspired writers on Chumash have increasingly tended to depict the Avot and Immahot as dysfunctional individuals, and their tribulations and challenges as the working out of their unhealthy psyches.  The style, if not the repugnant content, typical of these lucubrations, can be seen in the following gem:

Within his own family Abraham needed desperately to improve his inter-generational skills.  Even as great a personality as our patriarch Abraham had a problem prioritizing family warmth — his quality time with his son, into his life routine.1

When cliched thinking is conjoined with disdain for Tanach and its larger-than-life personages, the results are predictable.  We would not be surprised to hear that the trauma of the Akedah caused neurosis among the descendants of Abraham.  If only Abraham, prompted by the right therapist, had cheered his son at the Little League game instead of trudging up Moriah, poor Esau would have grown up in a more wholesome household and much unhappiness would have been avoided.  Is it possible, in our decadent culture, for a reverent interpreter of Chumash to address the tragic element in the unfolding of human destiny, even, and especially, the grand destiny of Tanach, without giving in to the tawdriness of our milieu?  Perhaps the bold strokes can be produced only by titans like Ramban and Netziv whose vocabulary is untainted by the vulgarity of the fashionable marketplace.

Zornberg brilliantly borrows from the psychological formulations without being overpowered by them.  She ties the fate of Esau to the Akedah via Rashi’s commentary on the blindness of Isaac.

According to one of Rashi’s proposals, the tears shed by the angels during the Akedah fell into Isaac’s eyes and dimmed them.  As Zornberg unforgettably puts it:

As Isaac lay on the altar, he looked up, the angels looked down — their glances met, in the form of blinding tears.  Is there some suggestion of lese majeste here?  Does Isaac probe the heavens with a too-scorching gaze?  Is there a decree that his “windows be sealed up,” to maintain the human boundaries of vision? (156)

But what thematic connection is there between the Akedah and the blessings contested in Isaac’s old age?  “Without the Akedah, Rashi implies, we understand nothing of Isaac.”  Zornberg then interprets Isaac’s blindness so many years later as a delayed reaction to the Akedah.  She strengthens her point by referring to Freudian hysterical blindness, and to post-traumatic eyesight disorders in women who had witnessed horrors which “made it necessary to suppress vision, to repress emotional response.”  (In this case, Zornberg’s use of modern psychology makes the strangeness of the Chumash more familiar, rather than making the familiar strange.)  The aftermath of the Akedah, according to Zornberg, may also explain Isaac’s premonition of approaching death a full 60 years before it occurs.  In certain respects, claims Zornberg, Isaac is like one dead even as he performs a life of vitality:  “the truth of the Akedah impress ultimately effaces all the gestures and costumings of the world (158).”

Zornberg next traces the imprint of Isaac’s Akedah experience in the lives of his family.  After analyzing Rebecca’s repeated questioning of the value of her life, she turns to Esau, who “can perhaps be seen as the real victim of the sacrifice (160).”   Esau is like the family member who displays symptoms that shed light on the psychology of the entire family.  It is Esau whose carelessness about the value of life manifests the shadow cast by the Akedah on the significance of worldly existence.  It is he who follows the “jolting, disconnected trail of the hunter, the sense of drudgery … the sense of dismissal of the `weighty past’ (164)” that is expressed in the spurning of the birthright.

Even in abridged form, the reader can appreciate the thought-provoking richness of Zornberg’s discussion.  One may quarrel with some of her novel ideas:  at least one insightful individual finds the insinuation that Isaac’s blindness may have a psychosomatic element to it overwrought and unconvincing.  What is of utmost importance, however, is her ability to incorporate prevalent psychological theories without being dragged down by the shallow, and hence morally and religiously crippled, diction and tone of so many conventional modernizers.  There is no recipe for Zornberg’s achievement here:  only the reverence, sensitivity and erudition she brings to her study and writing.  One can only exclaim:  Rabbotai, this is the way it is done!

Rashi (Bereishit 2:7) offers two rabbinic opinions about the origin of the dust out of which the first man was created:  one has him formed from the dust of all four corners of the earth; the other, from the earth at the place of the altar in Jerusalem.  In the course of a discussion informed by the French thinker Gaston Bachelard and the Romanian-born comparative religionist Mircea Eliade, Zornberg combines both views:  human existence is paradoxical because both images of his origin are true:

The difficulty of man’s situation is focused here:  the material of his body (only at the next stage, God animates him with His spirit-breath) comes both from the four corners of the earth, from all the instincts and processes of the horizontal, from the dust into which he will disappear, and from the place of unity, the sacred spot of original creation, the axis mundi, where this world intersects with the higher worlds.  There is an “opposition between space that is sacred — the only real and really existing space — and all other space, the formless expanse surrounding it [Eliade].”  And man, in the midrashic view, is the meeting point of the two kinds of dust, of the one and the many (16-17).

An analogous approach to this passage in Rashi appears in a well-known essay by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, whose work is unmentioned in this book.  The Rav, too, treats the two opinions as indicative of the dual nature of man.  It is instructive, however, to contrast his language with Zornberg’s.

Man was created of cosmic dust.  God gathered the dust, of which man was fashioned, from all parts of the earth, indeed, from all the uncharted lanes of creation.  Man belongs everywhere.  He is no stranger to any part of the universe.  The native son of the sleepy little town is, at the same time, a son of parts distant and unknown.2

Let us examine the other interpretation of the verse in Genesis:  man was created from the dust of a single spot.  Man is committed to one locus.  The Creator assigned him a single spot he calls home.  Man is not cosmic; he is here-minded.  He is a rooted being, not cosmopolitan but provincial, a villager who belongs to the soil that fed him as a child and to the little world into which he was born.3

Both passages are skillfully written.  For Zornberg, the dialectic is that between the sacred and the mundane, while the Rav relates both aspects of human existence to the world of everyday experience.  Yet the more dramatic contrast between the authors is between Zornberg’s elaborate verbal construction and the Rav’s simplicity.  The reason for this divergence is simple:  Zornberg’s self-proclaimed aim is to make strange what the reader might find familiar; the Rav’s is to make familiar what the reader is tempted to dismiss as distant and irrelevant to his or her existential situation.  The Rav holds up a mirror to the reader, who is compelled to see himself in the text.  Zornberg’s mirror is more likely to be self-referential, calling attention to the process of reading and interpretation, itself a constant of the post-modernist temperament.

While Zornberg’s use of Western literature is truly impressive, it is, on close inspection, based on a selection that cannot be put down to accident.  Her canon tilts in the direction of currently influential theorists like Bachelard, Bloom, Canetti, Levinas and psychoanalysts, especially those affiliated with the Objects Relations school, and towards the artists congenial to the theorists.  Levinas, of course, clearly “belongs” in a fin de siecle Jewish book, and relying on Objects Relations concepts for a psychological understanding of Biblical figures aligns Zornberg with Moshe Spero’s important project on psychology of religion.4  Other influences, like the poetry of Wallace Stevens, bright with self-referential hedonism, whose phrase “the beginning of desire” became the title of Zornberg’s book, are less obvious touchstones.

Those literary and philosophical works that tend to bring heaven down to earth, as it were, that animate the great moral and religious adventures of mankind in familiar language and situations, play less of a role in Zornberg’s discourse.  The realistic fiction of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the less portentous yet psychologically revealing narratives of Dickens and Trollope and Austen, the morally bracing prose of Johnson and Newman, are by and large absent from Zornberg’s pages.  (Two of her quotations from George Eliot, however, contribute significantly to her interpretations.)  Her Nietzsche is the forerunner of post-modernism, not the keen psychological satirist.  The entire gamut of twentieth century authors, who did so much to express religious themes in a fresh and commonplace diction, T.S. Eliot, Auden, Greene, Percy, Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, among others, go unnoticed.  Perhaps this is why paradox and irony abound in Zornberg, but not humor.

Oddly enough, the discussion by Rav Soloveitchik that we just examined also resorts to literary allusion to clinch the point, but the difference in mood is revealing.  The Rav quotes Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Home is the sailor, home from the sea…” to illustrate man’s nostalgia for the place in which he is rooted — this despite having been warned by a talmid that the author, and his poem, were viewed as children’s stuff, and did not amuse the intellectuals.  In a word, the enterprise of making the familiar strange, and that of making the strange recognizable, while both legitimate, are likely to mobilize very different literary tools.

Associative or Analytic?

Like many of the Chassidic and Musar texts on which she draws, the twelve chapters of Zornberg’s volume correspond to the twelve parshiot hashavuah in Genesis.  Like these precursors, she generally opens by quoting a statement of Rashi early in the weekly portion.  Her progress through each parshah can best be described as associative rather than analytic.

In this respect, Zornberg differs sharply from Nechama Leibowitz, to whom, for inexplicable reasons, she has been likened.  Dr. Leibowitz’s method, above all else, entailed presenting the reader with a clear agenda of problematical elements in the Biblical text and the commentators, placing before him or her the pertinent exegetical literature, and demanding of the student painstaking attention to the exact wording of the mefarshim and the distinctions among them.  While Zornberg’s remarks on the positions of the commentators she discusses are often enlightening, it is not her habit to make transparent, from the outset, the fundamental problems with which they, and she, are struggling.  She frequently splices together phrases from different commentators, to the point where only the reader with the original at hand can reconstruct their meaning in context.

This, too, helps to make the familiar strange.  But it also inhibits the reader from critically engaging the crucial issues on his or her own.  Sometimes this feature of Zornberg’s exposition merely retards the student; sometimes it actually detracts from her lucidity.  It may be useful to examine briefly a chapter in which the effect of Zornberg’s associative writing is benign and another where it is less fortunate.

One of Zornberg’s strengths is her devotion to the study of Rashi and his midrashic sources.  On several occasions she brings together and probes far-flung statements of Rashi which clearly deserve to be juxtaposed:  of particular note is her utilization of Rashi’s commentaries on Nach.  The collation of texts is not a defining characteristic of Zornberg’s method:  one rather associates it with academic scholarship or with the generous notes in the Likkutei Sichot (or, nowadays, a CD-Rom).  But the fact remains that Zornberg contributes to this enterprise, and integrates these texts in her own unique manner, and with remarkable results.

Thus a large part of her chapter on Noah interweaves no fewer than four places, outside of Parshat Noach, where Rashi speaks of the Flood and its import for human destiny.  An analytic treatment would presumably start out by straightforwardly presenting the sources and subjecting them to a detailed comparison.  Zornberg’s less facile way is to meander among the sources without indicating a clear-cut direction.  The dedicated reader can follow her exposition here without too much effort, even while benefitting from the more leisurely, associative style of discussion

And from this discourse emerges a remarkable discovery about the theological interpretation of the Flood.  Despite the magnitude of the destruction, we are accustomed to think of the Flood as a wholly deserved punishment for the human race’s sins.  Zornberg’s deliberation on Rashi and midrash discloses a need to justify the proportionality of the catastrophe, appearing in Chazal and in statements ascribed to Abraham and Avimelech.  Thus, for example, Rashi’s Abraham argues that the annihilation of Sodom might confirm the suspicion that God is indifferent to the fate of His creatures, sweeping away the righteous together with the wicked.

Jacob Reads History

To clarify the difficult trajectory of Zornberg’s opening to Parshat Vayeshev, let us first consider the material as it might be viewed from an analytic perspective, and only then look at what she does with it.

One might raise two questions about the point of departure of this section in the Chumash:

1) How does Jacob, as depicted in the text, experience his return to Canaan?  Rashi stresses the word vayeshev, he settled; Jacob thought he had attained security.  Ramban emphasizes eretz megurei aviv, the land of his father’s sojourn; Jacob continues to regard himself as an alien in the land.

2) How does Jacob interpret Abraham’s vision (chapter 15) which speaks of a 400-year period of exile, a period that is far from over at this point?  Ramban would have no difficulty asserting that Jacob, by remaining the stranger in a land he does not fully possess, is fulfilling the prophecy; he is supported by several well-known rabbinic dicta.  When Rashi says that Jacob was mistakenly convinced of his security, he might mean that Jacob took comfort in an oasis of temporary calm, but one might suggest that Jacob deemed himself permanently secure.  Zornberg opts for the latter possibility, which she supports by adducing a Yemenite midrashic manuscript, recorded in Torah Shelemah, to the effect that Jacob believed the exile had come to a premature end, that, in some manner unattested in the literature available to Rashi, the four centuries had been reinterpreted and foreshortened.

Offhand, Zornberg’s interpretation is far from the most obvious one.  It seems more credible to expand the idea of exile to include subservience in the land of Israel, insofar as this broadening is presupposed in mainstream Rabbinic exegesis, than to posit a speculative calculation unhinted at in traditional literature.  Moreover, one wonders whether the historical Rashi indeed availed himself of the marginal source which Zornberg produces.  At the same time one is grateful to Zornberg for having uncovered a previously masked possibility in Rashi’s formulation.  One cannot help noticing, of course, that in advocating an approach that pushes a radical reconstruction of the 400 years, rather than the more plausible one, she is advancing her own inclination for the less conventional understanding available.

Zornberg, however, arranges the material in a different order.  She begins, as usual, with Rashi, whom she interprets according to her approach, without indicating the possibility of alternative construal.  She likewise offers the Yemenite midrash as an explanation of the discrepancy between her understanding of Rashi and the 400 years prophecy, without presenting other solutions.  According to Zornberg’s Rashi, Jacob, somewhat in the manner of the literary critic who fancies himself a creator, is engaged in a vigorous attempt to reinterpret history, wishing to believe that the patriarchal family has reached its consummation.  In an eloquent paraphrase of Rashi’s thrust, she writes:

God, however, reads the plot differently.  However plausible Jacob’s reading may seem, however satisfying aesthetically and cognitively, he has to face the shock of participation in a very different “plot.”  The story of Joseph is the shock that rouses Jacob from his aesthetic composure. (245-6)

The introduction of Zornberg’s favored metaphor of reading brings on a spirited riff on the idea that the commentator is part creator of the text being studied.  Erroneously translating Rashi to Psalms 16:7, she has him say that “we too should settle the texts in order.”5  Only five pages later does Ramban’s view surface, and is its radical difference from Rashi’s acknowledged.  Only then can the naive, confused, perhaps even annoyed, reader, try to untangle and reconstruct Zornberg’s thinking; only then can one undertake evaluating its plausibility and precision.

Without in any way detracting from the value of Zornberg’s discussion, one may ask whether this mode of exposition is best suited to guide her readers to critical assessment and creative analysis of their own.  If our goal is, as it must be, to enable our talmidim to study with precision and depth on their own, we might be better served by a derech halimud founded upon the orderly and transparent arrangement of sources and the accurate formulation of the salient questions.

Jacob Sleeps

The few examples we have looked at, each time leaving out many interesting details, fail to do justice either to the suggestive fruitfulness of her production or to the frustration one occasionally experiences in trying to comprehend it.  We have recognized the advantage in her strategy of making the familiar strange even as we have noted the value of countervailing tendencies.  If “veiling” the text in a dreamlike gauze increases its aura of mystery and sanctity and thus protects Torah from vulgarization, bringing the text to earth induces a moral gesture of self-recognition that can be obscured by vagueness and abstraction.  If an associative manner surprises the reader with unexpected, imperfectly sensed intimations of meaning that would otherwise be lost, analytic rigor is needed to avoid treating the text arbitrarily and disrespectfully, and in order to nurture the critical discipline without which independent study is impossible.

It is Zornberg herself who provides the most felicitous expression of the essential tension between her own model of discourse and the familiarizing, analytic, critical alternative.  She remarks on Jacob’s fear, when he awakes after the vision of the ladder:  had he known the holiness of the place, he would never have slept there.  Halachah prohibits such behavior.  As Zornberg amply documents, Jacob, the dedicated scholar at the Academy of Shem and Ever, and later on the vigilant shepherd in his father-in-law’s employ, is depicted as unsleeping.  But, Zornberg observes, building on Chassidic and other sources, had Jacob not slept that night, he would not have experienced the prophecy.  To quote Zornberg’s words:

God shifts the scenes, alters the lighting, all for the purpose that the “righteous man should sleep there.”  There is a profound intimation here about the dynamics of sleep, about loss of consciousness and the possible gifts of unconsciousness, about knowing and dreaming. (190)

One might undertake to unpack and repackage Zornberg’s prose so as to maximize its accessibility for the waking, analytic consciousness:  a list of newly relevant sources, on the one hand; a compendium of novel interpretations, on the other hand.  This kind of effort would no doubt be very useful.  It would contribute significantly to our study of Chumash.  Yet such a domestication and simplification of Zornberg’s method would also forfeit the advantages of her peculiar mode of discourse, the gifts of knowing that come in dreaming, the vision that could not have occurred had the prophet known where he was.

Committed as I am to the primacy of analytic, critical thought and interpretation, I will continue my relationship with this remarkable book.  I will do so not only because Zornberg’s wide erudition and many innovative suggestions have not worn thin despite the somewhat unnaturally microscopic intellectual labor entailed by reviewing a volume of this size and complexity.  Not the least of Zornberg’s virtues is her reminder that there is a spiritual reality and intellectual discoveries that emerge most authentically from the playful twilight of the dream, that there is a strangeness to truth and a truth to strangeness, that survive into the familiar daylight of Torah creativity and religious striving.

Professor Carmy teaches Jewish Studies and Philosophy at Yeshiva University and is a consulting editor of Tradition.

The author wishes to thank Judah Dardik, Asher Friedman, Aaron Liebman, Bernard and Shari Stahl and Rabbi Joseph Wanefsky for their comments on the contents of this essay.


  1. I first cited these sentences in “To Get the Better of Words: An Apology for Yir’at Shamayim in Academic Jewish Studies” (The Torah U-Madda Journal 2 (1990), 7-24) 10. At the time I was credited with composing them myself. Sorry, these are the actual words penned by a serious Orthodox scholar-rabbi.

2 “Majesty and Humility” (Tradition 17:2, Spring 1978) 27.

  1. Ibid. 29.
  2. Religious Objects as Psychological Structures (University of Chicago, 1992).
  3. Rashi in Psalms had quoted a midrashic interpretation of the verse. In dismissing it, he says: “But (ach) we must resolve the texts in order.” Zornberg read af (we too), and concluded that Rashi was advocating the freedom of midrash when, in fact, he meant the opposite: his interpretation is restricted to that compatible with the order of the text.
This article was featured in the Spring 1998 issue of Jewish Action.