Sunday, October 09, 2011

A sensitive reader

The Genesis of Desire, a reading of some of the best known stories of Genesis with Avivah Zornberg. Scots-born Zornberg brings a lot to her reading of the Bible, including modern psychological study coupled with a deep knowledge of the Zohar and the Midrash. The Bible via this sensitive reader begins to seem a very strange, numinous place.

On the flood story:

Ms. Zornberg: Ah, what's happening there. I mean, everything is happening. I think whatever you can read in the text is happening. What I'm interested in is the issue of language and silence, a kind of defensive silence, and the basis for this apparently very modern theme actually is in the Zohar, in the source of Kabbalah.

Ms. Tippett: That's interesting too because we never — when that story is told to children, for example, I think it's mostly children who hear the Flood story — we never reflect on the life in the ark. You get the two by two coming on and then coming out at the end.


Ms. Zornberg: Yes, yes.

Ms. Tippett: So how does the Zohar …

Ms. Zornberg: The Zohar and Midrashic sources — first of all, how did they all eat? How did the animals eat? It's a big …

Ms. Tippett: Right [laugh].

Ms. Zornberg: Yes. I mean, all right, maybe they brought on food for the animals, but how did they get at it? So Zohar imagines very beautifully that Noah spends his whole time, morning and night, day and night, feeding the animals. That's an expression of his desire to preserve the world. And he feeds each animal according to its own timing, it's own feeding schedule, so he's really rather fully occupied feeding the world. He doesn't get a wink of sleep, again, in these Midrashic sources. He has no sexual relations with his wife and no one does. There is no sex. Even the animals on the ark, you know, don't have relations.


Ms. Zornberg: Absolutely. And on top of that, I think precisely the things that he can't do in the ark or he mustn't do, like sexual relations, sleeping, the way he spends all his time feeding, it occurred to me that these are descriptions of God. God feeds all living beings and God doesn't sleep. He doesn't slumber nor sleep and God, of course, has no partner. So in a sense, there's a kind of omnipotence that Noah is experiencing in this prison, which is, again, very natural that, once you have deprived yourself of life and you see that in some way as an ideal and as an expression of ultimate power because you are not compromised now in any way by the messy world of talk, of communication. So to me, it's a defense mechanism and he refuses to let go of it.

On reading:
Ms. Zornberg: You know, you don't read; you study. You study the text and that implies that you don't really understand it, first off. You read it and then you read it again and then you notice things and things don't work and things don't make sense and then you're exorcised by it. And that's what I call desire, because something is not. Something that should be there is not there and that's what gets people going. That's what gets people involved and this very intimate connection between the human being and the text, between Jews and this text, is a result of that.

A transcript of the full interview with Zornberg.

Avivah ZornbergAvivah Gottlieb Zornberg
Zornberg is a celebrated literary teacher of Torah. Her books include The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious and The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis.

Another, briefer interview here.

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