Exploring the biblical unconscious

One of the most innovative and influential modern commentators on the Bible has just published a book on Leviticus


Vayikra (Leviticus), the third book of the Chumash, can present a challenge for rabbis, educators and anyone who aims to focus on the text during leyning.

After the dramatic narratives of Genesis and Exodus – from the creation of heaven and earth, the flood, and tales of sibling rivalry among the patriarchs and matriarchs, to the enslavement in Egypt, the Exodus, and the Revelation on Mount Sinai – Vayikra can feel like a disappointing sequel.

Finding contemporary relevance in this dense, legalistic text can be difficult. Vayikra, as far as I know, has not inspired any Cecil B. DeMille movies or DreamWorks animations.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that internationally acclaimed Bible scholar and educator Dr Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg did not follow her 1995 book on Genesis (Genesis: The Beginning of Desire) and her similarly masterful study of Exodus (The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, 2001) with a commentary on Leviticus.

With her background in English literature (her PhD dissertation was on the novels of George Eliot), Zornberg is drawn more to narrative than to law. Over more than four decades teaching the weekly parashah to increasingly large groups of students in Jerusalem’s seminaries and adult education centres, she has developed a unique voice and a loyal following.

Particularly since the publication of her first book, her annual international lecture tours have attracted large and diverse audiences.  In addition to receiving the National Jewish Book Award for non-fiction, Zornberg’s book on Genesis led to an appearance on the 1996 PBS Television series Bill Moyers: Genesis – A Living Conversation, and inspired In the Beginning was Desire, a 40-minute animation by American film-maker David Grubin.

Her third book, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious (2009), was short-listed for the National Jewish Book Award. With her fourth book, Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers, Zornberg returned to writing commentary on an entire biblical book, although this time the chapters are organised thematically, rather than by parashah.

The final chapter, “Let Me See that Good Land”: The Story of a Human Life explores the poignant end of Moses’s life, as he gazes longingly upon the Promised Land and prepares his followers for a future he won’t be part of. The title of the chapter alludes to Kafka’s comment that “Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life is too short but because it is a human life.”

Kafka’s phrase also figures in the sub-title of Zornberg’s fifth book, Moses: A Human Life (2016), a shorter, more accessible book commissioned as part of the Yale Jewish Lives Series.

In her latest book, The Hidden Order of Intimacy: Reflections on the Book of Leviticus (published by Schocken), Zornberg argues that the “hidden theme” of Vayikra is the long-lasting repercussions of the sin of the Golden Calf; its image, she writes, haunts the attendant midrashim and gives “depth and resonance to the entire book of Leviticus”.

The central subject of Vayikra is the Mishkan, the Tabernacle: its priesthood, order of service and laws of purity. A dwelling-place for God in the midst of the people (Exodus 25:8), the Mishkan is often taken as proof of their successful repentance for the sin of the Golden Calf, but Zornberg unearths midrashic themes that go further.

One idea is that constructing the Mishkan is itself a form of therapy that atones for the Golden Calf. More radically, Zornberg suggests that the Golden Calf is not simply an episode of biblical history. Instead, “its implications and effects have revealed something about human beings in the world”, something that Zornberg has touched on elsewhere: the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of being fully open to revelation.

Earlier in her career, Zornberg was often compared with celebrated Bible teacher Nechama Leibowitz (1905-1997), whose Bible study guides have been popular bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah gifts for decades. Apart from being female, Orthodox Bible scholars who draw on secular literature and focus on close reading of the biblical text, Zornberg and Leibowitz have little in common.

Leibowitz was primarily interested in p’shat (roughly the simple or plain, but not necessarily literal, meaning of a text), whereas Zornberg delves deeply into drash — not only traditional Midrash and Chasidic thought, but also psychoanalytic and postmodern approaches. Accordingly, her work is rich in paradox, irony, and the exploration of multiple perspectives.

Zornberg’s interest in postmodernism and psychoanalysis was also a significant point of divergence between her approach and that of Rabbi Sacks. Despite their mutual admiration and longstanding friendship, which dated back to their student days at Cambridge, they disagreed profoundly about the role of a teacher.

I was at a fascinating private meeting in 2013, when Zornberg and Rabbi Sacks discussed their different approaches to interpreting texts and teaching ideas. One exchange neatly encapsulates their positions: “There is a moral obligation to be clear,” Rabbi Sacks said, to which Zornberg replied, with equal conviction: “Not everything that needs to be said can be said clearly.”

Dr Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg will discuss her latest book, The Hidden Order of Intimacy: Reflections on the Book of Leviticus, with Professor Stephen Frosh on Tuesday April 26 at 7pm, over Zoom. Tickets from

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