December 9, 2009
Zornberg Shines Light on Biblical Silences
The classic Taoist text teaches: “Thirty spokes meet together in a single hub. The wagon’s usefulness depends upon their nothingness.” Everything depends upon the space between the spokes.
Absence can be more powerful than presence, nothing than something. Often the words another does not speak are the most eloquent.
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s new book is called “The Murmuring Deep” (Schocken, $27.95). This might be read as a book about everything the Bible does not say. Or at least, what the Bible does not say out loud. In a phrase she borrows from the French writer Maurice Blanchot, Zornberg is the one who “keeps watch over absent meaning.”
We know what Noah does, but we are never told how he feels. Zornberg’s skill is to wring significance out of the mute text. The story of Jacob and his sons is thick with unspoken meanings. How does the Akedah, the binding of Jacob’s father Isaac by his grandfather Abraham, reverberate through the generations? Isaac never refers to it. Neither does his son Jacob. Joseph similarly never speaks of it. Surely they knew. It is the kind of family story unlikely to be ignored.
Zornberg points out that God (in Genesis, Chapter 28) identifies God’s self to Jacob as “the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.” Abraham, of course, is Jacob’s grandfather. But we know that Isaac expresses a preference for Jacob’s brother Esau. Perhaps Jacob feels a kinship with Abraham, and God’s words epitomize the estrangement.
Although Jacob is married (to four women, actually) and has many children, he is described as “levado” — alone. It is the word used for the very first comment on human nature in Genesis — “It is not good for a man to be alone.” If we ask ourselves why Jacob is called alone at this moment, we are forced deeper than the usual pat, moralistic lessons that pass for biblical preaching.
If you have read this far, then the questions that Zornberg teases from the text are your questions. If you read the Bible in the hope that ever deeper layers will unfurl, Zornberg is a demanding but remunerative guide. Rebecca’s troubled pregnancy leads her to question the purpose of her existence. Zornberg illuminates this question with a range of references. She draws the provocative comparison of Rebecca and Job, both of whom question the worth of their existence — and by implication, of all existence. The travail of pregnancy impels Rebecca’s doubts. Sylvia Plath peeks in, as does Freud. Zornberg crowns the analysis with an apt anagram: “Rivkah” (Rebecca) uses the same letters as “kirbah (interior).”
Those who have read Zornberg before should know that her writing is no less knotty in this work. Each page is studded with references and quotations to the renowned and the obscure. Her erudition in both secular and sacred literature bubbles up irrepressibly. It is usually a delight, but can — in its very profusion — be a hindrance to the reader.
Still, there is something beautiful in the clotted style; it adds a sort of exegetical fiber to our white-bread intellectual diet. We tend to read too quickly. Only superficial books can be digested at high speed. Nabokov once wrote that properly speaking, there are no readers, only re-readers.
If you are trying to hear what the text does not say, rushing through the words will not help. Zornberg’s style forces us to slow down, to puzzle out meanings that are deep and powerful. Zornberg delivers what we ask of an interpreter, that when we return to the text we find the Bible — and ourselves — changed.
More goes on beneath the surface of the biblical text than any single book can encompass. But the payoff of careful, trained listening is profound. The poet Keats taught that “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/ Are sweeter….” We may not always recognize the unheard melodies, but that is OK — Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg is listening.
David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple. His column on books appears monthly in The Jewish Journal.