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Charting a New Course

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg is opening new horizons for female Jewish learners worldwide.

by Rochelle Furstenberg

April 11, 2002 | 8:00 pm

About 60 people, mainly women, listen intently to Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg as she teaches her class on the weekly Torah portion at the Jerusalem College for Adult Education.

University students sit next to retirees, young mothers and professionals as Zornberg discusses Exodus and what is meant by the Jews having left Egypt b'hipazon (hastily).

She calls upon the traditional commentaries -- midrash and Rashi. But her signature is also mixing in heavy doses of original interpretations, pulled from the secular disciplines of psychology, philosophy and English literature. Zornberg contrasts the closed, self-contained Egyptian pharaoh, who could not admit to human needs, to the human trait that allows for doubts, passions and limitations.

Zornberg touches on emotions that speak to her students' life experiences. This is why Jerusalemites of all ages and backgrounds stream to the Torah classes she gives almost every day in different institutions of higher education throughout the city. Hundreds of English-speaking Israelis attend her classes weekly. But her Torah insights now reach an even wider audience with the publication of her books on the Torah. Her volume on the first book of the Torah, "Genesis: The Beginnings of Desire" (Jewish Publication Society, 1995), won the National Jewish Book Award, and her work on the second, "The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus" (Doubleday Publishers, 2001), hit bookstores in February.

Zornberg is becoming known by the Torah lessons she delivers at synagogues, universities and Jewish community centers throughout the United States. A woman who guards her time and carefully chooses the locations of her Diaspora lectures, Zornberg has taught Torah at Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Columbia, as well as the 92nd Street Y. She is also a regular visiting lecturer at the London School of Jewish Studies.

Zornberg, 56, who wears a long, dramatic sheitl -- a wig worn by some Orthodox women as a sign of modesty -- is enthusiastic about the new flourishing of women's study. "These young women are creating a seedbed out of which creative Jewish women's thinking and scholarship will grow," she says. "Women are opening things up."

Raised in Glasgow, Scotland, Zornberg did not grow up in a place or era where high-level Jewish study was expected of -- or even made accessible to -- women. But like many traditional learned women, she had a scholarly father, Rabbi Wolf Gottlieb, head of the city's rabbinical court, who studied with her.

Zornberg attended Gateshead's Women's Seminary in northern England, where she imbibed the "religious seriousness" that informs her life. She then went to Cambridge University, where she earned a doctorate in English literature, and began acquiring the tools of literary analysis that serve her well in her interpretations of Torah texts.

In 1969, Zornberg made aliyah, and taught English literature at The Hebrew University. She married and had children with American-born Eric Zornberg, but her family responsibilities prevented her from pursuing an academic career.

However, Zornberg feels that this was serendipity, providential. "I began teaching Torah to a few women, and it mushroomed," she says -- as did her reputation as an exciting Bible teacher. Women began coming to Jerusalem from hundreds of miles away to hear her ask questions seldom heard before in Bible class.

"I have greater freedom to follow the lines of thought that interest me," she explains. "In the university there is an unspoken consensus as to what questions to ask."

Avivah Zornberg, will speak April 14, 7 p.m. at Kehillat Ma'arav: "Ruth and Boaz: The Paradigm of Love." $18. 1715 21st St., Santa Monica. For more information, call (310) 829-0566. She will speak April 16, 4 p.m. at UCLA's Royce Hall: "The Pit and the Rope: Judah Discovers Joseph." For more information, call (310) 825-5387.

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