Reading Genesis

By Boyarin, Daniel | Tikkun, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Reading Genesis


Boyarin, Daniel, Tikkun


Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, by Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg. Jewish Publication Society, 1995, 456 pp., $35.

One version of the commonplace that there are seventy faces to Torah has it that each face is revealed in a different generation. If that be so, then it might fairly be said that the face for our generation is the literary, not as a reduction of the text from its status as Holy Writ or even revelation--the "Bible as Literature" paradigm--but for what literary analysis can reveal of meaning and structure that is left unread, using other modes of interpretation. The literary methods have, moreover, providentially provided a "posunodernist" answer to "modernist" historical/critical methods that fragmented the text and left it nonexistent except as a window to other, reconstructed prior texts (the documentary hipothesis) or reconstructed histories. Just as methods drawn from the Arabic grammatical tradition or early modem rhetoric once informed Jewish Bible interpretation, now tools of analysis of the New Critics, the New Historicists, feminists, and psychoanalysts aid those who search the Scripture for meaning(s).

In the last decade or so, Aviva Zornberg has established herself in Jerusalem and--through teaching tours-beyond as the premier contemporary teacher of Torah (Bible) through literary analysis. Although a written text could never live up to the magic of her shiurim (teaching), we are nevertheless privileged to see the publication of the first volume of her interpretive work.

It is perhaps characteristic of our postmodern moment that where once scholars, critics, and interpreters strove above all to divine order within apparent disorder, reading disorderly texts as the signs and remnants of orderly ones (source criticism) or as the verbal icons of ambiguity (new criticism), we now, in Zornberg's words, seek "to detect the intimations of disorder within order, instability within stability, the tensions evoked by questions about human life and the search for God that the midrash expresses to such ambiguous effect." Somehow, disorder in our texts, even in our sacred ones, has become a source of great comfort to us, as if it somehow validated and made bearable the disorder in the world around us.

The univocal modernist Bible has become a forbidding one; its meanings are clear, so it bespeaks to us oppressions, social and intellectual, dogmatism and doctrines that we, no longer in any simple sense of the word, can "believe." Zornberg's literary, postmodern reading of the Torah restores it as unfinished, unclear, deeply engaging in its mysteriousness, not forbidding at all. Thus, for instance, rather than reading the Esau/Jacob narrative as the working out of a divinely ordained destiny for the Jewish people, basing herself on midrash and classical Jewish commentaries, Zornberg creates for us an exquisite meditation on power and powerlessness, one in which the imperfections of Jacob and the attractions of Esau are ever-present. Instead of the reductions of both scholarship and homily, her discourse reproduces the ambiguities and mysteries of the text itself. The Bible is transformed in her hands to a great work of literature, not because it is "beautiful," but because of the expressive manner in which its multiple layers of meaning are disclosed.

Zornberg's work is accordingly a good guidebook for a postmodern religious quest. …

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