Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Murmuring Deep

That's the title of Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg's latest book, which I ordered over the internet a little while ago and which has arrived in the last couple of days. The book's subtitle says it all 'Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious'. Zornberg has an uncanny gift of moving between the spaces of the words, between the spaces of the syllables and bring to light hitherto undreamt of possibilities. She is in that sense quintessentially Jewish in the way she engages with the Hebrew scriptures.

I first discovered her back in, oh, 1996/7. My first lecturing gig (as opposed to tutoring) was in 1997 and I remember that I was waxing quite rhapsodic over her in many of my classes. Back then I was reading her marvellous book Genesis: The Beginning of Desire. As the title indicates it's a reading of Genesis, which she did in the company of the Midrashim and great Rabbis such as Rashi, along with a range of contemporary psychological and literary theorists. It is her ability to engage with such a range of texts, as she reads (closely) the biblical narratives, that makes her work so breathtaking. Her work is quintessentially Jewish in that, in Judaism, the heart of scripture is Torah and the heart of Torah is Torah, and so, in Judaism, Scripture, Torah always remain pregnant with meaning, there is no end to meaning, in actual fact [1]. Thus, commentary is valued in Jewish tradition and shares in the capacity for revelation. The meanings of Torah are infinite - when God was creating the world God was reading Torah - and so all commentary, no matter how contradictory, opens up new possibilities of meaning and revelation. The act of commentary puts a person at Sinai at the moment of the revelation of Torah on that fiery mountain. And surely Zornberg's work deserves the epithet revelatory.

In The Murmuring Deep, she revisits many of the vistas, many of the themes of Genesis. Indeed the greater part of the book deals with narratives and characters from Genesis and so what I've read so far calls to mind that earlier work. However I can also see how she has moved from back then, how she turns these stories yet again to winnow further possibilities, to glean fragments that were previously undreamt of.

I've only finished her Introduction and the first chapter, which is a superb exploration and playful re-appraisal of the Eden and creation narratives. As well as reading with the Midrashim and such Rabbis as Rashi, Zornberg is also reading in company with some of the 19th century Hasidic scripture commentators. Her first chapter is called 'Seduced into Eden: The Beginning of Desire'. The chapter title derives from a Hasidic reading of the second creation story that, noting Adam's creation is actually outside of Eden, imagines God luring, seducing Adam into Eden. And, unsurprisingly, desire is a paramount theme in this chapter: the desire of God for humanity, the desire of humanity for God, the desire of humanity for each other, and the desire of Satan for the Woman.

Desire. It's such a conflicted category in religion. It's generally understood that desire is the big no no of eastern religions. Desire is the cause of all suffering according to one of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths but I've had it put to me that the actual word used is craving. I don't know Pali so can't say how much of a distinction there is between craving and desire. Presumably one must desire liberation to a certain extent to get started on the way to Nirvana. And I think it's attachment that is the problem with desire/craving in Buddhism, as it is too, interestingly, in Christianity (and I suspect most spriritual systems). In Christianity, attachment is good provided one is attahced to that which is not transitory. God is not transitory, neither is a person. From a Christian perspective (and I would add Jewish, Muslim and I think Zoroastrian and Bahai) a person is never lost. People change, of course; everything changes; ultimately we all die. The Buddha was right to say that craving attachemtn to that which is transitory is the cause of suffering. But though we die, we are not lost, at least that's the perspective of the Middle Eastern religous trajectory.

God desires. Creation is an act of loving desire. The God who seduces Adam into Eden is YHWH (Yahweh) (of) Elohim. Zornberg, discussing the Noah narative reminds us that in Jewish tradition, the name YHWH (Adonai/LORD) represents the merciful aspect of God whereas Elohim is the name of strict justice. From a Christian and history of religion perspective, YHWH/Yahweh/Yahu/Yao was the first born of the Elohim, the Son of El Elyon, the Most High God. It is El Elyon who stands behind the Father of the Christian Trinity while YHWH is the Son (and the early church recognised Jesus as the incarnation of Yahweh who is both Logos/Memra and Wisdom/Hochmah/Sophia). My friend, Rollan McCleary, suggests that Jesus is the erotic lure to the Father, which is consistent with the notion of YHWH seducing Adam into Eden.

Here's to the God who desires, the God who seduces, the God who yearns and suffers and dies, who takes flesh. Marguerite Porete met this God and fell in love to the extent that she released all attachment surrendering her life in martyrdom rather than submit to the powers that be of the (male controlled) late medieval Church. She entered eternal life on the 1st June 1310, burnt at the stake outside Paris. June belongs to her as much as it does us queers but of course June is a construct that belongs to no one.

I'll close with a quote from Zornberg, the last paragraph of her first chapter:

And so God, in the daring imagination of the Hasidic master, desres the complex desire of human beings for God and the godly in their tents. More than that, He waits for them to create the model of compassion that will inspire Him - and that will, in effect, create an imaginable God with whom they can engage. Thus He enters into a conversation that is human in its very uncanniness. "Deep calls unto deep, in the roar of Your cataracts" (PS 42:8). Unconsicous desires inform family relationships, constructing an intimate universe of knowledge and mystery, language and silence. And GOd allows himself to be mirrored in this universe, enigmatic, seductive, evoking transcendence [35].

The Murmuring Deep
is published by Schocken Books (New York, 2009) and the ISBN is 978-0-8052-4247-8

[1] And here I think from a biblical studies perspective, Judaism has it over Christianity. In Christianity the referent for scripture is Jesus, which I'm afraid tends to often make for some very boring, if not predictable, readings of scripture. But for Judaism the referent for scripture is scripture, giving much greater scope for play. Not that having Jesus as a referent for scripture should automatically lead to boring readings but it invariably does, perhaps revealing how small so many Christians' vision of Jesus actually is.


  1. Michael, your last paragraph is SPOT ON !!!! I couldn't agree with you more. Philip Culbertson

  2. Interesting, but doesn't the Noahic narrative suggest that Yhwh decided to destroy the world due to the mixing of blood and the creation of the Nephilim whereas Elohim instructs Noah to build the Ark? In the story, Yhwh speaks of “wiping off ” all creatures, and ruthlessly enumerates all kinds of them that he will destroy (vi 6). Elohim acts as though in spite of himself, since he says that “the end of all flesh is come before me” (vi 13) and he speaks only generally about destruction, without any
    specification. My impression is that it's the other way around to: "the Noah narative reminds us that in Jewish tradition, the name YHWH (Adonai/LORD) represents the merciful aspect of God whereas Elohim is the name of strict justice."


  3. Allan, Zornberg is discussing the Noah story and she reminds us that in Jewish tradition YHWH (Adonai/LORD) represents the merciful aspect of God whereas Elohim is the name of strict justice. And she's right. But I think you'e confusing Genesis and 1 Enoch. In Genesis, it's human evil and specificaly human violence that prompts YHWH/Elohim to send the Flood. In 1 Enoch the Flood is due to the oppression of the world by the Giants.

  4. And I forgot to add that I might post more on this tonight or tomorrow