The Hid­den Order of Inti­ma­cy: Reflec­tions on the Book of Leviticus

  • Review
By – September 25, 2022

Avi­vah Zorn­berg has pro­duced some of the most bril­liant and sophis­ti­cat­ed Torah com­men­tary of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. Her book-length stud­ies of Gen­e­sis, Exo­dus, and Num­bers — as well as her deep dive into psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic read­ings of the Bible in The Mur­mur­ing Deep—have enriched both pub­lic and schol­ar­ly under­stand­ing of bib­li­cal texts. A for­mer stu­dent at Oxford, and the child of a rab­bi, Zorn­berg is expert­ly famil­iar with the full gamut of bib­li­cal com­men­tary, from midrashim through mod­ern commentary.

Most crit­i­cal com­men­taries on the Bible stress that the ear­ly, more myth­ic” and folk­loric books of scrip­ture are a pre­lude to the the­ol­o­gy of the lat­er books. Rab­bis and Chu­mash teach­ers tra­di­tion­al­ly share this focus. Zorn­berg, on the oth­er hand, aims to empha­size the hid­den nar­ra­tive schemat­ic of Leviti­cus through an inti­mate analy­sis of midrashim, fil­tered through con­tem­po­rary psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic texts.

Zorn­berg under­stands the giv­ing of the Torah on Sinai and the Gold­en Calf as the two cen­tral poles around which Leviti­cus piv­ots. When in the absence of Moses, the peo­ple cre­ate an idol, a calf made out of a pre­cious met­al. In doing so, they turn toward a con­cep­tion of divin­i­ty that is con­crete and shal­low. Zorn­berg sees the Gold­en Calf episode not as one iso­lat­ed event on the road from Egypt to Israel, but as symp­to­matic of a con­stant threat to the wan­der­ing peo­ple and their reli­gious order. She asso­ciates it with Egyp­to­ma­nia, a con­cept she bor­rows from the con­tem­po­rary the­o­rist Eric Sant­ner: the desire to bind the unfixed nature of the encounter with Yah­weh at Sinai. The Gold­en Calf is the per­fect sym­bol of the need to turn the deity into a fixed object around which to move, so dif­fer­ent from the divine words we dance around with our scrolls on Sim­chat Torah.

Zorn­berg uses the frame­work of the polar­i­ty between the open­ness of Sinai and the rigid­i­ty and nar­row­ness of Egyp­to­ma­nia to exam­ine each par­sha of Leviti­cus, embroi­der­ing her com­men­tary with sub­tle read­ings of midrashim and con­tem­po­rary com­men­tary. The Hid­den Order of Inti­ma­cy is a remark­able study.

Josh Han­ft holds Advanced Degrees in Eng­lish and Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and curat­ed the renowned read­ing series, Scrib­blers on the Roof, for over twen­ty years.

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