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.