What if the Bible contains lots of hidden life in the things that are not said? What if the stories strike the surface of a depth that remains hidden from our conscious, but is known, somehow? Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote a wonderful book on this topic of Biblical Unconscious. She opens up the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Jonah, Esther, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Joseph and Ruth in a light I’ve never seen before.
Zornberg explains in the introduction:
“Communication that takes place between human beings is never exhausted by what is consciously and explicitly communicated (…) Deep calls unto deep (Ps. 42:8). Communication takes place between depths, abysses, the voices of many waters.”
Much is communicated by what is left out, forgotten, as well as by the choice of which things to remember. This holds true for how we humans communicate with God, with ourselves, and with each other.
Zornberg has divided her book in three parts that explore what scripture says on the unconscious interactions on all these levels (with God, self and other). Great depth of character is brought out, by looking closely to hidden puns in the original Hebrew wording of the stories, by all the midrashic tales that supply a colorful background, and by using modern psychological insights, Freud and Jung, and others. Most of the midrash I’d never heard before and I enjoyed the way they were brought in to help suggest a meaning, even if it was entirely unclear to me what the status is of such texts, how much they can be believed as original or authentic or inspired. But then, that’s precisely the point. We’re investigating what could have been communicated precisely by what is not clearly said.
The first part illustrates our relationship with God, using the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Jonah and Esther. She asks lots of intriguing questions about the meaning of the “fall”, (never called by that name in scripture, according to Zornberg1) and explains how seduction and desire awaken a sense of unfathomed depths of self. After Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit, God comes and begins to speak with them. A dialogue starts. The first part ends with a chapter about Esther. Zornberg writes:
“A question is asked in Hullin 139b: “Where is Esther indicated in the Torah? R. Matan replied: ‘Then I will indeed hide My face [haster astir] on that day….’ ” The word-play (haster astir/Esther) defines Esther and her world as embodying the terror foreshadowed in the biblical verse: in her time, God hides His face.”
The chapter proceeds to explain about finding God precisely in his hiddenness.
The second part is about getting to know ourselves, communicating with the “stranger within”, illustrated by the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Rebecca. I was most moved by Zornberg’s description of how much God guided Abraham to grow and face his unconscious fears step by step. It is a recurring theme in the book that traumatic events need to be experienced again and again, until we are capable of grasping consciously what was repressed before. Zornberg describes very elegantly how God leads Abraham increasingly towards the culminating crisis where Abraham is tested with the task of sacrificing his son. Zornberg argues that this makes Abraham re-experience his own trauma that was (like an unconscious, repressed, memory) omitted from Scripture, but still known in midrashic tales, namely that Abraham’s father had wanted to sacrifice him to the idols Abraham no longer wished to serve. So, by being asked to do what was done to him, Abraham can experience the full range of emotions of that event, and become consciously aware of everything involved. This type of re-experiencing and then truly knowing what happened, is healing.
After Isaac and Rebecca, the second part flows over into part three that starts with Jacob who begins to know hidden parts of himself through interactions with other people. Followed by long and detailed exploring of the interactions between Joseph and his family, this last part on relations between people ends with a chapter on Ruth.
Given that Ruth is my namesake, I read this last chapter of the book with greatest interest. Zornberg said that her being a Moabite stretched the boundaries, and helped inform what the law truly meant, and what charity is. Certainly inspiring, don’t you think? Unfortunately, according to Zornberg, Ruth stretched the boundaries so much that in the happy ending she could no longer be named. All of a sudden her child becomes Noomi’s child and Ruth has disappeared from the story. I never noticed this before, but it seems sad. Thankfully, there is an interesting midrash that supplies some more history for Ruth, a role to play in the future. However that may be, on the whole it was a wonderful chapter about doing good, in great and small things, even in taking a step back when necessary.
There is much more to be said about this book. So many interesting themes surface. Her wonderful style of writing that guides you through the ideas using various images, stories, quotes without ever saying that things must be precisely so and not otherwise. In this review I have just given a bit of an overview and I highly recommend reading this book that sheds such a new light on the familiar stories and helps me understand my relationship with God, myself and others.
- Does eating the fruit of such knowledge constitute a “Fall,” as the Christian tradition largely views it? While the Rabbinic tradition in general avoids the vertical idiom, it does sometimes occur in midrashic sources. In the biblical narrative, however, the vertical imagery of falling is entirely absent. Instead, an outward movement expels Adam and Eve from the Garden: “And the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden…. He drove the man out” (Gen. 3:23-24). This is not a fall but, in a sense, a birth. Paradise is lost, but a larger, if more agitated life looms.