On Being with Krista Tippett

Avivah Zornberg

The Genesis of Desire

Last Updated

October 6, 2011

What may one of the great literary teachers of Torah and midrash — the Jewish tradition of reading between the lines of the Bible to uncover hidden layers of meaning — teach us about our own human longings? Hear what happens when she takes on Noah and the Flood, and Adam and Eve in the garden.

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Image of Avivah Zornberg

Avivah Zornberg is a scholar of the Torah and a modern-day master of midrash. She lives in Israel but grew up in Scotland, the daughter and granddaughter of East European rabbis. And before she taught the Bible, she taught English literature. She is the author of many books, including The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers, and most recently, The Hidden Order of Intimacy: Reflections on the Book of Leviticus.


October 6, 2011

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Years ago, I gained a whole new understanding of the Exodus story with the celebrated Torah teacher Avivah Zornberg. And it was a thrill to sit down with her this year in her living room in Jerusalem. She doesn’t so much teach the Bible as inhabit it. She participates in the ancient Jewish tradition of Midrash, of reading between the lines of sacred text to uncover deeper, hidden layers of meaning. And she creates an experience of these depths — intellectually, spiritually, sensually — for modern people.

AVIVAH GOTTLIEB ZORNBERG: The whole tenor of the language is about human life, and God has to find his place. And that’s why he commands the building of the tabernacle later on. That is, in some sense God dwells in this world. And it seemed to me that the human language that God is obliged to use is actually, that’s the house he lives in. He’s willing to accept a kind of lower dwelling place because of what can happen.

MS. TIPPETT: From APM, American Public Media, I’m Krista Tippett. Today, On Being, “The Genesis of Desire.”

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg grew up in Scotland, but has lived in Israel for the past 40 years. She is wise about modern literature and psychology. The daughter and granddaughter of rabbis of East European lineage, she’s also steeped in the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah and its pivotal text, the Zohar. She connects deep and unexpected currents between the Bible and the lived situation of the reader. So, for example, the character of Noah in Genesis. On the surface of this story, God sees a world that has become corrupt and violent, and resolves to flood and destroy it. But he commands one man, Noah, to build an ark to save his family and two of every living creature. In the depths of this story, Avivah Zornberg finds a drama about language and civilization. The real crisis of human beings is she says that “they have become so open that they are closed to one another.” Correspondingly in a way, she and I enjoyed speaking about such things for the first time in person and not by way of technology.

MS. ZORNBERG: This is very different from the studio recording [laugh].

MS. TIPPETT: Yes, and I remember what was so remarkable is just I remember just in the end I put my notes to one side and opened up the Bible and we were just walking through Exodus. So did you think about a text or story or a couple of stories you’d like to …

MS. ZORNBERG: There are a number of possibilities. I mean, one possibility that I’m very fond of is the Eden story, Adam and Eve and God and desire and so on. Another is the Flood. Actually, almost everything I’ve written about is important to me.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, why don’t we do the Flood and see where that takes us? The Flood, I feel, is one of these stories that’s like a cartoon story for people, right? They think they know it.

MS. ZORNBERG: It’s a myth in the negative sense.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, exactly, in a negative sense, it’s very flat and in fact, I mean, I loved reading what you’re writing about the Flood and all the layers. Where is it anyway? I should have marked it.

MS. ZORNBERG: Chapter 6.

MS. TIPPETT: Chapter 6, all right. So what’s happening there?

MS. ZORNBERG: Ah, what’s happening there. I mean, everything is happening. I think whatever you can read in the text is happening. What I’m interested in is the issue of language and silence, a kind of defensive silence, and the basis for this apparently very modern theme actually is in the Zohar, in the source of Kabbalah.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s a mystical tradition of Judaism.

MS. ZORNBERG: Mystical traditions which talk about the beginnings of humankind as an experience of what’s called the exile of the word.

MS. TIPPETT: Exile of the world.

MS. ZORNBERG: Galut hadibur in Hebrew, as if it’s not just people who go through physical tribulations, but in some way people lose their access to language and have to refind it.

MS. TIPPETT: Does this loss of connection to language, does that have anything to do with the fact of the Flood happening, the reason the Flood?

MS. ZORNBERG: OK, let’s go back to there. It’s a good idea to start at the beginning. The Flood, the idea, the word that’s used for Flood, mabul, is an idea of a surging mass of water, of confusion, of chaos. What happens in the Flood is that there is a return to a pre-created universe, to the universe before.

MS. TIPPETT: Without form.

MS. ZORNBERG: Yes, without form and void, which means specifically then without language. In Hebrew, again, it’s very graphic. It’s tohu va-vohu. And tohu va-vohu, even the sound of it is like a kind of babble, a sense of — a babble of waters and the need to control that and in some way give form to that, and that is all lost when everything is destroyed, when everything is flooded. That would be almost like the metaphysical implication of something very physical.

MS. TIPPETT: And that void is also larger than the loss of language, right? I mean, is it the loss of connection then between human beings? The loss of encounter and relationships?

MS. ZORNBERG: Well, I think by language, the tradition means dibur is not simply the technical act of language. It’s communication, it’s connection, it’s everything that saves the individual and the world from being closed up in oneself.

MS. TIPPETT: I was just thinking this is a completely different connection, but I think it works. It’s in the Midrash conversation I had recently for the show with a philosopher from Princeton who — we were talking about civility in the United States, civil conversation and civil society which is a problem for us right now. He was wanting to resurrect the word “conversation” in, as he said, a more old-fashioned sense of not just words passing between people, but human familiarity like shared life, association. You’re actually describing something very similar.

MS. ZORNBERG: Absolutely. I think that’s very beautiful. It reminds me of Milton discipline in one of his prose essays, his polemical work where it’s actually defending marriage, describing marriage. I think he uses the expression it’s a meat conversation, meaning it’s a right kind of conversation between two people. By that, he doesn’t mean words. He means a whole life, yes.

MS. TIPPETT: So then we’re with Noah, Noah being confined in his space.

MS. ZORNBERG: That’s right, which the Hebrew word for ark, again, is tevah, which is a box, and that sort of gives you the picture that actually he is boxed in. Very interestingly, the word tevah also in later Hebrew means the word. It’s the word for the word which the Zohar will play with. The Zohar will have things to say about that, but essentially it’s a prison, you know, it’s a floating prison in which the seeds of a new civilization are preserved and it’s an extremely unnatural life that’s lived in that box.


MS. ZORNBERG: Again, the Zohar and Midrashic sources go to town on it. I mean, they really have a lot to say about that.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s interesting too because we never — when that story is told to children, for example, I think it’s mostly children who hear the Flood story — we never reflect on the life in the ark. You get the two by two coming on and then coming out at the end.

MS. ZORNBERG: Yes, yes.

MS. TIPPETT: So how does the Zohar …

MS. ZORNBERG: The Zohar and Midrashic sources — first of all, how did they all eat? How did the animals eat? It’s a big …

MS. TIPPETT: Right [laugh].

MS. ZORNBERG: Yes. I mean, all right, maybe they brought on food for the animals, but how did they get at it? So Zohar imagines very beautifully that Noah spends his whole time, morning and night, day and night, feeding the animals. That’s an expression of his desire to preserve the world. And he feeds each animal according to its own timing, it’s own feeding schedule, so he’s really rather fully occupied feeding the world. He doesn’t get a wink of sleep, again, in these Midrashic sources. He has no sexual relations with his wife and no one does. There is no sex. Even the animals on the ark, you know, don’t have relations.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, right. It would get crowded if they added. Again, so none of this is in the text.

MS. ZORNBERG: None of it, but it’s hinted. The hint is — it’s really a hint where God says to Noah, “You come onto the ark, you and your sons and your wife and your daughters and her daughters.” In other words, people are listed gender separate. You and your sons, not you and your wife, but you and your sons, and the women separate. And what you have is a necessary measure for survival, a kind of empty flood period, is about a year, which really counters all the madness and the fusion of things in the waters. But then when the time comes to get off the ark and God says, “Tsay menehteva” — you know, leave now — he says, “Leave you and your wife.” And by leave, therefore, not just get off, you know, get onto the plank and walk off, but he means return to a human way of living, which means you and your wife dibur, speaking, the human thing, and he leaves with his sons and, again, the women separate, which means that he doesn’t really agree to leave, that there is something about that setup in the box that, in a strange way, suits him, because it seems to him in some way simply safer. And that way, of course, the end really lies.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “The Genesis of Desire” — we’re exploring hidden meanings in sacred text and the “biblical unconscious” — in Jerusalem with the great literary interpreter of Torah, Avivah Zornberg. In her book about Genesis, The Beginning of Desire, she elaborates on rabbinic readings of the character of Noah. She writes: “Noah is indeed a man of his world and his time. He shares in the prevailing pathology; he is saved more for what he may be than for what he is … (W)e have only to consider this central fact of his silence. From the beginning to the end of the Flood narrative, Noah says not a word. Noah tells his interlocutors, ‘God intends to bring a flood on the world, and told me to make an ark, so that I and my household may escape.’ It is not surprising that he is not effective in swaying his contemporaries. His silence is the reverse image of their babble.”

MS. ZORNBERG: What fascinates me is Noah’s lack of love for life. Something is lacking in him and it’s called the lack of the word. It’s called the exile of the word. One way that the Zohar points it out very vividly is that, when God says to Noah, “You get onto the ark with your wife and so on and everyone else will die,” Noah says not a word to God.

MS. TIPPETT: He’s silent.

MS. ZORNBERG: He doesn’t answer at all, he doesn’t pray for the people of the world, and that occupies the very center of the narrative for the Zohar. The Zohar thinks of that absence of intervention.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s true that even though Noah in his sense is a heroic character because, for reasons that we don’t quite grasp or that are not spelled out, he’s the one person who is saved. He’s not very three-dimensional.

MS. ZORNBERG: He’s rather enigmatic, yes, yes.

MS. TIPPETT: You don’t see heroic qualities in him.

MS. ZORNBERG: No, you don’t, and the expression is that he found favor in the eyes of God. And that almost sounds, especially in the Hebrew, as if it’s a kind of irrational preference on the part of God.

MS. TIPPETT: And that’s in the text all the way through, isn’t it?

MS. ZORNBERG: It really is.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s also of David as well.

MS. ZORNBERG: The idea of liking, you know. The people just like each other and God also likes people. For some reason, God sees possibilities in Noah, but it’s not spelled out in terms of solid, you know, character qualities or anything like that.

MS. TIPPETT: But when you describe that way in which Noah is in a kind of prison, but he seems to have a comfort level with it, whether that’s reflected or not, which then impedes his capacity to live fully in the world, to grow up, I mean, that is in fact an image of life, right? I mean, we each have our prisons. I mean, it would be like also this imagery of the difference between a victim and a survivor comes to mind, and you’re kind of describing that. I mean, being a victim, one can get very comfortable in that.

MS. ZORNBERG: Absolutely. And on top of that, I think precisely the things that he can’t do in the ark or he mustn’t do, like sexual relations, sleeping, the way he spends all his time feeding, it occurred to me that these are descriptions of God. God feeds all living beings and God doesn’t sleep. He doesn’t slumber nor sleep and God, of course, has no partner. So in a sense, there’s a kind of omnipotence that Noah is experiencing in this prison, which is, again, very natural that, once you have deprived yourself of life and you see that in some way as an ideal and as an expression of ultimate power because you are not compromised now in any way by the messy world of talk, of communication. So to me, it’s a defense mechanism and he refuses to let go of it.

MS. TIPPETT: And that’s, again, a very common human image.

MS. ZORNBERG: I think so.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, so how does this come alive for you in a very modern life and an Israeli life?

MS. ZORNBERG: I tend to think and imagine on an individual basis rather than in terms of collectives, although I could see how one could easily apply this politically. But what interests me most actually is the life of the human being in an existential sense and how tempting that pathology of the exile of the word is as people, you know, in a way become megalomaniac about how only my view is the right view and, therefore, conversation in that larger sense becomes not only unnecessary, but really dangerous. I mean, in the end, he becomes drunk.


MS. ZORNBERG: Noah becomes drunk, so there’s a kind of intoxication that comes of that kind of solipsism and depression, actually. I mean, I see it very much in modern psychological and psychoanalytic categories that it’s an unwillingness even to admit that one’s lost something and, therefore, one is not prepared to mourn what one has lost. So really one is caught in a state of closure that holds no hope at all. It’s an impossible situation, but a situation that’s very human.

MS. TIPPETT: I think this is also an example of how the Hebrew Bible preserves a picture of the messiness of human life. It’s there in the holy text.


MS. TIPPETT: I was having a conversation the other day with someone here in Jerusalem, and he was saying that that’s become so much more and more important to him as he’s moved through his life. I think it’s a bit foreign for Christians. I mean, Jesus is such a perfect, but not very three-dimensional, figure. I mean, there’s so much that we don’t — that’s not known that the text really doesn’t address — truly doesn’t address and there’s not this tradition of Midrash. But even the most heroic figures, like a David or like a Noah, the one man who’s saved, are flawed. These are not fairy tales with happy endings.

MS. ZORNBERG: And even God himself, I mean, that’s really going very far and a traditional reading of the Bible would hesitate before going this far, but I couldn’t help feeling especially in these early stories that God in a way is modeling to people — that aspect of God which can be known by human beings — is modeling to people how not to be Godlike. In other words, that God behaves in a way that is not entirely Godlike and takes the risks of that, as if to model to Noah and the other characters the possibilities of error, the possibilities of what you call messiness, and how that actually is part of the dance. It’s part of the dynamic of a world that’s informed by desire, which is God’s world. God desires — God himself desires. He desires there should be a human being in the world. He says, “Let us make” in some way diminishing his omnipotence. And the Jewish tradition emphasizes that, that these are ways in which God connects with us because he connects with our issues of omnipotence and of the necessity for a different approach.

MS. TIPPETT: I think you also talk about desire animating the reader.

MS. ZORNBERG: Yes, yes.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s a desire for the text.

MS. ZORNBERG: Yes, absolutely, yes. I mean, reading the text half asleep is basically is nothing in the Jewish tradition.

MS. TIPPETT: Is not really reading the text.

MS. ZORNBERG: You know, you don’t read; you study. You study the text and that implies that you don’t really understand it, first off. You read it and then you read it again and then you notice things and things don’t work and things don’t make sense and then you’re exorcised by it. And that’s what I call desire, because something is not. Something that should be there is not there and that’s what gets people going. That’s what gets people involved and this very intimate connection between the human being and the text, between Jews and this text, is a result of that.

MS. TIPPETT: Talk to me a little bit more about the notion of desire. It’s a very evocative word, but the way you’re using it has many layers that are not necessarily there in a cultural reference to desire. So take me inside that word, I think, maybe by how you see it come to life in the text or in other sources.

MS. ZORNBERG: Yes. Well, I’d have to go back to the Garden of Eden in that case. And this innocent little sentence that “the Lord God took Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden,” which when you come to think about it, doesn’t make sense. Where was he before the Garden of Eden? You tend to assume loosely that that’s where he was created. Nope, he was created somewhere else and then God took him. So Rashi, who is the prime commentary on the Biblical text …

MS. TIPPETT: Rashi is one of the great commentators, Midrash …

MS. ZORNBERG: Yes, 11th century, yes. He uses Midrash a great deal, so he has this wonderful comment on the word “and God took him.” His implication, what’s behind it, is that how do you take a human being? You can take an object and move it from here to there, but how do you take a human being? And he says, “He seduced him with words. He seduced him with beautiful words.” Actually, the word for seduction is used. He moved him, you know, he lured him with beautiful words to enter the Garden. That is, he couldn’t take him by main force, could he? Well, of course, he could, but God doesn’t do that, as it were. When it says God took, it he means that he moved him to want to go, and why does God want him in the Garden of Eden? Because God has some kind of a desire that he wants to see played out in the Garden of Eden. God desires something about human beings and, in the Midrashic literature, what God desires of human beings is simply that human beings should desire him, and that’s like a delicate matter. You know, how do you effect someone else’s desire? You can’t force because that’s obviously not going to work. And therefore it becomes a question of what’s called seduction in a positive sense. Seduction is something we can’t live without. You know, we’re seduced by a sunset, we’re seduced by a smile. Life is full of seductions. Some are more healthy than others, but you can’t be without seduction in a live world and you can’t be without desire. So God presents himself throughout the story of the Garden of Eden, I think, as someone who has desires, that he has desires and he wants human beings to be a little less, again, android-like, a little less robotic and to discover the world of desire which they don’t have at the beginning — at the very beginning. They’re just perfect. They’re made just perfect. Everything fits in place.

MS. TIPPETT: You can’t have desire unless something is lacking?

MS. ZORNBERG: Unless something is lacking. The next generation will have parents and will already be born into what you call the messy world and there’s something about that that God wants, that God loves, because it produces desire.

MS. TIPPETT: In her book The Beginning of Desire, a reflection on Genesis, Avivah Zornberg summons some lines of the poet Wallace Stevens, from his “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.”

KATE MOOS: The priest desires. The philosopher desires
And not to have is the beginning of desire.
To have what is not is its ancient cycle.
It is desire at the end of winter, when

It observes the effortless weather turning blue

… It knows that what it has is what is not
And throws it away like a thing of another time
As morning throws off stale moonlight and shabby sleep.

MS. TIPPETT: This is the sixth and final program we’ve created from our rich spring trip to Israel and the West Bank. At onbeing.org, find all those shows: with philosopher and Rabbi David Hartman; Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh; Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi; Mohammad Darawshe, an Arab civic leader of Israel; and voices from the Aida camp, a Palestinian refugee camp and neighborhood in Bethlehem. Together they reveal many faces of Israeli and Palestinian identity — and humanity. Again, that’s at onbeing.org.

Coming up, more on the story of Eden, which means, in Hebrew, “delight”; also Avivah Zornberg on the “biblical unconscious.”

I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.

I’m Krista Tippett. Today, On Being: “The Genesis of Desire” — in Jerusalem with Avivah Zornberg. She is a celebrated interpreter of the Jewish Torah — the foundational first five books of the Hebrew Bible. She moves poetically between modern literature and psychology, ancient Jewish mysticism, and the Midrashic art of reading between the lines of sacred text to discern its fullest meaning. “The Bible is familiar,” she’s written. “Life is strange. We bring the two together, to shed light on life.”

Years ago on this program, I experienced the Exodus story in a completely new way with Avivah Zornberg. Now I’m with her in her living room in the Old Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem. We started out talking about Noah and the Flood. Now we’ve walked backwards in the book of Genesis, to the story of Adam and Eve. This biblical first man and first woman live peaceably and pleasurably in the Garden of Eden, naming the world into being, meeting God in the cool of the day. But in a passage that puzzled me in the Sunday Schools of my childhood, Adam and Eve are banished after they eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God has invited them to eat from every other tree, but warned that if they eat from this one, they will die.

MS. TIPPETT: I remember when I first started knowing how to get inside these texts, I was fascinated by the notion of delight in the Garden of Eden, that Eden means delight, that it’s all over the place.


MS. TIPPETT: Actually once you start — again, I don’t think a word people associated with the Bible. So God has created this delightful place, the food is delicious, right? Everything is beautiful and, as you say, perfect, perfectly suited to their needs. And then there’s an irony there, isn’t there, that because it’s all perfect and beautiful and delicious, they don’t know desire, which then it turns out that they can’t be complete without that.

MS. ZORNBERG: Yes. Then, of course, in the difficult ways that things always happen, their first real meeting with desire is through the snake, through the serpent, who comes with his evil seduction, you know, with his disturbing seduction, and they’re not equipped to know how to deal with it. Eve is not equipped at first, so she allows herself to be seduced by the serpent and then she seduces her husband. She seduces Adam, so it’s a whole — suddenly there it is. It’s a world that’s full of unruly impulses. And what I see as a wonderful turning point is when Adam lies to defend himself when God asks him, “Where are you?” when he’s hiding in the garden. Adam answers, “The woman that you gave me.”

MS. TIPPETT: He blames.

MS. ZORNBERG: Yes. “She gave me of the fruit and I ate.” And that’s when we’re really embarrassed, you know, because we identify somewhere now. Oh, I recognize this. This is human, human in an embarrassing way. We don’t want to acknowledge that that is who we are. And what I suggested and what seems to me very plausible is that it’s not exactly a lie. He’s saying the truth. His wife did give him the fruit and he did eat. He’s ignoring many things, but I think what he’s doing actually is saying two things at the same time. On the one hand, he’s in a way confessing that that’s the truth. This is what happened. At the same time, he is trying to justify himself. He’s trying to pass the buck to Eve and that, I think, is the moment of humanity. That’s when we really start talking.

MS. TIPPETT: About who we are and what we’re like.

MS. ZORNBERG: About who we are, yes, yes. Alex Brodsky said, “Consciousness — human consciousness begins with one’s first lie.” Because that’s when we begin to be aware of the complexity in ourselves and the different impulses. And that’s where poetry comes from as well. You know, not only bad things come from saying two things at the same time. As long as you have a kind of straight, unequivocal, immaculate version of things, there can be no poetry and there can be no tension, no desire, again. The desire makes itself felt when language comes alive.

MS. TIPPETT: How do you think about the meaning of knowledge? Right, it’s the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Let me just say something that I was struck by and as I learned to read this, but I want you to open it up and take it in another direction, if you will: that, for one thing, I think, to a Western mind, there should be something wrong with knowledge, that God should forbid knowledge is offensive and strange, strange for the faithful and the problem with religion for the unbeliever. But the knowledge that Adam and Eve gain is petty. I mean, it’s not evil. It’s not catastrophic. It’s like they know that they’re naked where, as before, they were very happy, and they know how to lie and they know how to blame. What is that word, the knowledge? What is the image in the Hebrew?

MS. ZORNBERG: Well, you know, when sexuality begins properly between Adam and Eve, the word that’s used is va-yayda, that Adam knew his wife.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, right. And is that the same word as the tree of knowledge?

MS. ZORNBERG: So I can’t help thinking it’s not theoretical knowledge that we’re talking about here. We’re talking about consciousness in its fullest sense and intimacy. And again, it has to do with communication and language, and God wants it actually.

MS. TIPPETT: The knowledge, consciousness.

MS. ZORNBERG: He wants that to happen. There might have been better ways for it to happen, but it happens in this way and perhaps, in the end, it’s not so clear that God wasn’t opening the sluice gates in a way to all that because, without that, God drives Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden after that. It seems almost as if a new period has to begin now in which the bliss, what you call the total pleasure — the French have this lovely word, jouissance, which I think of for Eden. That total bliss has to be, in a way, moved out of. There is a kind of divorce from that kind of relationship with God, that kind of relationship between man and woman and into something more complicated.

MS. TIPPETT: And even that relationship with the natural world, which is very evident these days.

MS. ZORNBERG: With the natural world, yes, yes. And there is an ideal somewhere in Jewish thinking of ultimate return to the Garden of Eden, but clearly it’s not a return to the same way it was because, once you’ve been through experience, you know, you return to innocence in a very different way. Yeah, so I think knowledge really has a lot to do again with desire and, in fact, one of the great commentators, Nachmanides, translates the word as desire.

MS. TIPPETT: The word knowledge?

MS. ZORNBERG: The word knowledge here, the tree of knowledge of good and evil he understands as the tree of desire for both good and evil. That is, the capacity to love and to hate, he says. Before, there was no loving and no hating because it was just — everything was in a way unequivocal.

MS. TIPPETT: So it seems to me that what you’re describing kind of harkens back to this larger theme of almost a maturation process of God’s relationship or God’s desire for what human beings might be, their relationship, how God might build that relationship. I mean, I don’t even know how to say it. So I was thinking after we were talking about Noah a minute ago, just as I was turning the page as we moved to Genesis and I saw, as you said, there was this moment, in this effort, Fox translation, which tries to stick closer to the Hebrew, he says, “And God was sorry he had made them.” But it’s almost like what you’re describing is a learning process on the part of both God and humanity.

MS. ZORNBERG: Yes. I have to confess that I have a little reservation about that kind of language about God. It doesn’t come smoothly to me.

MS. TIPPETT: Which language?

MS. ZORNBERG: The language of God learning.


MS. ZORNBERG: And the way in which I’ve come to think about it, I know this is part of — is the way people do talk now, that God learns especially in the Flood story and he changes his mind and he realizes no more floods and so on. The way in which I’ve come to terms with it is to think of God as a character in the story who obviously cannot be perfect. As a character in the story, he can’t be omniscient and omnipotent and the way the story is told, in fact, makes that clear. The God who, according to Jewish tradition, has written the story is like the author vis-à-vis the character. And the God who transcendentally is at the back of the God who writes the Bible is yet again another stage further away from projections of various kinds. But the God in the story itself, God has written a story about himself as a character and that character, yes, learns. He learns because he wants to teach human beings to learn. Somewhere there’s a kind of modeling there, which may be very far from, you know, an official education agenda. You know, it’s not necessarily an educational project. It’s just something you can’t help picking up as you are reading.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s more of a creative process.

MS. ZORNBERG: It’s a creative process, yes.

MS. TIPPETT: So when I was first thinking about theology, I was also writing fiction and reading people writing fiction. You know, we use so many metaphors too think about God, and the one that’s most readily at hand is God as Father. But I’ve thought about, you know, God as author. You know, people who write creatively often describe how their characters, if their story comes to life, they lose control even though they are the writer.

MS. ZORNBERG: Yes. I think loses control, as you say, as a human writer loses control, is not exactly losing control. It’s actually discovering forces that were not explicit before, that were not fully — and suddenly they find these forces and these ways of creating things suddenly become real. So in that sense, it’s losing control in terms of a neat, unmessy package.

MS. TIPPETT: And losing control in the sense of having to interact then with the other three-dimensionality …

MS. ZORNBERG: Again, again the idea of language. Yes. That once words are used, then they are inevitably human words and God has to use human words. However divine the words are, they’re clearly a restriction on his infinite power, and it’s a blessed restriction in some ways because it makes a world possible.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “The Genesis of Desire” — in Jerusalem with renowned Torah teacher Avivah Zornberg.

MS. TIPPETT: You often bring literature, not religious literature, just literature into your Midrash in a way, I think. Is that fair to say that? Something very moving for me when I finally read the Genesis story closely was this image of God planted a garden in Eden, land of pleasure, which is how Everett Fox has translated it. This idea that — and I can’t find it. It’s repeated a couple of times, I think, of Adam and Eve living in this land of pleasure, meeting God in the cool of the day. There’s this proximity, and then there’s an echo of that, which is sad or nostalgic in a way, after they are expelled from the Garden. And God has done this, right? There’s just this one line. It’s Verse 21, Chapter 3. “Yahweh, God, made Adam and his wife coats of skins and clothed them,” which, as you said before, they didn’t have parents, which means they couldn’t be fully human, but this is a very paternal gesture and they’ve been punished and then they are clothed.

MS. ZORNBERG: A very tender gesture, yes, yes. In fact, typical again, in this case, I think it’s Talmudic source that says from here we learn that we should clothe the naked. In other words, we learn from God’s actual behavior, which in a way is kind of un-Godlike, you know, that God should be involved in such physical things as actually clothing people. But the whole tenor of the language is about human life and God has to find his place. What came to mind again when I thought about that was the beautiful expression that’s used about God, that he looks for a dwelling place in the lower worlds and that’s why he commands the building of the tabernacle later on. In some sense, God dwells in this world and it seemed to me that the human language that God is obliged to use is actually that’s the house he lives in. That’s the dwelling place of God, that he’s willing to accept a kind of lower dwelling place, a place that doesn’t really suit his grandeur, because of what can happen once the lower worlds are acknowledged to have God in them.

MS. TIPPETT: And so you’re not just thinking about our texts, but the texts included. I mean, the texts included, the written texts, the sacred texts.

MS. ZORNBERG: The sacred texts, yes. That, but not that only, yes.

MS. TIPPETT: I mean, that’s an interesting way to think about how powerful this kind of text is and yet flawed. I mean, not enough — not enough …

MS. ZORNBERG: It needs reading and reading. In a way that maybe it’s perfection, but it’s a perfection that goes via apparent imperfections and the energy that’s created them of the reading process is much more important than having a perfect text, whatever that might be, which I think is actually an impossibility. I don’t know what a perfect text would be.

MS. TIPPETT: But I also mean you might think in the abstract that if human beings are encountering the word of God, that that would be enough to live by and to live to get it right. And I think that that, again, for outsiders to our traditions would point at the fact that there’s supposedly the word of God, but then humanity is humanity, the way you’re describing it. Of course, it doesn’t suffice.

MS. ZORNBERG: There’s no failsafe. There’s no password to the good life in a text. It’s all alchemy. It’s all how we incorporate the text, what we do with it.

MS. TIPPETT: And again, that word, that language, is life. It’s not just words, not just speech.

MS. ZORNBERG: Well, I think speech is involved very much in it, but, yes, I mean, the Torah is life. It’s a plain statement, you know, that is made. The Psalmist makes it in different ways. And it’s life in its most immediate. People who are imbued with the text, with a bit of biblical text, it’s always in their minds in some sense or other. That is, things are always floating up. Words are always floating up and completing things and opening things up, so you sometimes see. This is one of my memories of my father on Jerusalem bus, you know, sort of getting onto the bus and sitting next to some other bearded character and the two of them just beginning to have this cryptic conversation in which, you know, there would be one quotes and another quote, kind of — barely opening their mouths, just communicating sort of underground. No one else could have told what they were talking about, but they were talking at depth.

MS. TIPPETT: The title of your most recent book, The Murmuring Deep, so evocative. Does that point to that depth you’re talking about? Just describe what you mean by that phrase.

MS. ZORNBERG: I suppose by the The Murmuring Deep I mean the living and rather disturbing being of the universe, what was called the deep, the tehom, at the beginning of Genesis, that the spirit of God hovered over the face of the deep. The idea that might not have been a silent deep, but actually it might have been a murmur or a moan or something coming up from there, which in a way had to be interrupted in order for there to be speech. Light had to come into the darkness and speech had to come and disturb that very disturbing sound, which is a kind of sound of basic life which is always there nevertheless, as far as I can understand it. Underneath all the words we say, what we are really communicating with on some primal level, an elemental level, is, I suppose you could say, the unconscious or things that cannot be put into words, which are also part of communication. It’s also part of what we convey to one another.

MS. TIPPETT: All right. You say, the biblical unconscious. Your reflections on the biblical unconscious and what you’re kind of describing is that biblical unconscious meeting the human unconscious and the strange and essential things that happen in that meeting.

MS. ZORNBERG: Yes, and that’s really the joy of reading. I think that we are not solving riddles when we read the Bible, but we are responding with everything that’s in us and we trust that there is enough there to meet that.

MS. TIPPETT: What else? Anything you want to say as we finish? Anything that’s come to you that you want to bring in? Any image or story?

MS. ZORNBERG: I think what we are doing now is an example of what we’re talking about, that there are all kinds of desires at work in this kind of conversation and that adds a richness to what officially is going on. Sort of guesswork, like what are you really saying? What am I really saying, and so on. As precise as we try to be, we never quite say it, and that’s what makes it interesting. That’s what makes it exciting.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s that dialectic between strangeness and familiarity that you also describe.

MS. ZORNBERG: Yes, yes. And without the strangeness, you know, it should be a very dull affair. It wouldn’t really give birth to much.

MS. TIPPETT: Avivah Zornberg, thank you so much.

MS. ZORNBERG: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

MS. TIPPETT: Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s books include The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious and The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis.

At onbeing.org, you can listen to this show again, download it, and share with others. And you can watch my entire interview with the delightful Avivah Zornberg in her home in Jerusalem. Find this video and audio on our website, along with all the other shows from our spring trip to Israel and the West Bank. They have a range of voices and titles like: “Thin Places, Thick Realities,” “Pleasure More Than Hope,” “The Evolution of Change,” and “Children of Both Identities.” You can also always “like” us on our Facebook page at facebook.com/onbeing. Or begin to follow us on Twitter, at Beingtweets.

This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Susan Leem. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer.

Special thanks this week to Fouad Abu-Ghosh and to Eric Zornberg.

Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. Kate Moos is executive producer. And I’m Krista Tippett.


MS. TIPPETT: Next time, Alan Rabinowitz. A profound stutter as a child left him virtually unable to communicate and to prefer animals to people. He made his name as an explorer in some of the world’s last wild places. He has extraordinary insights into the animal-human bond, the evolving science of wildlife conservation, and what it means to be human. Please join us.

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