Biblical scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg won the 1995 National Jewish Book Award for The Beginning of Desire, a psychoanalytical exploration of the existential questions raised by Genesis. In her new book, Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers (Schocken, Feb.), Zornberg examines the theological and psychological questions raised by the story of the people of Israel wandering in the wilderness.
How does what you do differ from modern literary interpretation of the biblical books, which focuses on the Bible by itself, without giving primacy to ancient religious commentaries?
I make generous use of rabbinic texts in thinking about the biblical text. Often the retellings of the rabbis involve a sensitive listening to the biblical words, opening up implicit tensions and unconscious transmissions. My use of psychoanalytic assumptions also characterizes my readings. In this sense, my work is both highly traditional and, I hope, innovative.
Which psychoanalytic interpretation is most central to your reading of Numbers?
I see the story of the Spies as not simply a narrative about fear and lack of faith. It tells of the fantasy lives of the Israelites, of man-eating giants and grasshopper selves, and is ultimately about whether the land is a ‘good’ land, which is a way of questioning whether it is subjectively ‘good’—lovable to them. The subjectivity, the personal perspectives, are what paralyzes the people whose ambivalence (at best) and annihilating skepticism (at worst) threatens to bring the Exodus to a macabre end. This story is about hate and resentment and skepticism, thoroughly human characteristics. In the most obvious sense, it represents the Great Failure of the exodus. In other senses, it is part of a process of coming to awareness.
What conclusions have you come to about Moses as he comes across in Numbers?
I read Moses as the archetype of what will become the Jewish posture of marginality in both the Egyptian and Israelite societies. His double identity is a kind of non-identity; his difficulty with language is an expression of that. God chooses him, perhaps, because in all his singularity and all his difference from the Israelites, he comes to understand himself as speaking not only to them, but for them. From reluctant messenger he evolves into a complex and authentic presence in the world.