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Numbered Daze: Examining Moses’ Mindset in the Desert

In her new book ‘Bewilderments,’ Avivah Zornberg and her biblical hero explore fresh terrain

Beth Kissileff
March 09, 2015
(Debbie Cooper)
(Debbie Cooper)

There is no easy way to classify Avivah Zornberg’s approach to the Bible. In her exegesis, the Jerusalem-based writer and teacher has the unique ability to draw on everything from postmodern literary criticism, art history, and psychoanalysis, even as she remains mindful of classical rabbinic commentary and more recent Hasidic writings. Her many fans include public radio’s Krista Tippett, psychoanalysts, and rabbis of every denomination.

In her latest book, Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers, Zornberg diverges from the style of her previous two volumes of Bible commentary. Unlike her books on Genesis and Exodus, which were divided according to the weekly Torah portions, chapters here are set up thematically. Her hope is that the book will be more accessible to those less well-versed in Torah as presented in synagogues on Shabbat. It’s a small change, but an indication of the relative freedom she finds at this stage in her writing life. ”A lot of spadework has been done,” she told me in a recent interview, “so I can begin to move more freely.” The thematic approach gives the book a meditative aspect, a kind of “musical structure,” she said, where she “spirals back to the same passages.”

Bewilderments is a departure for Zornberg, much as Numbers is a departure for Moses—and for both the movement has a literary dimension. In her chapter on the non-Jewish prophet Balaam in Numbers 22-24, Zornberg invokes the rabbinic tradition according to which Moses himself authored the story. “If we imagine Moses writing [it],” she writes, “[his] inner life becomes palpable to us, for an instant, as a mystery that can be intimated only through the indirections of the work of his own writing.” In this light, it is intriguing to envision how she will approach her current book project, about the life of Moses, for Yale University Press’ Jewish Lives series. Zornberg’s own connection to Moses is both direct and personal: She was born on the seventh of Adar, traditionally held to be the date of Moses’ birth—and death.

The learning that takes place over the course of a journey is, for Zornberg, a central preoccupation. In a chapter titled “Heart of Stone, Heart of Flesh,” she writes: ”The Torah reveals and conceals. Implicitly, its enigmatic stories entitle the reader to read and to speak.” I suggested to Zornberg that this might be a plausible epigraph for the book, and she concurred, but her actual epigraph, which is drawn from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, is revealing: “In order to arrive at what you are not/ You must go through the way in which you are not./ And what you do not know is the only thing you know.” The passage situates the reader at the beginning of a journey where not-knowing is the precondition for growth.

Zornberg, who was born in London, grew up in Scotland, and has lived in Israel for more than 40 years, told me that she thinks of the Israelites’ 40-year journey through the wilderness as “a therapeutic experience. This period of constant complaints, rebellions, and vociferous lack of faith is the nascent nation’s collective cathartic experience. A core fantasy is being worked through.” Even as an entire generation perishes in the wilderness, the people learns to speak of its subjective experience.

This small taste of Zornberg’s work should give the reader the sense that her teachings are at once traditional and postmodern; they look both backward and inward. “I think it is quite traditional,” she said, “certainly in Hasidic interpretation and in the Mussar school of teachings, to read the Torah with a view to eliciting teaching that directly addresses the ethical issues of one’s life. It is an Avodat Hashem (service to God) to work on oneself, using the text as a prism.” For her, teaching and learning is not “just commenting but taking what the Torah says to the depths of one’s being, so that it has a generative effect. The Torah has the capacity to grow inside one.”

The list of her upcoming U.S. speaking engagements demonstrates Zornberg’s wide appeal. She will be at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and at the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis & Psychology in New York. Synagogues of different denominations will join in hosting her over a Shabbat in New Haven, and she will speak to Jewish women’s study organizations in Chicago and Boston. She will address Hillels at UCLA and Princeton and appear at the JCC of Manhattan, the Skirball Center of New York’s Temple Emanu-El, and the Orthodox Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. Zornberg is one of the few speakers around today with the power to draw audiences at such a huge spectrum of institutions. This probably stems, at least in part, from her interest in what she calls “seeing more deeply into human relations.” She sees the book of Numbers, in particular, as a “very powerful confrontation with the difficulty of being a human being—the darkness, the skepticism that throws people into conflict with themselves and with each other.”

Zornberg has an immense body of knowledge at her command. At one point in her new book, she uses an art historian’s discussion of Monet and Impressionism to give readers a sense of how the Bible creates impressions. She holds a doctorate in English Literature from Cambridge University and has taught in the English Department at Hebrew University. “Everything I read or experience I regard as fair use,” Zornberg said. “I am always making associations with the Torah text. Torah is called shirah [which means both poetry and song in Hebrew], and I feel that it generates shirah in me. I am performing the poem that grows within me as I read. It is not so much a matter of explicating a particular problem in the text as of attending to what the text leaves me with, how it is washed through with other things I have felt and thought.”

Rachel Adelman, an assistant professor of Bible at Hebrew College in Boston, studied with Zornberg in Israel for 10 years and wrote her master’s thesis under Zornberg’s supervision. For Adelman, what is unique about Zornberg’s teaching is its “empathic” style of reading, which she achieves by listening closely to herself, to others, and, ultimately, to the text. What Zornberg is doing, Adelman said, is nothing less than “translating the Bible for this generation.”

Just as Zornberg reads the ancient text in a modern cadence, with an intonation that speaks to this generation, she herself recently underwent the process of being translated as she saw her third book, The Murmuring Deep, a psychoanalytic exploration of 12 biblical personalities, translated into Hebrew last winter. “It is moving and even inspiring to find oneself in Hebrew guise,” she said of the experience. “In some ways it is very natural. The texts have gone back home to their original language.” Now that there is a Hebrew-speaking audience for her work she hopes to challenge herself in the coming year by lecturing in Hebrew. At the same time, she values writing about Hebrew texts in English, saying the “estranging mechanism of translation allows you to know that you don’t know.” Teaching in Hebrew, she said, will mean “a real movement into another world, one both familiar and strange.”


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Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis (Continuum, 2016) and the author of the novel Questioning Return (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016). Visit her online at

Beth Kissileff is the editor of the anthology Reading Genesis (Continuum, 2016) and the author of the novelQuestioning Return (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016). Visit her online at