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In a new light: Avivah Zornberg and the tale of Joseph

I have long seen myself as the dissident daughter of an orthodox father, a truant who broke her father’s heart by turning my back on his cherished orthodoxy and living a more experimental way of life. It is therefore a delicate matter, this fascination of mine with the Other Daughter – the good girl – the one whose father did not call out after her in censure, the one whose aptitude for learning was cultivated on her father’s knee, the one who no doubt offered both her parents much solace.

Typically, I am way alienated by the goody-goody girl, she who is overly acquiescent to the established order. It would reassure me in my chosen identity if Dr. Avivah Zornberg with her soft tones, sparkling eyes and high-buttoned blouses were someone I might dismiss. But she is not. It is not simply because she is widely acknowledged as the leading Bible scholar of our day. It is not even because of the acclaim of her books or her dizzyingly eclectic erudition. Of course I admire the ease with which she brings in references from world literature, philosophy and psychoanalysis. But most compelling of all is the ever-deepening richness she brings to the exploration of what it means to be a complex and only partly knowable human being. I am a Zornberg fan, camp-follower, even a groupie, because of all she has to say about the emotional contours of my own life.

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg's first two books on Genesis and Exodus were acclaimed for their originality and depths. Her latest work, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious brings a provocative psychoanalytic dimension to sacred texts. An orthodox woman, she breaks new ground by interweaving a dizzying tapestry of ideas. Together with a NYC-based study group, I have been reading her all year. She is currently on her yearly North American lecture tour. 

On this long-awaited May evening in New York City, Avivah Zornberg is embroidering upon the biblical tale of Joseph and his brothers, their cruelty to him, his unheard cries of anguish when they throw him into the pit. She speaks of Joseph’s long alienation from his family and even more strikingly, his estrangement from his own inner life throughout the years. Dr. Zornberg guides us through the story of this ruptured family’s reunion years later when Joseph is second in prominence only to Pharaoh and his older brothers are needy supplicants fleeing a famine in their native land. I surrender to the flow of her narrative, swirling with delight in its many currents.

Although it is not my habit to approach featured speakers, Dr. Zornberg and I have enjoyed a brief e-mail exchange in which I agreed to introduce myself after the talk. Still, I hesitate. She and I are not a likely pair. In our tradition a demarcation line runs through the heart of our daily lives: There are foods that are kosher and others that are not, the Holy Sabbath is separated from the profane days of the week; In Orthodox gatherings, there are men and then on the other side of the divide there are women. Among the women there are good girls and there are also some who are…shall we say …not so obviously good. Avivah Zornberg is a woman of great valor and it is clear to me on which side of the fence I belong.

Withal, I overcome my reservations and approach her. I am dressed with uncharacteristic modesty, still I am toned and tanned from a recent vacation while she is soberly garbed in navy blue and moving slowly. I cannot – nor perhaps should I attempt to – hide my breakout from orthodox norms. We are on opposite sides of the Great Divide. I say a few words and, feeling ill at ease, I move away.

It is unfortunate that I cannot approach her for in her telling of the Joseph story, Avivah Zornberg has touched me in my core. She has approached that place where the deepest wound meets the potential gift and she has spoken to that pain with piercing sensitivity.

When Joseph’s brothers throw him into a pit leaving him to his fate among the scorpions, they are deaf to his cries. Finding no echo in the world of family, Joseph becomes estranged from his own inner life. The deliberate rupture with his past, the “oblivion” he seeks while a high-achieving stranger in Egypt, remind me of the 22 years I spent in France in self-imposed exile from my family of origin.

Later on, under extreme duress, his older brother Judah approaches Joseph on his magisterial throne, “Va-yeegash Yehudah”… Judah draws closer and in this encounter, Judah is finally ready to speak his own truth. Both men have suffered from unmet needs for connection and deadening emotional constraint. In the moment of his own soul-baring, Judah breaks through his brother’s defenses. And in the midst of all this terrifying disclosure, Avivah Zornberg assures us, the long-darkened light of spirit once again illuminates Joseph’s face.

Sitting and listening to her in the back row, I know what it takes to draw closer to intimates after many years away, how terrifying it is to approach the naked truth of unfinished drama, how overwhelming it can be to acknowledge the still nagging need for love. I know, as she does, that this is no let’s make-up and live happily-ever-after tale. It is rather a scarred-forever story of misgivings, of rupture and rapprochement.

There is a reception after her talk, affording me another opportunity to approach Dr Zornberg. I speak simply. I tell her that of all the stories of the Bible – yes, really, of all of them – the Joseph story has always evoked in me the greatest emotion. But, I tell her, drawing a tad closer, that until this evening, I have never understood why. At last I can be present with the personal meaning it has for me. She looks at me with silent understanding. For a few moments we hold one another’s glance, eye to eye, enjoying a slower, quieter breath, a moment of possibility, of seeing one another in a whole new light.

Susan Reimer-Torn is a writer, an executive coach and workshop leader who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and blogs at susanrtorn.wordpress.com.

How to cite this page

Reimer-Torn, Susan. "In a new light: Avivah Zornberg and the tale of Joseph." 24 May 2011. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 22, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/in-a-new-light-avivah-zornberg-story-of-joseph>.

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