Under the Joy, Dark Notes

Avivah Zornberg's latest gives us a layered reading of Exodus.

The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus

By Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg

Doubleday, 624 pp.

Every year, for thousands of years, Jews have sat at the Passover table and praised God for bringing them out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. The story is a political history that recounts God's vanquishing of one nation and his liberation of another. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg acknowledges this story in her newest book of midrash, beautifully describing it as "the magisterial narrative of the Torah."

But these days, "narrative" is something we moderns rarely take at face value, and the genius of Zornberg's "The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus" is its approach to Exodus as a psychological statement. "Peshat, or plain meaning of the text," she explains in her introduction, "functions as the conscious layer of meaning, while the midrashic stories and exegeses intimate unconscious layers, encrypted traces of more complex meaning."

A British scholar now at the London School of Jewish Studies, Zornberg taught literature before turning to religion. In Exodus she uncovers, against a background of joy and redemption, stories of the Jews' ambivalence, of an intransigent psychological slavery, of a spiritual complacency, and even depression. Exodus, says Zornberg, is "haunted by untold stories that detect anomalies in the master-narrative."


The psychoanalytic process is much more than a tidy metaphor. To Zornberg, the stories that lie just below the surface of Exodus are evidence of spiritual and psychological repression, of doubt and fear that plague both the Hebrews of the Bible as well as Jews today--and perhaps anyone on a spiritual quest. The discovery of our desire, faith and rapture comes not by putting on a happy face--or imposing the dominant narrative on any interpretation of Exodus--but through the psychological process of interpreting and reinterpreting. Zornberg urges us to look at the dark and the hidden until it becomes light and revealed.

In psychoanalytic terms, narrative is a process of creating. The personal telling and retelling of experience becomes reality, and this creative act is central to the religious experience. Zornberg notes how time and again the condition of speechlessness arises in Exodus, particularly Moses' plaint to God that he is "heavy of mouth, heavy of tongue." Zornberg suggests that "a people are to be released from cultural and sexual paralysis through a version of Freud's 'talking cure.'"

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