The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious

The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious

by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg
The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious

The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious

by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg


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A book that enhances our appreciation of the Bible—"explaining, exploring, and deepening our sense of what it means to be a human being of faith in a world as fractured and fragmentary as ours” (Forward).

Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg informs her literary analysis of the biblical text with concepts drawn from Freud, Winnicott, Laplanche, and other psychoanalytic thinkers to make a powerful argument for the idea that the creators of the midrashic commentary, the medieval rabbinic commentators, and the Hassidic commentators were themselves on some level aware of the complex interplay between conscious and unconscious levels of experience and used this knowledge in their interpretations.
In her analysis of the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah, Jonah, Abraham, Rebecca, Isaac, Joseph and his brothers, Ruth, and Esther, Zornberg reveals the interaction between consciousness and unconsciousness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805212068
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/04/2011
Pages: 480
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

AVIVAH GOTTLIEB ZORNBERG is the author of The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis and The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus. She lectures widely in Israel, the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. She lives in Jerusalem.

Read an Excerpt

Seduced into Eden

The Beginning of Desire

desire: the lapse in sovereignty

The official history of desire begins here: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). With these words, God declares Eve’s destiny: a melancholy sketch of the relation of power and desire. Desire is associated with vulnerability. To desire is to lose autonomy; the desired other acquires a sovereignty to which one surrenders in spite of the pain that inevitably ensues. Rashi’s classic commentary only deepens the shadow: with feminine desire comes a speechlessness, a failure of language, that in itself gives power to the other.

Our starting point, then, yields a dark image of desire as feminine, helpless, wordless. Strikingly, however, at the opposite end of the spectrum, God, too, experiences the halting impact of desire. At the outset of the Creation narrative, His power in will and word are absolute. The template is “God said, ‘Let there be. . . . And it was so.’?” Unhesitatingly, word becomes act. However, when God approaches the creation of the human being, the pattern changes. For the first time, there is a preamble, a proposition, a desire: “And God said: Let us make Adam in our image and after our form. . . . And God created Man in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them” (Gen: 1:26–27). Whom is God addressing in this preamble? Is it a soliloquy? To whom does the plural, “Let us make man in our image,” refer? Is this the pluralis maiestatis, the royal “we”? Or does it refer to other primal beings, angels perhaps, who are mysteriously included in this final project of creation, the human being? Many midrashic accounts would have it so. But then one cannot avoid the impression that God’s sovereignty has been compromised. Indeed, Rashi specifically addresses this “debasing” effect: he quotes the midrash that tells of God’s humility in consulting with the angels, whose envy and suspicion of the project He attempts to mollify.

The risk entailed in such humility is the loss of God’s status as sole Creator. He is willing to risk heretical responses in order to model humility to the reader: the powerful person should solicit the opinion of his inferiors. For such a moral purpose, He is willing to go on record as sharing power with others. The midrashic narrative does not take this lightly: at least at this moment of contemplation before creating Man, God is, imaginably, no longer sovereign, no longer One.

Of course, the breath of scandal is neutralized immediately: “And He [singular] created Adam.” However, for the first time in the triumphant litany of God’s creations, there has occurred a lapse, a suspension of sovereignty. It is only with the idea of the human being that God is moved to this cryptic humility.

It is striking, however, that a parallel moment does occur later, when God decides to create Eve: “Let Me make him a helpmate” (Gen. 2:18) Here, of course, God speaks in the powerful singular form. But here, too, as with the creation of Adam, God reflects on a future act; He expresses an intention. And, as we shall see, His intention is not, in fact, immediately implemented. In the end, it is Adam’s desire for a mate that enables her creation. This desire arises at the end of a chain of events, a “plot,” that separates God’s reflection from its consummation. In these critical moments when God relates to the creation of Adam and of Eve, desire both informs and inhibits divine omnipotence, in the same way as, explicitly, it erodes Eve’s autonomy.

in god’s image

If we return now to God’s project for man, we are confronted by the most eloquent and mystifying of all God’s creative words: “Let us make man in our image, after our form.” This creature is to be, in some essential way, similar to his creator. This resemblance will give him dominion over the earth’s resources. Clearly, man is to hold a special relationship to God; in a sense, he is to be the symbol of God’s presence on earth. But how is one to understand such a notion of being like God, given that the human being is limited, mortal, and contingent, while God is infinite, eternal, and absolute? One might even say that one of the main needs that man has of God is that He be different, precisely not limited in the ways that man knows himself to be: man requires a God immune to human deficiencies.

Moreover, to compound the mystery, the enigmatic notion of man resembling God is picked up, strangely, by the serpent, in his insidious suggestion to Eve that the Tree of Knowledge yields precisely such a gift—and that God resents man’s appropriating this gift: “For God knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will become like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Eating of the Tree will make Adam indeed like God. Thus the serpent.

But God, too, speaks again, at the end of the narrative, of such a resemblance. He is, in fact, moved by this resemblance to expel him from the Garden:

And the Lord God said: Behold, man has become as one of Us, knowing good and evil. And now, what if he should stretch out his hand to take also of the Tree of Life, and eat, and live for ever. . . . So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden . . . (Gen. 3:22–23).

It seems that the serpent was right: eating of the Tree of Knowledge has indeed made man like God. Even the recurrence of the plural, “one of Us,” serves to obscure God’s unique sovereignty. Only man’s mortality still differentiates him; he must therefore be expelled, before his resemblance to God becomes total. How does this enigmatic scenario engage with God’s original project of “man in our image”? Is a specific resemblance implied in the divine project? And is man’s eventual likeness to God a fulfillment or a subversion of that project?

adam in the human image?

At this point I would like to modulate to a different set of questions: Does Adam resemble us? Is Adam recognizably human? Do we acknowledge ourselves in the figure portrayed in the Torah? And if Adam does not resemble us, does Adam’s resemblance to God become irrelevant to human identity as we know it?

I want to suggest that, indeed, in his created condition, Adam is not identical with ourselves. Vast areas of the human are alien to him. My project will be to explore some implications of this difference and of the role that the Tree of Knowledge plays in transforming Adam into a recognizable human being.

Essential to this difference is the history of desire. According to a provocative Hasidic reading, it is the postlapsarian man and woman who, paradoxically, become godlike. My project will involve further questions about time and language, the unconscious, and the decentered self, as constitutive of the human and—in a specific sense—of God.

In the obvious sense, Adam is sui generis: his origin and mode of entry into the world are unlike ours. God’s hands shape him out of earth; God’s breath breathes him to life. Body and soul, substance and energy are generated directly by God.

The early history of Adam is sparse. But one essential detail, obscured in the text, is detected by the midrash. Adam did not originate in the Garden of Eden. “And the Lord God took the man and set him down in the Garden of Eden” (Gen. 2:15). Wherever he was first created, it was not in Eden. He is transplanted by God, moved out of his place, to another place.

seduced into eden

The midrash addresses the word Va-yikach, “God took.” In Rashi’s version: “He took [captivated] him with beautiful words and seduced him to enter the Garden.” Rashi often makes a similar comment when the word “take” has a human object, as though taking by force is inappropriate in moving a human being from one place to another. His comment implies that the only way to move a human being is by language, “beautiful words.”

Here, however, the word pitahu, “He seduced him,” is disturbing. This midrashic translation makes seduction the first human experience—seduction by God. Seduction, too, is constitutive of man’ s entry into language. The word carries connotations of persuasion but also of deception, of heady promises about which it might be wise to be suspicious. In the book of Proverbs, the peti is a simpleton, easily seduced, the opposite of the valued hakham, the wise one. The obvious association is with sexuality, with a manipulation of innocence, in which private purposes are masked in captivating but treacherous language. Why would the midrash, and Rashi in his turn, use this word, which, in both Hebrew and English, has such uneasy associations?

We will return to this question of seduction, which, I will suggest, is the essential repressed moment of the narrative. For now, one wonders why Adam needed to be seduced at all. To enter the Garden of Eden would seem to be a prospect of delight, rather than one about which to have reservations. But God apparently has to persuade Adam with glowing rhetoric to make the move. One midrash has Adam anticipate the risks and challenges of Eden: there he will confront and fail a test. In response, God entices him by promising that a future descendant, Abraham, will retroactively redeem the whole apparently woeful narrative. Subtly, the midrash suggests a cautious self-awareness in Adam that God must overcome by non- rational means. In the end, Adam must yield to God’s will.

By using the notion of seduction, however, the midrash implies a kind of “unfairness” about God’s influence, which overwhelms Adam’s judgment. To suggest this is to raise the question of God’ s credibility. While, ultimately, His plot turns out for human benefit, the midrash conveys a strange indirection in His methods: blandishments that, in the short term, at least, it might be canny to resist.

Seduction creates an awareness of previously unsuspected desire: here, God awakens in Adam a sense of unfathomed depths of self. One who has been seduced, even by God, is no longer entirely innocent, immaculate. A message has been registered, if not fully comprehended.

Midrashic uses of the idiom of seduction abound. God seduces/persuades Moses for seven days at the Burning Bush to accept the mission of liberating the Israelites; Sarah seduces/persuades Hagar to become Abraham’s concubine(her persuasive words are, “Ashrayikh—Happy are you to merit union with such a holy body!”); God instructs Moses to seduce/persuade Aaron to ascend the mountain to his death (“Happy are you to see your crown given to your son”). At such moments, the unacceptable is imagined as, potentially, desirable; reality is reshaped by language. In most of these cases, the key word in the Torah is “take,” translated as “captivate, beguile, seduce.” God, who sometimes seduces in this way, is at other times seduced: Isaac’s prayer for Rebecca to bear children is “complied with” (nitpateh lo) by God.

Seducing and being seduced, then, are not always illegitimate; nevertheless, they retain an overtone of embarrassment. After all, if one is to respond to the blandishments of the other, one must yield up an important kind of control. This could be a foolish act, or a generous one. Is this surrender, or submission? To assume the role of seducer: Is this insidious domination, or imaginative enlivening of the other, arousing him to possibilities inherent in what is not fully grasped? Is this faith, or gullibility?

alien sexuality?

Adam, then, has different origins from those we recognize as our own. He is seduced into Eden—and then driven out of it. Another dimension of his difference is indicated in the verse that precedes the serpent’s seduction: “And the two of them were naked and unashamed” (Gen. 2:25). It is clear that this comment on the first couple, immediately following on the words “and they shall be one flesh” (2:24), communicates a sense of wonder about an unself- conscious sexuality assumed to be alien to the reader. Indeed, Rashi comments on the link between this observation and the serpent’s plot:

“The serpent was cunning [arum—both ‘naked’ and ‘cunning’]”: Why does this belong here, in the context of nakedness? It would have been more logical to follow the reference to nakedness with, “He made for Adam and his wife coats of skin and He clothed them” (Gen. 3:21). But the Torah teaches the serpent’s motive for attacking them: he saw them in naked intercourse and he desired her.

Nakedness thus intimates the unself-conscious sexuality of Adam and Eve, which exposes them to the gaze of the serpent. Perhaps what the serpent desires is precisely this innocent sexuality; he desires her in order to spoil her.

In any event, between the two moments of nakedness and clothing, the serpent engenders a new Adam and Eve whom we begin to acknowledge as familiars.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Of the Murmuring Deep


1 Seduced into Eden: The Beginning of Desire
2 Despondent Intoxication: The Flood
3 Jonah: A Fantasy of Flight
4 Esther: "Mere Anarchy is Loosed upon the World"


5 In the Vale of Soul-Making: Abraham's Journey
6 Abraham Bound and Unbound: The Akedah
7 "Her Own Foreigner": Rebecca's Pregnancy
8 Blindness and Blessing: Isaac Trembles Twice


9 "And I Did Not Know. . .": The Secret of Prayer
10 The Pit and the Rope: Recovering Joseph
11 "What if Joseph Hates Us?": Closing the Book
12 Law and Narrative in the Book of Ruth


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