The Particulars of Rapture
Reflections on Exodus
By Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg
Doubleday, 2001, 582 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - December 21, 2009
Some books seem too ponderous to read. They have so many pages that the book presses against one's stomach uncomfortably when one tries to read it while lying on the living room sofa. A reader may even be put off by a somewhat difficult sentence in the very first paragraph of the 582 pages, when the author offers a definition of "midrash": "My working definition – with all due caveats, acknowledging the essentially undefined nature of the term – would be this (etc)." What is a "working definition"? What are "all due caveats"? What does she mean by "acknowledging the essentially undefined nature of the term"? Does she mean to say: I will use the term "midrash" when I mean (etc.)? Why doesn't she say this?
This was the problem I had with Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg's book some years ago. I put it aside after reading fifty or so pages. I began reading it again when I started to study the biblical book of Exodus again.
Granted, I had to accustom myself to her writing style. But I soon found that she was offering her readers a fresh look at the biblical book.
For example, she discusses the idea that the Bible repeatedly introduces "jarring" voices – which she also calls "dissonances" and "counter-narratives" – and she shows how these unexpected elements enhance interest in the story and add depth to what is being presented. Moses goes to the Israelites and to Pharaoh with God's message and both reject the divine command. Why does the Torah mention this dissonance? Why is it necessary for Moses to repeat and repeat God's message and emphasize it with ten miraculous plagues. What does this reluctance to accept the divine message say about God's power? Is he weak? The dissonance strikes us, prompts us to ask questions and draws us into the depths of the story.
Another example. The Torah mentions frequently that the people "saw" or that they "were shown" something. Zornberg argues persuasively that these words are deceptive. They are a code revealing that the people did not really see or that they were apparently shown something, but it was only apparently so. Reading this, I was reminded that whenever I hear the phrase "everybody knows," I know that I am usually about to hear something that is simply untrue.
The Passover Haggadah relates that four sons ask four different questions about the exodus from Egypt. Zornberg sees the issue in a totally different, indeed provocative manner. There are four altogether different versions of the Egyptian experience and each version acts upon and enhances the other. "The difference between the four versions," she writes, "is remarkable." The four versions are in Exodus 12:26-27, 13:8, 13:14 and Deuteronomy 6:20-21. It is like hearing a full orchestra playing different but harmonious melodies rather than a single piano on four separate occasions. One can listen to each version by itself and then listen to them together as a concert.
This reminds me of chapter 37 of Genesis. Most people read the story of Jacob's sons thinking of killing their brother Joseph and Joseph being sold into slavery in Egypt with an unidentifiable unease. Something is wrong with the story, but the reader cannot identify what it is. Everything becomes clear when the reader realizes that two altogether different tales are told in the chapter. One is a story of Reuben attempting to save Joseph's life by having his brothers place Joseph in a pit. Reuben seemingly planned to return and lift him from the pit, but Midianites arrived first, snatched him out of the pit and sold him into slavery. The other is a tale of Judah saving Joseph's life by selling him to Ishmaelites.
Zornberg adds to this multiplicity of voices when she says that the Torah must be read with the Midrash. Midrash is a collection of stories invented by the rabbis as parables to teach many lessons. These stories are not even hinted at in the Torah itself. Zornberg cites as an example the midrashic view that while the men repeatedly rebelled against God, most notably with the golden calf, the women remained loyal. Thus while all men aged twenty and older died during the forty year desert wandering as punishment for their bad behavior, no woman died. Zornberg takes this tale seriously even though it is not in the Bible. She calls it an unconscious level of the Torah, a level that must be recognized as part of the Torah and read with the Torah. She sees the joining of Midrash and Torah as a "Rapture," similar to joining a male and a female, and she offers a host of "Particulars," examples of this rapture.
Many people today enjoy hearing midrashic stories. These people will find Zornberg's methodology of reading the original Torah with its various versions together with Midrash delightful. Others, who are purists, may object: Midrash is not Torah. They might say that joining Torah and Midrash is not like joining a man and a woman. It is more like the joining of dissimilar objects, such as combining a book and a critique. Granted Midrash should not be dismissed out of hand, but like the critiques on a concert, it should be evaluated on its own.
Whatever one's inclination, it should be recognized that Zornberg has much to say, and while reading her work may be difficult, it raises fresh ideas that are thought provoking and worth knowing.