Avivah creates a striking new portrayal of God

Doreen Wachmann delves into the mind of Dr Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg

GOD has been portrayed in biblical and midrashic literature variously as a lover, betrayed husband, brother, man of war and artist.

Biblical scholar Dr Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg has added the striking image of God as a psychoanalyst who puts us in situations from which we cannot escape in order to challenge us, often through painful situations, into growth of character.

A combination of her childhood experience of being the child of refugees, plus a passion for English literature in which she gained her Cambridge University doctorate and a keen interest in psychoanalysis have provided Dr Zornberg with a unique manner of Torah interpretation.

Her parents, Rabbi Dr Wolf Gottlieb of Galicia and his Romanian wife Betty, were married in Vienna and managed to leave on a visa to the UK after the 1938 Anschluss.

Avivah was born in London, but her family was evacuated to Cambridge during the war.

She said: "It is very interesting because I ended up studying there."

In 1950 the family moved to Glasgow where Dayan Gottlieb took up his positions at the Beth Din as well as at Queens Park Hebrew Congregation.

Avivah, who attended the Scottish city's Langside Primary School and Hutchesons' Grammar School, said: "My father's congregants were very friendly. We knew a lot of very nice people. But being Orthodox, it was rather lonely."

Descended from Chassidic Torah scholars, Dayan Gottlieb, who had studied Torah full-time till in his late teens he decided to get a doctorate in semitics, valued scholarship.

Enlightened for his day and background, although strictly observant, Dayan Gottlieb took personal responsibility for his two daughters' Hebrew education, even teaching them some Talmud.

Avivah's younger sister Freema Gottlieb Koral now lives in New York.

Avivah says: "My father dedicated himself seriously to our education. We studied with him every day and enjoyed it very much."

Passionate about English literature, Avivah gained a BA and PhD in the subject at Cambridge, after which she made aliyah, teaching the subject at the Hebrew University.

Married to Canadian-born physicist Eric Zornberg, who had decided he wanted a new life in Israel where he repaired washing machines and dryers, Avivah also changed track.

She said: "Academic life was not exactly what I wanted."

She decided to concentrate on teaching Torah, initially in private shiurim and then in institutions of higher learning, both female and mixed sex.

Jerusalem in the 1980s was an ideal setting for a woman teaching Torah in new ways.

Dr Zornberg says: "Fortunately Jewish life in Israel and the USA has developed tremendously in the fact that women studying and teaching has become very acceptable.

"England is not quite there, but when I come to England I feel welcome in modern Orthodox circles."

Dr Zornberg is a visiting lecturer at the London School of Jewish Studies and has spoken to women at Manchester's Yeshurun Congregation.

With her background in English literature, Dr Zornberg widely used the subject as her outside reference in teaching Torah, as well as philosophy and other disciplines.

Over the years she became very interested in psychology particularly more recently in psychoanalysis, which she uses extensively in her latest book, The Murmuring Deep - Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious.

The psychoanalysis she uses on the biblical narrative, for example in her examination of Abraham's relationship with his father Terach, who the Midrash said wanted to kill his own son in the burning furnace, is classical Freudian.

For an Orthodox Jew, Dr Zornberg has a very positive attitude to the father of psychoanalyis, who had moved away from religious observance and was critical of religion.

She said: "I respect Freud very much for the new ideas he developed. I see in Freud a son of his Jewish forebears.

"His very idea of interpretation, to try to get underneath the surface of the commonsense view comes from the whole history of Jewish interpretation.

"The idea of Midrash is to rub away at the text, to explore and excavate it, not just to translate it in an obvious way, to see whether there are secrets under the surface.

"Jews have developed a kind of hospitality to that way of thinking.

"Freud's grandfather was a Chassidic Jew. He was brought up to study Bible by his knowledgeable and rather observant father who gave his son a re-bound copy of the Philippsohn Bible of his youth for his 35th birthday with an elaborate Hebrew dedication, which presumably Freud understood.

"Freud's Jewishness nurtured him in many ways and was always important to him in an ethical sense."

Dr Zornberg's positive approach is not restricted to her appreciation of Freud, but also very much extends to the Midrashic interpretations of the Torah.

She said: "The historical aspect does not interest me all that much.

"The Midrash is not history, but it expresses deep truths which the surface facts of a life do not always clearly express.

"You can't get at the deep truths of a person's life just by their bio."

Giving an example of the burning furnace into which the Midrash claims Abraham was thrust because he shattered his father's idols - a story not in the original biblical text - Dr Zornberg says:

"It is the idea that he went through an experience which you can imagine as a fiery furnace, that put him in touch with some of the most important conflicts and desires that a person has in relation to his father and his society.

"The Midrash gives us a sense of what a profound experience of that kind might be for someone living at that time, of what made its mark on him."

Dr Zornberg's analyses deal with some of the most traumatic experiences as biblical figures confront deep issues of life and death like Abraham in the furnace and Jonah in the belly of the whale, trying to run away from his fate.

Yet her own life, she admits, thankfully has been "very good".

So where does her deep knowledge of traumatic experience come from?

She explained: "The Shoah certainly affected me.

"My parents lost many close members of their families.

"Growing up as child of refugees, the Shoah was always a huge thing in my imagination.

"My parents did not talk about it much, but they were not silent about it. It affected both them and me.

"It raised questions about how you think of God. I am not sure what simple faith means for a person aware of things.

"You need to think, feel and try to understand what is going on when you're faced with a conflict or something traumatic.

"In a way it's a test of one's growth.

"It's there possibly to challenge one and to make one grow in a painful way.

"Maybe growth has to do with pain. God sort of puts us in situations where we can't run away.

"He asks the questions, gives us a sense of what we should be doing and we have to struggle with it. That creates us."

© 2011 Jewish Telegraph