How then to come to terms with Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg? She is a soft-spoken Jewish scholar, whose earrings tinkle playfully in the microphone when she addresses a rapt crowd. A PhD. in English literature from Cambridge University, at ease with the multiple layers of psychoanalytic thought, Dr. Zornberg brings dizzying dimensions to her talk. She sits before us in a high-buttoned, long-sleeve blouse and stiffly-styled wig. She is a devoutly Orthodox Jew.
On this night, the main motif in Dr. Zornberg’s vertiginous tapestry of ideas is an insistence that God can be – and often is – cruel. She focuses upon an estranged God’s inability – a refusal, perhaps? – to empathize with the human heart. God, she tells us, is indifferent to entire nights of collective weeping once he declares that the untrusting people of Israel will die in the desert rather than go up to the Promised Land. He is similarly unmoved by Moses’ plea that after a lifetime of service, he too might enter the land. Moses, she tells us, may have anonymously authored the Book of Job, out of his need to grapple with faith in a moment of overwhelming loss.
This God of ours is achzar…cruel… the Hebrew word bisected yields such meanings as indeed, alienated, estranged. There is no apologia or softening of allegation, she faces a Dismissive Divine with a few rapid movements of the eye. And yet…and still… has she no personal quarrel with an indifferent, cruel God? Has she, for that matter, no issues with the sexist world order this God and his male worshippers have contrived? Her own compassion for those who weep comes through in the way she sucks in her breath and shakes her head. What does she do with her own obvious capacity for deep feeling?
There is an intensity in her lightness, for me the room began to swirl, it feels airless and I fear I might faint: How can such a mind remain faithful to Jewish orthodoxy? And what does her life story have to say about the costly choices of my own?