Dr. Avivah Zornberg’s web site is low-tech and humble, the absence of easy linking has me scrolling up and down a lot. While scrolling, I come across a few casually scattered photographs of little girls, Avivah’s grandchildren, one crawling on a tiled floor, others posing in front of the dining room in their homemade Purim costumes.
I pause to wonder about this choice of visual. Are the children there as emissaries of innocence, softening their grandmother’s possibly intimidating persona? Is this an illustrious scholar’s way of playing it safe in an Orthodox world which is famously uneasy with eclectically-learned, intellectually-innovative women? Is this her way of subtly reassuring us that underneath her brilliance and originality she is really (just?) a loving sabta? Do scattered photos of granddaughters defuse accusation and jealousy, do they soften her challenge to the conservative guardians of gender roles in her world? It is rhetorical to ask if any male scholar of her stature would feel the same need to build in a humanizing disclaimer.
I mention this to my friend Dr. Harriet Fraad, a talented psychotherapist and lifelong, staunchly secular leftist. Harriet always impresses me with her very personalized version of feminism, her singular take on gender relations. When I comment that only a woman scholar in a sexist community would need to hedge her prominence with pictures of granddaughters, I expect Harriet to agree. But Harriet surprises me with her own point of view. She thinks it’s “wonderful and refreshing” that Dr Z. feels no need to keep family or mothering aspects of self safely hidden from view. Harriet champions AZ’s courage in letting everyone know that her outstanding scholarship in no way inhibits other aspects of her life as a woman. Dr. Fraad applauds the way Dr. Zornberg resists conforming to a male-imposed reduction of womanhood to categories; by insisting on her whole self she transcends a cultural either/or.
Avivah Zornberg endorses the Bible as the literal word of God and weaves her intricate web of personal meaning from there; Harriet Fraad is a firm nonbeliever in the great tradition of Jewish Marxists and looks for meaning outside of the transcendent. Zornberg understands God as speaking to us through the unconscious, while Fraad would suspect God fixation as a barrier to connection with woman self.
Still, this conversation unites the two women across a great ideological divide. They meet in the invisible spider web of the receptive mind. Somewhere in the atmosphere of interconnection that is the awakened woman mind, we each discern a design. In every point of view there is something that transfigures the ordinary.