I Went to the Library to Get a Book

And I left with six. This was after I went to the University library the day before to get a book and left with three. What constantly baffles me, though, is not that this happens all the time, but that it doesn’t. Sometimes I walk into the library and leave without any books at all. Those are sad days. Sometimes I only walk out with the thing I went in for. And sometimes the book monsters sneak into my bag and insist that I take them home with me. It’s not that I object per se. I just want some warning so that I can bring a spare bag for them.

Anyway, one of the books I picked up is Avivah Gottleib Zornberg’s Genesis: The Beginning of Desire. It was sitting near another book about Genesis by an author whose last name starts with Z (the one I had actually gone in for) and the name sounded vaguely familiar so I checked her bio. Hmm, Ph.D. from Cambridge, taught at a place I’ve never heard of, taught at Midreshet Lindenbaum–at which point I stopped reading and just grabbed the book because I had heard enough to know how I knew her name and why I wanted to read the book. Also, while I don’t have any serious objections to trying to finish at least one novel every weekend, having this around would hopefully provide some incentive to read something religiously valuable as well. And, since it’s conveniently about Genesis and we were about to read Lech L’cha when I picked up the book, it was perfect.

What I didn’t check was what the book was actually about. (This is  the second time this has happened to me this quarter. The first time was when I picked up the real life version of the Monster Book of Monsters. It’s a book about historical methods of managing too much data that is, in itself, an attempt to manage too much data and entitled “Too Much to Know.” No kidding.) Zornberg is writing as an academic–which I had guessed–so I was hoping for Biblical exegesis in the style of literary criticism. Which her book is, in a way, but Zornberg’s readings don’t draw primarily from the Biblical text itself, but from the Midrashim that have grown up around it. Rather than using her academic training to understand Torah, she uses it to read Midrashim as literature.

Once I figured out what was going on, I got really excited. Why hadn’t anyone thought about doing this before? Because Zornberg breaks the literal/metaphorical dichotomy that dominates any conversation about Midrash–the tension between the idea that Midrash was (and, in some cases, is) understood as what really happened versus the approach that all Midrashim are parables meant to teach a particular lesson and cannot be understood literally. By moving it into the realm of literary criticism, Zornberg successfully borrows all the unspoken rules of literary interpretation along with it, most importantly that weird kind of bracketing of what-the-book-REALLY-means that is necessary to making literary claims.* Which is just to say that literary criticism doesn’t rise or fall based on whether you accurately decode the author’s intention, but on whether you find something interesting to say about the text. Which, realistically, puts Zornberg closer to the “metaphorical” end of the spectrum (if we’re still on it), but without the pressure to decode the Midrashim accurately. As with literature, the emphasis is less on what the Midrash was originally written to do and more on what it does for her and, hopefully, for her readers.

Or, as one of my teachers in Lindenbaum was wont to say “This is true, regardless of whether or not it actually happened.”

The problem with Zornberg, though, is that she’s writing as an academic and in academicese. She speaks it well, to be sure, but…well, if you enjoy reading the Rav, you will find her a breeze. But I find myself wondering what the impetus is behind Zornberg’s situating of her critique within this discourse.** (For one thing, it’s contagious.) Do you need to put on the trappings of academic criticism in order to discuss the parallel texts of Torah and Midrash without addressing things like “truth-claims” or “reality” (though she comes down pretty solidly on the side of creation not being a factual account. Then again, so do most of the Medieval commentaries)?

There are two sides to that question and I will leave you with both of them.

  1. What’s at stake in this conversation? When we skip automatically into the realm of the academic, we are spared any real dialogue about which things we believe are true (in the actually happened sense) and which are meant to be interpreted. The lit-crit approach allows us not to talk about it – to put everything in the category of interpretable without undermining its claims to truth, merely bracketing it. And, with fiction–which is fictional by definition–this is fine. But is there anything keeping us from beginning a discussion about Biblical and Mirashic text with an explicit statement that “For now, it doesn’t matter whether this happened”?  What do we save by refraining from having that conversation? And, just as importantly, what do we lose?
  2. There’s also the very literal interpretation of my question. Can we have this conversation without scholarly language? Do we have the words and means to discuss these ideas without drifting into academicese? And, if we don’t, should we?

If you have no interest in any of that, may I direct you to my other blog, which, despite technically being my academic blog, is way more comprehensible this week. If you’re interested in 19th Century Literature, Topic Modeling, what Digital Humanities can do for you or, like Gaston, you prefer reading things with pictures, it’s the way to go. And, yes, I will probably continue to link to that blog at the end of all my posts because this is the cool stuff! (And, um, watching the number of views increase is nice.)


(Also, there’s a JAWS reference in that post).


*Husserl uses the term epoché to describe the phenomenological act of setting aside what you know “is” in order to accurately describe what you see. Literary criticism is kinda like that: you put aside what the book “is” in order to describe certain effects it can have.

**Because this is published by an academic press as an academic text, so writing it in academic language is necessary? But let’s bracket that proximate cause because, like most practical answers, it’s not very interesting.



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2 responses to “I Went to the Library to Get a Book

  1. Karin

    She’s fantastic! I think the choice of language is deliberate rather than default – it’s a way of saying ‘take this seriously as an idea, and be able to talk about it, regardless of your approach to text and faith’. Also, I think it’s a bit defensive – it’s a way of partially forestalling misunderstandings and misinterpretations (willful or otherwise) which of course is easier to do in person than in print. In print you need the formality and the distance which an academic tone gives.

    She doesn’t talk the same way, when she’s lecturing – it’s much more a ‘come along for the ride and let me snow you what’s inside this story’ sort of tone, possibly because she can get in the right sorts of defensive moves more subtly and smoothly in person.

    (NB: while you’re talking about books and academic approaches and quoting a certain teacher we love to quote, you should plug his book too!)

    • Clearly I have to hear her speak at some point, then. I’m really enjoying this book so far.
      I must have discussed R’ Finkelman’s book here at some point (I have vague memories of doing so). It remains excellent.
      It’s a good point – that the language works to guarantee a seriousness of intent (though the opposite – that we don’t take things seriously if they’re not phrased in scholarly language is a dangerous attitude precisely because one sees it fairly often in academia). And it raises an interesting question – which are we more likely to question – the oral speech or the written word?

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