Avivah Zornberg’s approach to studying Torah is significantly different from what we have done in past years, although she uses Midrash extensively. Her interest is not historical, nor is it based on classical literary approaches. It does not intend to provide life-lessons, or reflect traditional Jewish spiritual traditions. She intends to find hidden in the Torah:
the reader’s most intimate life, the things and words of the night, fears and longings and questionings. It is these that I have tried to “hear’ from within the text of the Torah.
She doesn’t mean simply our personal reactions to the text, but instead the deep conflicts and tensions common to all of us. In that she is searching for hidden meanings and in some respects following the path of mystical interpretation of the Torah. However, there is no involvement of kabbalistic concepts and her interpretations will not seem mystical in the traditional sense. She calls it psychoanalytical, although not in a classical Freudian sense.
She provides an example from the Midrash of her approach. She does argue that midrashic commentary often had a similar intent to hers. The following text is from Yalkut Shimoni 1, 764, and is her translation:
God said to Moses, “Do Me a favor and tell Aaron about his death, for I am ashamed to tell him.” Said R. Huna in the name of R. Tanhum bar Hiyya: What did Moses do? He rose early in the morning and went over to Aaron’s place. He began calling out, “Aaron, my brother!” Aaron came down to him and asked, “How is it that you have come here so early today?” Moses answered, “There is a davar, a thing/word, a problem from the Torah that I was mulling over during the night, and it gave me great difficulty. That is why I have come over to visit you so early in the morning.” Aaron asked, “What is the problem?” Moses answered, “I don’t know what it was — but I do know that it is in the book of Genesis. Bring it, and let us read in it.” They took the book of Genesis and read in it, story by story, and at each one, Aaron said, “God did well, He created well.” But when they came to the creation of Adam, Moses said, “What shall I say about Adam who brought death to the world?” Aaron replied, “My brother Moses, you surely would not say in this we do not accept the decree of God? We have read how Adam and Eve were created and how they merited thirteen wedding canopies, as it said, ‘You were in Eden, the garden of God’ (Ezekiel 28:13), and how Adam ate of the Tree, and was told, ‘For dust you are, and to dust you shall return’ (Genesis 3:19) — and after all this glory, that they come to this …” Then Moses said, “What about me — who had control over the ministering angels? and what about you — who halted the spread of death? Is our end not the same? We have another few years to live — perhaps twenty years?” Aaron said, “That is only a few years.” Then Moses brought the number down more and more, until he spoke of the very day of death. Immediately, Aaron’s bones felt as if they were quaking. He said, “Perhaps the davar, the word, the thing, was for me?” Moses answered, “Yes.” Immediately, the Israelites saw that his stature had shrunk, as it is said, “The whole community saw that Aaron was about to die” (Numbers 20:290. Then Aaron said, “My heart is dead within me, and the terror of death has fallen upon me.” Moses asked him, “Do you accept death?” And he answered, “Yes…”
Moses has interrogated the text of the book of Genesis by bringing it into the closest confrontation with the lives of Aaron and himself. He challenges Aaron to a sense of pain and outrage at the very idea of death — and then mobilizes his brother’s acquiesence to the tragic narrative in a personal acceptance of death. The result of this reading of biblical narrative is much more than conveying of information: Aaron not only learns of his death, but experiences its imminence … Strangely, with all the terror of such an intimate reading comes a sense of destiny, of existing in the mind of God, of being oneself the subject of God’s word.
The intent is to deeply connect with the text — to feel it — and in the process experiencing a connection with God. While Zornberg’s writing is highly intellectual her intent is for the text to emotionally affect us.