Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg may be one of the only biblical scholars around who rattles off quotes from 19th-century English novelist George Eliot, contemporary German writer W.G. Sebald, Rashi and Chasidic Midrash during the same lecture.
But it is precisely that unique brew of sources that offers Zornberg’s students insights into the Torah that are both rare and profound.
Zornberg, who lives in Israel, was in Pittsburgh last weekend to deliver three lectures to the community. Friday night’s topic at Congregation Beth Shalom was “And I Am a Stranger: Becoming Ruth,” and on Saturday afternoon she spoke on “Lech Lecha: Becoming Abraham,” at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. On Sunday, Zornberg’s lecture at Temple Sinai was “Is Redemption Possible? Of Women and Mirrors.” The talks were sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, with co-sponsorship by Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh Partnership Minyan and Temple Sinai.
Born in London, Zornberg grew up in Glasgow, Scotland, the daughter of a rabbi. She studied Torah with him and on her own throughout her childhood and then went on to earn a doctorate in English literature from Cambridge University. Zornberg taught English literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for a while but then found herself turning back to her true passion: Torah.
“Torah was something I studied since early childhood, with my father, then by myself,” Zornberg said in an interview. “That was a passion always, but I never thought of it as a career. So, I taught for a few years at Hebrew University. I taught English literature, but for a number of reasons, that was not the direction that I wanted to go.”
Zornberg began teaching Torah on a local level — “just a few women from the neighborhood” — but word soon got out about her thought-provoking class.
“I’d prepare a lot in order to teach that class, and that just snowballed,” she said. “It got bigger and bigger, and I started teaching abroad and I started writing books. I have to say, I was not particularly ambitious about it. I don’t have any idea about what happened, but it happened.”
Zornberg has a
definite following. After Sunday’s lecture, audience members were lined up to ask Zornberg to sign copies of her books.
Zornberg is the author of “The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis,” for which she received the National Jewish Book Award. Among her other titles is the 2015 release “Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers.”
Her next book, on the topic of Moses, will be published by the Yale University Press Jewish Lives series in November 2016.
Zornberg, who is modern Orthodox, said she has found many opportunities to teach and that being a woman has not hampered those opportunities.
“Women’s study is very developed in the Orthodox world, in Israel particularly,” she said. “Women are teaching at the highest levels.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.