A Journey by Land Through The Five Books of Moses

By Bruce Feiler

Morrow. 451 pp. $26


Reflections on Exodus

By Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg

Doubleday. 582 pp. $35

It would be difficult to conceive of two books ostensibly dealing with the same subject that are more different in every way than Walking the Bible and The Particulars of Rapture. Different as they are, both are also, in every way, equally marvelous if not indispensable reading for anyone remotely interested in the Torah. And as the great literary critic Northrop Frye showed, in his book The Great Code, the Bible is the collective myth of Western civilization. So that should exempt no one.

Bruce Feiler makes a pilgrimage in Walking the Bible, which is literally that: a 10,000-mile trek around the places mentioned in the Torah. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg takes us on a more complex and difficult journey, down the midrashic rabbit hole that leads into the many layers of esoteric meanings that give the text its power and -- dare I say it? -- reveals its holiness.

Feiler, a superb narrator and storyteller with a gentle, ironic sense of humor, also possesses a potent intellect that at moments blazes forth, illuminating everything in its path. Here he pulls off that most difficult of literary tasks: writing a book that charts the progress of an agnostic toward belief but is, necessarily, written from the position of belief. As such it ranks, in its quiet way, among the great spiritual autobiographies. Characteristically, Feiler credits his traveling companion, the eminent Israeli scholar and archaeologist Avner Goren, with many of the insights that he himself gains. But it takes the right question to elicit the illuminating answer. When Feiler asks Goren about the difference between the superficially similar Babylonian and Jewish creation myths, Goren replies: "The difference is God. . . . He's much more abstract. There's no biography, no mythology. He just appears and begins to create the world, using only words as tools."

This is a literary quest, Feiler has to remind himself; it is about text, not God. But, as he knows, text and God are not separate in the Torah, which many believe to have divine authorship. Taken together, these two books reveal the potency of the text to transform its readers from utterly different positions -- as historical narrative and as living spiritual guidance. The Jewish settlers of today do not have to stretch their imaginations much to feel kinship with their distant ancestors: In fact, it can seem as if nothing has changed since the Israelites first settled the land and came into conflict with the other pastoral nomads using the area. Feiler is immensely sensitive to the current political situation, giving Israeli Jews and Palestinians equal time to state their cases -- and, like many Israelis, his guide Goren has numerous Palestinian friends with whom Feiler can speak.

At each location he visits, Feiler reads the relevant sections from his Bible, and soon the sense of awe that was always present though more low-key begins to strike major chords. This opening of his heart to the deeper truths of Judaism is often deeply affecting, so much so that frequently the historical commentaries and explanations of Avner Goren begin to read more like a parallel text than part of the warp and woof.

The book's weakest moments occur when Feiler is obliged to stray somewhat off topic, as when he is in Egypt, for example. Here Goren's explanations regarding the construction of the pyramids are merely theories, yet are presented in the manner of facts. But at least we don't get the usual nonsense, via Hollywood, of Hebrew slaves toiling on the building work. The path of the Exodus, by contrast, makes for the most powerful section in an unusually powerful book, and by the time we have crossed the Sinai into Jordan and made the dawn ascent of Mount Nebo, we are as prepared as any readers have ever been for the apotheosis of Moses, his final and transcendent moments of prophetic illumination as he stands looking down over the valley that is the promised land upon which he will never set foot but whose destiny he has been shown. It is through the person of Moses, the only man to have looked upon the face of God, that Feiler himself, walking in the footsteps of the Exodus, seems to be most transformed. By the book's close, he knows that looking upon the face of God is itself entering the promised land.

Walking the Bible should become an instant classic. It is written with a rare collaboration of heart and mind working in perfect unison, and as a result is profound without being oppressive, humorous without being trite or at someone else's expense, and a pure joy to read. One cannot ask for much more than this.

The Particulars of Rapture, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg's reflections on the Book of Exodus, is quite simply a masterpiece. I know of no other book that presents the enormous subtleties and complexities of rabbinic Biblical interpretation with such skill, intelligence, literary flair and sheer elegance of style. Zornberg's dazzlingly eclectic erudition would be oppressive in the hands of a lesser writer, but such is the beauty and succinctness of her writing that her references to Thomas Mann, Wordsworth, Isaiah Berlin, Wallace Stevens, Susan Sontag and Freud, to name but a few, seem more like the illuminated letters in medieval manuscripts, heightening both beauty and meaning.

Her purpose here, however, is not so much to explain the midrashic technique -- revealing the significance of a Biblical text through later commentaries by rabbinical scholars -- as to show that technique in action. She explains her approach by quoting the hermeneutics scholar Gerald Bruns: " 'the rabbis imagined themselves a part of the whole, participating in Torah rather than operating on it at an analytic distance. . . . It follows that the words of interpretation cannot be isolated in any rigorously analytical way from the words of Torah itself.' "

This is what makes the Torah a living text, endlessly relevant to now, not just to then -- in a sense eternal and, if you like, holy. For her examination of Exodus, Zornberg adopts the psychoanalytic model, suggesting that the plain meaning of the text functions as the conscious layer of meaning, while the midrashic commentaries intimate unconscious layers, encrypted traces of more complex meaning. The public, overt, triumphal narrative of redemption is therefore diffracted into multiple, contradictory, unofficial stories. The result, as Zornberg writes, "is a plethora of possible stories of redemption. Some of these will be attributed to 'the enemy': they are false, adversarial narratives, Egyptian narratives, narratives of obtuse misunderstanding. These counternarratives, the demonized expression of unthinkable thoughts, construct the official Israelite history of the Exodus as incomplete, inflated, or mythic invention."

The very concept of multiple, alternative narratives would seem to be alien to any religious tradition, but the midrashic rabbis embraced the idea. In fact, as Zornberg points out, the Biblical text itself seems to give warrant for such retellings. On several occasions, the Torah itself emphasizes the importance of telling the story to one's children and grandchildren. At times this imperative to narrate the Exodus becomes the very purpose of the historical event: It happened so that you may tell it. Indeed, at the heart of the liberation account, God prepares Moses with a story to tell a future child; and this rhetorical narrative, astonishingly, precedes the historical narrative of liberation itself.

It is not possible to deal here with even a fraction of the points and insights made and gained in a book of this length and density, but one more example may serve both to illustrate the caliber of Zornberg's elucidation, and to answer a question that may perhaps be on many readers' minds: Why would a woman become so involved with a religion that seemingly requires little involvement from women?

As Zornberg observes, by contrast with the Genesis sagas, the absence of women from the narrative of Exodus -- and indeed from all the later books of the Bible -- is quite striking. It is not, of course, a total absence. Pointing to the exceptions -- Jochebed, Miriam, Pharaoh's daughter, the midwives, Moses' wife, Zipporah -- Zornberg observes that all of them are related to the theme of birth, "all are dedicated to what Vaclav Havel calls the 'hidden sphere' that endangers the totalitarian structure: to the baby crying within the brick."

Once this theme has been established, however, women essentially disappear from the biblical text. This omission of women from the narrative can, of course, be seen as simply that -- an omission, a lack of specific interest in the feminine. But, Zornberg continues, "Rashi precedes the feminist movement by many centuries when, in an extraordinary midrashic comment, he excludes women from the most intense moments in the biblical drama: they simply did not participate in the major rebellions of the people in the wilderness. Rashi comments on the final census of people before entering the holy land: 'In this [census], no man survived from the original census of Moses and Aaron, when they had counted the Israelites in the wilderness of Sinai (Num 26:64): But the women were not subjected to the decree against the spies, because they loved the holy land. The men said, 'Let us appoint . . . a leader to return to Egypt (14:4); while the women said, 'Appoint . . . for us a holding among our father's brothers. That is why the story of Zelofhad's daughters is narrated directly after this.' "

Rashi's point, Zornberg tells us, is simple but revolutionary in its implications. By taking the word "man" literally, he limits the destruction of a generation, in punishment for the sin of the spies, to the males only. While all the men over 20 died in the course of the 40 years' wandering, the women survived -- because, unlike the men, they loved the Land of Israel.

However, it is not the demographic implication that Zornberg finds compelling; it is rather that the absence of women from the text does not necessarily mean that they are assimilated into the general children of Israel, as the plain meaning of the text might indicate. Women have a separate, hidden history, which is not conveyed on the surface of the text. This history is a faithful, loving and vital one, which excludes them from the dramas of sin in punishment that constitute the narrative of the wilderness.

Indeed, the midrashic source includes both the major crises in the wilderness as dramas in which women were not incriminated -- the other being the building of the golden calf, where they refuse Aaron's request to donate their earrings for the task. In Rashi's midrash women emerge as exemplary: They repair what men have torn down; they reaffirm the value of love of the holy land and loyalty to the one God that men, in the rebellions of the spies and of the golden calf, have eroded. But this wholly laudable history of women is, of course, found only in the midrashic texts. Within the biblical narrative it is barely intimated.

The implication of this is profoundly paradoxical. In the written text, the absence of women would seem to imply that they are included in the larger dramas of the Israelites in the wilderness; it is precisely in the midrash that women figure as having a separate, hidden history. In fact, the midrash makes the reader aware of the mistaken reading: All along, women who were absent in the text were really elsewhere.

"Women's story," Zornberg tells us, "can be seen, then, at least at certain critical junctures, as the repressed narrative of the biblical text. . . . women remain a latent presence in their very absence; they represent the 'hidden sphere' which must remain hidden if it is to do its work with full power, but which must be revealed in some form if that work is to be integrated."

Thus it is the interplay of conscious and unconscious motifs that makes for the grand narrative. The "particulars of rapture," in Wallace Stevens's phrase, can evolve only where "Two things of opposite natures seem to depend / On one another, as a man depends/ On a woman, day on night, the imagined / On the real."

Those who feel that the Bible is no longer relevant, or is indeed simply nonsense, would be well advised to read Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg's extraordinarily brilliant book in conjunction with the biblical text. In fact, it cannot be understood without the aid of the various commentators -- few of whom possess anything like the penetrating insight of Zornberg, let alone her unique ability to open up a door into the esoteric worlds below the surface of the text that, once opened, stays open. Zornberg has here provided a very significant tool for both the layman and the scholar to use in their readings of not just the Bible but any other mystical text in the Jewish tradition. We owe her an enormous debt of gratitude. *

Paul William Roberts has written extensively on the Middle East and its religions; his most recent book is "The Demonic Comedy: Some detours in the Baghdad of Saddam Hussein."