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By David Levy


The Montréal Review, January 2017


Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, Moses: A Human Life, Yale University Press, 2016.


One might conceive of Moses as a Kafkaesque figure, a person of uncertain speech and identity, a son of two cultures, commanded by Hashem - the Almighty - to talk Pharaoh into freeing the Hebrew slaves, his people, explain the divine mission to the Hebrews and to achieve this with an impaired vocal skill, lips “uncircumcised.” It is a voice Moses himself very much distrusts. His first act is to refuse to speak, to delegate to older brother Aaron the task of conveying Hashem’s words for him. But Aaron can only speak the words. Withholding his voice disrupts the process. As Zornberg explains: “Ventriloquist for God, Moses’ voice might have inspired the people more poignantly than could the divine words alone.” It will not do for Moses to be a neutral recording device. The Hebrews must, says Hashem, hear your voice.

Moses when first confronted by Hashem at the Burning Bush expresses doubts. They will not, he says of the Hebrew slaves, “believe me, they will not listen to my voice, they will say: God never appeared to you.”

Moses understands that his “personal history is fragmented, his identity complicated.” In the encounter with the Burning Bush he regards himself as anav – lowly -  uncertain who he is and how given his speech impediment he could possibly undertake the mission. He has after all little in common with the Hebrews: “They will not believe me!“ Turns out the Hebrews believe him but do not listen to him: “…in the complex encounter between them, he is from the outset unfathomable…. he continues to be, in a profound sense, ‘unheard’ by them, unknown. Moses however will become aware of the “bare reality of language and of how it emerges from within the voice.”

Initially, as Zornberg explains, “the children of Israel would not listen to Moses because of exasperation and hard labour. His words were inaccessible to them.”

Some sages have advanced the view that the speech issue is not physical but rhetorical, that Moses believes he lacks the speaking eloquence demanded by the mission he has with some reluctance undertaken. Might the difficulty only be a matter of how certain words need to be pronounced?


Zornberg enters the Moses story from a post-modern perspective, which is to say one involving complex dealings in words. To excavate the meanings lurking within the Torah narrative Zornberg seeks out connections wherever they may be found, some at times quite far afield.

Enter along with the insights of Midrash sages philosophers of language and theology and others including Samuel Becket, Slavoj Žižek,  Jacques Lacan, the Vietnam war journalist Michael Herr. The problem in ‘Nam, said Herr,  “was that you didn’t always know what you were seeing until later, maybe years later, that a lot of it never made it in at all, it just stayed stored there in your eyes.”

Reminding us that the Oral Torah is a Torah of the mouth, Zornberg draws our attention to the likelihood of misreadings, misunderstandings, of the danger of message failure.


Zornberg makes no direct attempt at historical placement, that is at proposing a true historical Moses, which is to say one may not test her claims beyond certain hermeneutical procedures. The textual focus avoids the question of whether Moses was an actual person or a figure of mythology.

One is thus left to assume Moses, as a consequence of his upbringing, and Pharaoh, spoke the same language. In what language do Hashem and Moses converse? Moses and the Hebrews? Do they share a mode of speech? Does this explain why there might have been pronunciation issues? Why Moses goes unheard?

There is likewise no suggestion that Moses was some sort of Spartacus leading a slave revolt. Torah, we know, has little time for revolutionaries.

Zornberg stays well clear of the Sigmund Freud claim contained in Moses and Monotheism that Moses was an actual historical figure, a “distinguished Egyptian –perhaps a prince, priest, or high official” who placed himself “at the head of a culturally inferior throng of immigrants” and left the country with them in order to perpetuate a monotheism that originated with the pharaoh Amenhotep IV aka Ikhnaton.


Himself a person of complex, troubled relationships, with older brother Aaron, with older sister Miriam, with wife Zipporah, with cousin Korach, with fellow Hebrews, Moses experiences both the “power and the powerlessness of his intimacy with the divine.”

Hashem had warned Jacob that because he did not believe and had refused to climb the ladder his children would be enslaved to the kingdoms of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.

Hashem threatened to kill Moses for failing to have his son circumcised though there was a quite logical reason for the decision.   

No human, Hashem says, can see my face and live. He will only allow Moses to see the back of his head on which the Midrash tells us Moses may have seen a knot of the phylacteries – the tefillin.


The worship of the Golden Calf is understood as a panic reaction of the Hebrews to Moses apparent disappearance on Mount Sinai to receive the Tablets, a fear of having been abandoned.

Much back and forth.

The response of Moses is to smash the Tablets, “the most,” says Zornberg, “dramatic moment in this history.” More power to you, pronounces Hashem, that you smashed them. “Cut two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets.”


“Never again,” says the Torah, “did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses – whom Hashem knew face to face.”    

“Not like others,” declares Hashem, “is my servant Moses.”

Nevertheless Joshua will be the one to lead the Hebrews into the Promised Land.

Let me, Moses pleads, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan. Hashem would not listen: “Enough! Never speak to Me again of this thing!”

I have asked rabbis to explain.

They discourage me from challenging the judgment, referring me, as Zornberg does, to the incident at Meriva. To provide water for the Hebrews out in the desert wilderness at Meriva Moses was asked to take his staff, gather the community and with brother Aaron "speak to the rock before their eyes, so that it gives forth its water.”  Instead of commanding the water out of the rock with words, Moses struck the rock with his staff. Water flowed. But, declares Hashem, Moses has by that action failed to sanctify (Him) "before the eyes of the Israelites." 

Words inaccurately heard? Incorrectly understood?  No matter. It has been decided: Moses will not be the one to take that final step.

The sages explain that Moses in that terrible final private moment frees himself from the role of messenger and voices his feeling of abandonment by his people who have failed to bring him with them into the Holy Land. They might have with their prayers moved Hashem to relent but they would not. As Zornberg puts it: “Speaking in his own voice, not to God but to his people, he grieves their lack of attentiveness to him.”

It is, Zornberg observes, “precisely after God has finally dashed his hopes of crossing over that Moses achieves a new force of language.” But to no avail: “The inner world of Moses emerges into a higher relief in the final phase of his life. For it is in the last months of his life that he describes to his people, in the first person, their shared experience in the wilderness. At the heart of his apparently neutral account of experiences and divine communications already narrated for the most part in the third person, are moments of almost uncanny personal intensity – notably Moses’ account in Deuteronomy 3 of his entreaty to God to allow him to cross over to the Promised Land. Moses relates to the people the moment when God refused to listen to him. This story, like a cry of  unassuaged anguish, stands out from the chronicles of conquest in which it is embedded.”

Zornbeg recalls that years earlier she participated in a bibliodrama workshop. Asked to enter into the role of a biblical character, she chose to portray Moses in the scene where he implores Hashem to permit him to cross the Jordan River and enter Caanan, the culmination of the narrative. 

Zornberg found herself suddenly “weeping” as she read the passage: “I couldn’t help wondering why the use of the first-person form had stirred such unsuspected depths of pain… By switching to the first person,” - i.e. away from the traditional third person singular – “I had released a flood of grief.”


David Levy has worked in film, television and radio, and lectured on cinema history in Canada, the US and Europe. He is author of "Stalin's Man in Canada: Fred Rose and Soviet Espionage"(Enigma Books, 2011).


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