In Memory of Zvia Ben-Yosseph Ginor

Hukkat By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jun 26, 2004 / 5764 | Torah Commentary

Great art is often a triumph over great suffering. In 1999, The Jewish Theological Seminary faculty suffered the grievous loss of one of its own, Zvia Ben-Yosseph Ginor, to cancer at the height of her literary power. With her keen intellect and exuberant personality, she cut a figure larger than life. Zvia had come to JTS in mid-life with impressive credentials, to pursue a doctorate in Jewish literature. She was the daughter of the founder of Israel’s airplane industry, a published Hebrew poet and a sterling adult educator. For her dissertation, she wrote on the Hebrew poetry of Abba Kovner, the legendary Vilna partisan and creator of the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv. Shortly after completion, the work was published in Israel.

Zvia took JTS by storm. She relished the study of Judaism’s ramified literary sources that had eluded her in her youth as a member of Israel’s Zionist elite. Though courted by Harvard, she chose to teach at the Seminary, an apostle of Israeli literature and culture to American students and Israeli adults. After the protracted death to cancer of the husband of her youth, a magnate in the American airplane industry, Zvia and her three sons dedicated a chair in his memory to bring Israeli luminaries each year to mediate the ever-changing expressions of contemporary Israeli society to JTS students.

Not long after the death of her beloved Amos, Zvia came down with the same fatal bone cancer. Her debilitating struggle lasted three brutal years. What sustained her was the wholly fortuitous reappearance in her life of a Dutch scientist whom she had refused to marry some thirty-five years before. Over the intervening years of their divergent lives, there had been an occasional piece of correspondence, which now turned into a torrent. Neither full-disclosure by Zvia, nor the sight of her condition, deterred her Christian friend. Time collapsed. In the end, Zvia chose to visit Europe with him instead of having a bone-marrow transplant. When she returned, her doctors could no longer subdue her cancer into remission.

During the last year of her life, much of it spent in the same hospital that had treated Abba Kovner and Amos, Zvia wrote a highly autobiographical novel. A lyrical meditation on the meaning of her life, the novel, largely cast in the form of letters, recounts the twin narratives of her beginning and her ending. The powerful figures of her father, husband and Dutch lover stitched these narratives into a seamless and spellbinding whole. When published in Israel, a year after her death, Binsoa ha-Aron (When the Ark Set Forth) became an instant best-seller. Favorable reviews abounded. Israelis were not put off by the title, redolent with religious associations. Like the Tabernacle’s ark in the wilderness which bore the shards of the shattered tablets as well as the unbroken tablets, Zvia’s ark gathered up the fragments of their tortured life. At the Seminary and her synagogue in Great Neck, she found comfort in Judaism.

Nietzsche ends The Birth of Tragedy with the summary comment: “How much did these people (the Greeks) have to suffer to be able to become so beautiful!” The same could be said of Zvia Ginor, with her final book an everlasting triumph of spirit over agony. No matter how wracked her body or distended her fingers, she embraced life in the face of death. Purposefulness vanquished the prospect of nothingness.

I offer this testimonial as a commentary on the deeper significance of this week’s parashah, where we meet the strange ritual of the red heifer. Slaughtered and consumed by fire outside the camp, its ashes were mixed with “cedar wood, hyssop and crimson stuff” to become a liquid of purgation, stored outside the camp, to cleanse those who came in contact with a corpse. Its potency seemed to correlate to the rareness of an unblemished red heifer in nature; it had the power to purify one from the most virulent source of impurity known to the Torah. Upon death, human beings, the pinnacle of God’s creation, unleashed the most intense form of ritual contamination. Yet, paradoxically, the potion intended to cleanse those touched by death defiled those involved in its preparation and administration. What brought release to some, imposed confinement on others, to be sure, not for seven days as in the case of death, but at least for one. Professor Milgrom in his JPS commentary to Numbers accounts for the paradox in terms of transfer- the lustration cleansed by absorbing the impurity. Like all detergents, this one, too, took up the properties it was designed to remove. Hence all who handled it were contaminated by it (p. 439).

I prefer, however, to understand the dynamic of the ritual symbolically. To alleviate impurity, one must become impure. To rescue a child thrashing about in the water, we must be prepared to get wet. It is hard to comfort mourners until we have experienced death ourselves firsthand. Children whose parents are alive don’t belong in a yizkor service. Only the tribulations of living can forge a philosophy of life and a sense of our shared fate.

Moses suffered from a speech impediment and Homer from blindness, Mendelssohn, from a hunched back and Beethoven from deafness. To transcend death we need to die a little. How often has human illness given rise to outbursts of superhuman achievement from Franz Rosenzweig to Stephen Hawking and Zvia Ginor! As impurity once had the ritual power to banish impurity, so does suffering bear the psychic power to diminish suffering. That is Zvia’s enduring legacy. She earned her place in the pantheon of JTS with the writing of a single book.

Shabbat Shalom, 

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Hukkat are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.