Friday, April 14, 2006

Shir Hashirim (Shabbat Hol Hamoed Pesah)

The Eroticism of the Holy, or the Holiness of the Erotic

The book of Shir ha-Shirim, the Song of Songs, read on Shabbat Hol Hamoed, is referred to by the Sages as “the Holy of Holies” (Yadaim 3.6). Why is it read specifically on Shabbat Eve, and on Pesah? And what are we to make of its allegorical interpretation? The overwhelming consensus of the Rabbinic tradition sees the book as an allegory, either of the connection between God and the Congregation of Israel (as in the major midrash on the book, Shir Hashirim Rabbah), or between God and the Soul (thus some medieval philosophers, including Maimonides). In his major essay on the nature of the religious experience, Uvekashtam misham (“And you will seek from there”), Rav Soloveitchik has a lengthy footnote in which he discourses on this subject. He notes that this is the only biblical book which it is actually forbidden to interpret according to its literal meaning. Is all this to be dismissed as typically prudish, blue-nosed type stuff—i.e., an attempt to interpret away and repress that which makes us uncomfortable—or is there more to it?

It is difficult to deny that the peshat, the straightforward sense of the book, is patently erotic. Moreover, it seems clear from a close, unbiased reading that: a) the principals are not married: they tryst in secret; she lives by herself in a house in a secluded place, perhaps in the woods, were her lover calls for her at night, knocking on the door, and then slipping away before she can make up her mind to put on her robe and her sandals, leaving his scent “upon the handles of the bolt” (5:5); and b) that they consummate their love at least once, in the context of a meeting in a vineyard where “I will give you my love” (7:12), or perhaps also in the wooded bower roofed by cedars and pine (1:17).

(An aside: in a selection from a new translation/commentary on the Song by a couple named Ariel and Chaim Bloch which I read a few years ago, I found an interesting explanation of one of the most vexing passages in this book. They interpret the cryptic last verse of Chapter 6, lo yadati nafshi, samatni markevot ami nadiv, as “I passed out from ecstasy (lo yadati nafshi); [when] I was the mount of (or: “mounted by”: samatni markevot) that noble person (ami nadiv). No wonder it’s couched in such obscure language; if their reading is correct, this verse, in addition to being the most difficult in the book, is surely the most explicitly erotic as well. Shades of Leo Strauss.)

I would suggest that it was precisely the erotic power of the book that led the Sages, and later on the mystics of Safed, to adopt the book for use at the most spiritually charged moments of the weekly and annual calendar, celebrating closeness to God and even intimacy with Him. Kabbalat Shabbat—the entrance into the weekly time of holiness, the moment when earth and heaven kiss; and Pesah—the betrothal of the Jewish people, so to speak, to God; being taken by him as the chosen, the loving, devoted bride who “followed me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown” (Jer 2:2)—albeit on another level perhaps Shavuot is the true nuptials. It is as if to say: we want that vitality which people experience naturally and in greatest intensity through sexuality, to be carried over to, or paralleled by, the religious. Not dull, lifeless lip service, but a vital, passionate yearning for God.

The same point is made by Maimonides at the end of the Laws of Repentance: that true love of God is an intense longing, which occupies a person’s thoughts constantly, for which Song of Songs is the aptest metaphor (Hilkhot Teshuvah 10: 3). Or perhaps more radically (and dangerously): in potential, the erotic, the sexual, the inter-personal is itself our key experiential passage to the divine. But it also involves danger, and the potential for the most profound sinfulness and even abominations (as we see in next week’s parashah, Aharei Mot). This, too, we are told by Song of Songs: “Its flashes are flashes of fire, a blazing flame” (8:6). Love can warm, but it can also burn, consume. During these very days, we are witnesses as to how, if not love, then certainly lust, mixed with power and arrogance, are bringing about the downfall of one of the ex-soldiers turned politician with which our country is blessed in such great abundance.

“By the Gazelles or the Hinds of the Field”

It is a commonplace that Song of Songs, which this year (2005)is read on the Seventh and final day of Passover, it being a Shabbat, was controversial and only admitted into the biblical canon after much debate (see m. Yadaim 3.5) because of its overtly erotic contents. It was only when Rabbi Akiva declared it “holy of holies,” and through its being understood as an allegory—whether of the romance between the Congregation of Israel and the Holy One blessed be He, or between the Soul and its Maker (thus, it would seem, Rambam, Teshuvah 10.3)—thereby removing its sexual edge, that the Sages accepted it. Thus goes the accepted wisdom.

But I would like to talk about another, often overlooked, but to my mind far more serious difficulty with the Song. In a verse repeated verbatim in two separate places (2:7 and 3:5), possibly as a kind of transitional verse to mark off different sections of the poem, the author invokes an oath in the name of… the wild beasts of the field. Extremely beautiful and graceful animals, to be sure, that have always been an inspiration to poets both secular and sacred (“As a hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God” (Psalm 42:5); “Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle, or a young stag upon the mountains of spices” (Cant. 8:14); “Rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely hind, a graceful doe; let her affection fill you at all time with delight, be infatuated always with her love” (Proverbs 5:18-19)—but nevertheless created beings, inhabitants of the natural world, who spend their days grazing, reproducing, and running from predators. The verse reads:

I have adjured you / made you swear, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the hinds of the field, that you stir not up nor awaken love until it please [or: “that you not disturb the love until it be satisfied”].

The theological problem is obvious: how can a pious Jew, loyal to the Torah, take an oath in the name of anything other than the one God? The Torah even specifies, in describing the allegiance to God expected of the people of Israel: ”You shall fear the Lord your God, and serve Him, and swear by His name” (Deut 6:13). Moreover, while actual worship of hinds and gazelles may seem remote to our cultural frame of reference, there is no doubt that in the ancient world various kinds of animals were worshipped, and that various kinds of animal images were used to represent pagan deities. In certain cultures (albeit not in the ancient Middle East), there existed a system of totemic animals, whereby each tribe had its own ancestral god who was identified with one of the common animals, and whose figure was an object of devotion (thus, in the old animistic religions of Oceania, perhaps of Africa, and I sense also among some American Indians, according to anthropologists who have investigated them in more recent times).

Rashi solves this difficulty by stating that the reference to gazelles and hinds refers, not to the divinity in whose name the oath is made, but to that section of the oath which is attached to a penalty, like the word konam used in many vows: i.e., “if I do not fulfill this oath, may I be obligated to bring such-and-such a penalty.” Here, the sense is: “may I be prey and food for predators, like the gazelle and the hind.” But, with all awe and reverence to the great father of medieval parshanut, I am frankly not convinced; such a bloody scenario, in which these animals are viewed as potential carrion, is totally out of keeping with the overall tone of the book. Hence, I would like to propose another interpretation.

What, then, may this verse be saying? The word used for gazelles, tzevaot, is an unusual plural form of the female tzeviyah, found only here; the more usual form is tzevaim / tzevayim. However, the word tzevaot is also the plural of tzava, meaning an army or a multitude, and is also used to refer to the ministering angels. Thus, in the familiar verse recited in the Kedushah, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts” (Isa 6:3); the title “the Lord of Hosts,” Hashem tzevaot, is so much used as a term of praise for God that the Sages saw the name tzeavot as holy in and of itself, and required that one saying it other than in prayer use the circumlocution tzevakot.

I recently discovered that the term ayalot has a similar ambiguous or homonymous usage. Eyal is indeed a hind; but el is one of the basic terms used for God, for certain cosmic forces (including false pagan gods), for human judges or rulers and, rarely, for the abstract concept of power. R. Judah Halevi, in Kuzari 4.1, states that the rare word eyaluti, that appears in the Bible in Psalm 22:20 alone (see on this HY VI: Tzav-Purim), and often translated as “my aid,” refers to Divine power! From here, it is a small step to the thought that perhaps ayelot in our verses carries a similar ambiguous burden.

Song of Songs is a secular poem, at least on the level of peshat (literal meaning). Like two of its fellow scrolls, Kohelet and Esther (each for their own reasons), the book does not contain God’s name, at least not explicitly. Hence, even when speaking of oath taking, the author does not wish to use God’s sacred name directly. Instead, he has the lovers adjuring their friends in the name of two of the beautiful species that inhabit the rustic environment of the poems (animals that, for the author, were surely no more than an innocent part of the environment, free of any pagan associations). But at the same time he so to speak winks at the reader, suggesting, through the use of language cognate to Divine names, that this oath is really being taken in the name of the One God. Or is it? In the end, there seems to be a charming, studied ambiguity to these two verses, or better, a double entendre, leaving the reader to understand it on both levels at once.


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