Last Days of Pesah (Modernity)
Thoughts on Shir ha-Shirim
Some thoughts on Shir ha-Shirim, “the Song of Songs,” which was read this past Shabbat, Hol ha-Moed Pesah. Several questions arise: First of all, what is the meaning of the title? We are so used to the phrase “Song of Songs” (or, perhaps better, “Poem of Poems”—the Hebrew shir does not necessarily imply a work set to melody) that it no longer resonates or raises any puzzlement in our minds. Is it a song that embodies all other songs? And if so, how can such a thing be? Or, as Rashi says quoting the Sages: “The most sublime of all songs.” The extraordinary qualities of Shir ha-Shirim are further suggested by Rabbi Akiva’s famous remark: “The entire world is not worthy of the day on which Shir ha-Shirim was given to Israel” (m. Yadayim 3.5).
Note the implication here that this book was not written by a human being, even one inspired by the Holy Spirit, but that it was “given” to Israel—i.e., revealed from Heaven. This suggests that Shir ha-Shirim is to be read in a religious context, strengthening the traditional view that is to be read, not as a song of love between a human man and woman, but between God and man or, specifically, between God and Israel. Thus the overwhelming majority of Rabbinic dicta about this book.
But many modern people, even pious Jews, find this doctrine difficult, rather puritanical in spirit. Perhaps the book ought to be read both on the religious plane, as a metaphor for Divine-human love, as well as on the peshat level, as filled with erotic longing and passion. Moreover, the love between man and woman may itself be seen as something spiritual and self-transcending, and thus deserving of celebration in a sacred, canonical text. In this view, we may read the title “song of songs” as reflecting the fact that love between man and woman is a perennial subject of song and poetry in almost all cultures.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, recently made an interesting observation: that all three of the megillot read on the pilgrimage festivals deal with the theme of love: Shir ha-Shirim deals with erotic love, with love as passion, (mostly of young people, like the Dod and Ra’yah of the book); Ruth speaks of love, both between man and woman and in other contexts (e.g. Naomi and Ruth) as loyalty, as “loving-kindness,” as steadfast commitment, as family; while Kohelet deals with “love grown old and wise”—that is, love as a central part of that existential joy which sustains us throughout life, of happiness based upon being and sharing rather than having; love which is no longer subject to the romantic illusions of youthful, romantic love which idealizes the other, but knows how to forgive and accept the inevitable faults and shortcomings of every human being.
One of the Rabbinic midrashim makes the remark of Shir ha-Shirim that: “Elsewhere God praises Israel and Israel praise Him; but here each praise the other.” That is, this book is marked by full mutuality; the voices of both the Dod and the Ra’yah are heard. Often, in love poetry in the Western world (at least until recently), it is the man who speaks while the woman is the passive recipient of his love, desire and praises. Shir ha-Shirim is perhaps the earliest example in world literature in which this is not the case: in which the lover’s voices are heard equally, reciprocally.
A second question is this: Is Shir ha-Shirim a narrative, an unfolding love story with a plot and development, or simply a medley of disconnected short love poems? When I was a student, I read Robert Gordis’s book, The Song of Songs: A Study, Modern Translation, and Commentary (1954), in which the author argues persuasively that it is a collection of love poems unrelated to one another, perhaps twenty-five or thirty in all.
More recently, this past month, my wife and I heard a series of lectures on Shir ha-Shirim by Dr Yael Ziegler, a Jerusalem Torah teacher, who claimed that the book in fact expresses a narrative, and that one can trace therein the development of the relationship between the Dod and the Ra’yah from what she described as the rather immature, adolescent yearnings for immediate intimacy of Chapter 1 to the mature (and consummated) relationship in Chapters 7 and 8.
Which view is correct? To attempt to answer this question, I would like to examine certain patterns and repetitions in Shir ha-Shirim that shape the contours of this book. A striking feature of the book is the near-verbatim repetition of a particular verse three or four times:
השבעתי אתכם בנות ירושלים בצבאות או באילות השדה אם תעירו ואם תעוררו את האהבה עד שתחפץ
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the hinds of the field, that you not stir up or awaken love until it please.
Before examining the context of this verse/s, a brief comment, which may be no more than a wild speculation: ordinarily in Judaism one isn’t allowed to swear, to take an oath, in the name of any one but God; there is even a verse in the Torah to that effect (see Deut 6:13; 10:20; but compare such folk hyperbole as “I swear on my grandmother’s grave”). Yet here there appears what is seemingly an oath taken in the name of the beasts of the field.
I would suggest that this verse contains a deliberate ambiguity. The reference to animals—indeed, to the most graceful, beautiful animals found in the wild in Eretz Yisrael —is in keeping with the rustic, natural setting of Shir ha-Shirim, of the couple who “go to sleep in the villages and awaken to the vineyards.” But the words בצבאות או באילות השדה are ambiguous: they can be interpreted in the natural sense, reading tzeva’ot as a plural form of tzvi (“deer”), but may also be read as “Hosts,” as in the phrase ה' צבאות (“the Lord of Hosts”), regarded in the halakhah as one of the holy names of God. Similarly aylot is, in its simple sense, the plural of ayalah (“hind” or “doe”), but also—admittedly by stretching things somewhat—may be seen as connected to eyaluti, ”my protector” or “my God,” as in Psalm 22:20, אילותי לעזרתי חושה. Thus, at one and the same time we have a natural image taken from the fauna of Eretz Yisrael, and one with religious resonance. (After I spoke about this idea at a shiur in my synagogue, my friend Shlomo Zucker noted that Yair Zakovitch, one of the prominent academic Bible scholars in Israel, presents this interpretation in his own little-known commentary on Shir ha-Shirim.)
As for the context: This verse appears in 2:7, in 3;5, in a somewhat truncated and rather different form in 5:5, and again in 8:4. The question that concerns me is whether this repetition may in some sense have been intended as a marker, a pointer or dividing line, indicating different sections of the book. In 2:7 it follows upon a series of verses in which the lovers express their mutual admiration of one another, ending with a scene of embrace: “His left hand is beneath my head, and his right hand embraces me” (2:6). In 3:5 it comes straight after the passage beginning “On my bed at night” (3:1-4), to which we shall return. In 5:8 it appears in the middle of a similar passage, beginning “I am asleep but my heart is awake” (5:2) in which the beloved adjures the daughters of Jerusalem, “If you find my beloved, what shall you tell him? That I am love sick” (5:8). In 8:4, it again appears after verses of consummation, again following the verse, “His left hand is beneath my head, and his right hand embraces me” (this verse seems to be the most explicit image of their love’s consummation; the book, after all, was not written in the late 20th or 21st century).
It seems to me that the two “bed scenes” are at the heart of the book’s meaning. In both of these passages, the Ra’yah is lying in her bed, thinking longingly of her beloved. In the first, briefer passage, she gets up, wanders about the town, asks the watchmen if they’ve seen her beloved—until she finds him and holds fast to him. In the second passage, the lover comes to her cottage, knocks on the door and, in a series of terms of endearment—“my sister, my companion, my dove, my pure one” (5:2)—asks her to let him in. Her response sounds like that of on who is still half asleep: “I have taken off my garment, how can I put it on; I have washed my feet, how can I soil them again” (5:3). But after a moment she yearns for him in an almost explicitly sexual way (מעי המו עליו, “My innards longed for him”)—but by the time she gets up to open the door, he has gone, he has fled (ודודי חמק עבר), and she only feels his presence, his fragrance, on the door handle. As in the earlier passage, she goes out, wandering the city streets at night to look for him, and is encountered by the watchmen, who beat her and shame her.
These two parallel express the ambiguity and ambivalence of love: the lovers yearn for one another, but are constantly missing one another. Their love is consistently frustrated, unfulfilled; for every scene of joyful union (and there are such), there are others in which they pass by one another. There is something dream-like in these descriptions. Love fluctuates between consummation (as hinted in 7:13 and, according to Ariel and Chana Bloch, explicitly in 6:12) and frustration. Love is fleeting, constantly encountering obstacles. This is due in part to objective factors, but equally so to the ambivalence of one or another of the lovers. Each yearns for the other, but al`so flees or withdraws at a crucial moment. This is perhaps expressed in the final verse of the book, “Flee, my beloved, and be like a deer on the mountains of spices” (8:14).
The ambivalence and ambiguity of love is a theme found in many cultures. I think of the well-known French song about love by Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian (1755–1794; music by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini [1741–1816]; English version as sung by Joan Baez):
Plaisir d'amour ne dure qu'un moment.
chagrin d'amour dure toute la vie.
The joys of love are but a moment long
The pain of love endures the whole life long.
On the other hand, one could invoke the ballad by Pete Seeger, “Kisses Sweeter than Wine”—“I got me a gal and kissed her and then: O Lord, I kissed her again!”—ending with them living happily ever after into old age, with numerous children and grandchildren. (If one can believe his biography, Seeger’s marriage to Toshi-Aline Õta was such: they remained married just short of 70 years, when she predeceased him by six months. She is described as providing the support that made his life and work possible, as well as being an active partner in various musical and other enterprises.)
On the one side, Shir ha-shirim expresses love as Gan Eden, as the closest to paradise we human may reach in this world. On the other hand, parts of it reflect the lives of Adam and Eve after they ate from the forbidden fruit: the man blamed the woman; the woman blamed the serpent; she is cursed in that the man rules over her, she longs for him but cannot express it openly. Albeit the Ra’yah, in contrast to Eve, expresses her desire for the Dod quite openly. (Is modern feminism restoring the primordial equality that prevailed through the last verse of Genesis 2, before the curses introduced the rivalry of the sexes? The subject is endless.)
Rav Soloveitchik: Twenty-One YearsLast Thursday, 17th Nissan, the second or first day of Hol ha-Moed, marked twenty-one years since the passing of Rav Joseph B Soloveitchik, unquestionably one of the Torah giants of our age, as teacher and philosopher. I was privileged to study with the Rav for several years in the Boston Hevrah Shas, as well as to speak with him at length several times; I revere him as perhaps my most important teacher.
I have written about the Rav many times in the past, almost every year on his Yahrzeit, several times at considerable length. I had hoped this time to relate to certain harsh criticisms of the Rav’s thought which I have encountered from certain quarters, but due to limitations of time (Pesah!) was unable to do so. I hope to address this issue, as well as some larger questions of the nature of Rabbinic authority, the degree to which rabbis are permitted to innovate halakhically, and more, in the near future—perhaps in my Shavuot issue.
Until then, I will have to suffice with reiterating my deep personal debt to him, and adding: May his memory be a blessing for all of us.