Here’s a riddle for you: What did Akiba ben Joseph, the great rabbi of the 2nd century CE, and Robert Ingersoll, the great agnostic of the 19th century about whom I posted last week, have in common?
Answer: they both thought the Song of Songs (a.k.a. “Song of Solomon”) was the best book of the Hebrew Bible.
Ingersoll’s granddaughter, Eva Ingersoll Wakefield, quotes him as having approved the Song because it’s “a drama of love–of human love” (The Letters of Robert G. Ingersoll, p. 227). As for Akiba, the rabbinic book called the Mishnah represents him and his colleagues debating the Song of Songs and the Book of Ecclesiastes. Some claimed it’s the consensus that the Song of Songs is part of the Bible, while Ecclesiastes is kind of iffy. (Read the Book of Ecclesiastes, and you’ll see why.) Others said that Ecclesiastes is actually to be dropped from the Bible, and it’s the Song of Songs that’s iffy.
“Rabbi Akiba said: God forbid that anyone ever had doubts about the Song of Songs! For all the world is not equal to the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel. For all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is Holy of Holies.” (Mishnah, Yadaim 3:5)
Strong words, for a little book (less than 7 pages, in the old “American Jewish” translation of the Bible) that at first glance seems to be mostly about sex. I peeked into the Song of Songs when I was 12 years old. I remember snickering to my friends: “He describes his lady love–naked!!!” Then I didn’t read it again for many years. I somehow sensed it wasn’t yet appropriate for me.
What can you make of a book like this, at age 12? The only thing I had to compare it with were my infrequent, furtive peeps into Playboy. I couldn’t have grasped, at that age, the gulfs that lay between Playboy and the Song of Songs.
Four years ago I was privileged to sit in on a wonderful seminar on the Song of Songs at Duke University, jointly taught by my friends Professor Ellen Davis and Professor (also rabbi) Laura Lieber. Ellen quoted a friend of hers, a Trappist monk, as saying that without the Song of Songs his Cistercian Order could hardly have existed.
I doubt if in another 2000 years anybody’s going to say that about Playboy.
The Song of Songs is thoroughly, unabashedly erotic. Yet it’s not a work of erotica, as we normally understand the word. I doubt if anyone’s ever had the Song of Songs in his or her mind while masturbating. Its lush eroticism is somehow not carnal–I’d call it “spiritual” if that word weren’t so inadequate. Not the eroticism that stiffens or moistens the flesh, but that snatches the breath (“soul”) away with its gorgeousness.
In the course of the seminar, Laura remarked that the Song of Songs is the only book of the Bible that doesn’t have a p’shat, a simple, literal meaning. She was referring to the theory of medieval Jewish Bible exegesis, that Biblical passages have four levels of interpretation, ranging from their obvious p’shat to their deeply hidden, Kabbalistic mystical significance. At first it sounds paradoxical to say the Song of Songs doesn’t have a p’shat. Come on! It’s about sex, plain and simple! About two eager young lovers in the springtime, when “the rain is over and gone … and the vines in blossom give forth their fragrance.” (Song 2:11-13. Which is why the Song of Songs is read in the synagogue at Passover–and which prompted me to post about it now.)
But once you try to say any more about this p’shat–who the lovers are, for example, or what the Song tells about the course of their love–you find yourself wandering in obscurities.
There seem to be two main speakers. The love-smitten girl, whose words begin and end the Song, is called “Shulamit,” or more exactly “the Shulamit” (7:1). Translators like to give this as “the Shulammite,” although it’s hard to see what that would mean, since no “Shulammites” are mentioned anywhere else in the Bible. Her boyfriend is apparently a shepherd. King Solomon is also involved; it’s never clear just how. One theory that used to be popular is that the Song is a drama in which Solomon and the shepherd compete for Shulamit’s affections, with the shepherd winning out. She resists the temptations of royal luxury, sticks with her rustic lover in the fields. But the action of this drama is barely visible in the Song; you can’t find it without a great deal of imagination. Alternatively, Solomon and the shepherd may be somehow the same. “Somehow”–because the historical King Solomon, unlike his father David, was never a shepherd.
I told you it didn’t have a p’shat.
Add to this that the names Solomon (Hebrew “Shelomoh”) and Shulamit are a natural pair, as if “Shulamit” is the feminine version of Solomon. Both come from the same root as shalom, “peace.” This connection may be hinted at in Shulamit’s speech near the end of the Song:
“I am a wall,
And my breasts like the towers thereof;
Then was I in his eyes
As one that found Shalom.” (8:10)
So Solomon and Shulamit both search for Shalom, the “peace” that comes with fulfilled love? Do they find it? Maybe not. Shulamit doesn’t say she’s “one who’s found Shalom,” but only that in her lover’s eyes she’s like one who found it. And the Song appears to end with the lovers still parted and yearning.
The longest sequential narrative in the Song is the eerie, dream-like episode in 5:2-8. Here the sexual images are so blatant you’d have to be blind to miss them–the “hole,” the “bar,” the fingers dripping with myrrh. Yet to reduce this passage to an obliquely symbolic account of copulation just won’t work. There’s too much else going on, and the ruling theme is separation and loss, not consummation. Shulamit is the speaker:
“I sleep, but my heart waketh;
Hark! my beloved knocketh:
‘Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled;
For my head is filled with dew,
My locks with the drops of the night.’
I have put off my coat;
How shall I put it on?
I have washed my feet;
How shall I defile them?
My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door,
And my heart was moved for him.
I rose up to open to my beloved;
And my hands dropped with myrrh,
And my fingers with flowing myrrh,
Upon the handles of the bar.
I opened to my beloved;
But my beloved had turned away, and was gone.
My soul failed me when he spoke.
I sought him, but I could not find him;
I called him, but he gave me no answer.
The watchmen that go about the city found me,
They smote me, they wounded me;
The keepers of the walls took away my mantle from me …”
Who are the “watchmen”? Why are they so hostile? Maybe the guardians of traditional morality, who can’t abide a young woman wandering about the city by night in search of her vanished love? The poet won’t tell us. Like a dream, the Song refuses to interpret itself.
The traditional morality of ancient Israel warned the young man: any woman who throws her arms around you in public, kisses you, and takes you home with her is bad news. Stay away, if you know what’s good for you (Proverbs 7:6-27). Shulamit, unlike the harlot-adulteress of Proverbs, is a good girl. Yet she hankers to behave in exactly the same way:
“Oh that thou wert as my brother,
That sucked the breasts of my mother!
When I should find thee without [outdoors], I would kiss thee;
Yea, and none would despise me.
I would lead thee, and bring thee into my mother’s house,
That thou mightest instruct me;
I would cause thee to drink of spiced wine,
Of the juice of my pomegranate.” (8:1-2)
“The juice of my pomegranate,” indeed. In a society that normally expected women to be passive and subordinate, Shulamit does her share, and more than her share, of the wooing.
“Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field;
Let us lodge in the villages.
Let us get up early to the vineyards;
Let us see whether the vine hath budded,
Whether the vine-blossom be opened,
And the pomegranates be in flower;
There will I give thee my love.” (7:12-13)
To the traditional Jewish and Christian expositors, all this was allegory–of God and the Jewish people, of Christ and his Church. (Or alternatively, the Divine and the Soul.) These allegorical readings could be clunky and ham-handed. It’s difficult to read without smirking what the chapter headings in the King James Bible do with the Song’s catalog of Shulamit’s unclothed charms–that same passage (7:2-6) that so titillated me when I was on the brink of puberty. “A further description of the Church her graces.” Yet to dismiss these interpretations as inept fig-leaves, pasted on to cover over the Song’s scandalous sexiness, is to miss the point. Why was the Song selected as Holy Scripture in the first place? Both Synagogue and Church could have simply left it out–if they hadn’t intuited something profoundly sacred in it, something not quite in the mold of conventional Biblical piety and yet an essential supplement (or corrective?) to it. Something which the sacred Book, like the Cistercian Order, couldn’t do without.
“God is love,” people say. (Actually it’s the New Testament that says it, 1 John 4:8.) The Song of Songs says something near the reverse, that love is God. “A very flame of the Lord” (shalhevet-YAH, Song 8:6); and I think of the flame that Moses saw, that burned within the bush without destroying the bush (Exodus 3:2). The God = love equation, it’s often seemed to me, can be taken either theistically or atheistically. God is love: an infinite Benevolence that transcends us yet suffuses and redeems our existence. Or, God is love, meaning that the love we make, the love we show one another, is the only Deity we’ll ever have.
For either of these perspectives, the Song of Songs can serve as Scripture. That’s why “all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is Holy of Holies.”
by David Halperin
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