Almost every Jew knows that we read the Megillah, the scroll of Esther, every year on Purim. However, while we customarily refer to Megillat Esther as THE Megillah, we read four additional megillot (scrolls) during our liturgical year: Ruth on Shavuot, Lamentations on Tisha B’Av, Kohelet on Sukkot and Shir Ha-Shirim, the scroll of The Song of Songs, is traditionally chanted on the Shabbat of the Spring festival of Pesach, which ended just days ago.
“Kiss me, make me drunk with your kisses! Your sweet loving is better than wine.” (Song of Songs 1.2).
Like Homer’s “Iliad,” the Hebrew Bible’s Shir Ha-Shirim, The Song of Songs, begins in medias res, in the middle of the action – in this case, in the middle of the story of two young lovers – a Shulamite teenager who lives in or near Jerusalem and her ardent shepherd. While some make the case that Shir Ha-Shirim is a collection of several disparate poems or even poetic fragments, I side with those who argue that the work’s unity of language and tone points toward a single inspired author. While the poem is often frankly sexual in both language and situation, the poet creates an air of freshness and delicacy; in Shir Ha-Shirim what is not said speaks just as eloquently as what is.
The Shulamite and the shepherd, in the springtime of their lives, celebrate their exuberant love in the springtime of the year. A feast of sight and sound, of smell and taste and touch: apricots, pomegranates, cinnamon, aloe, sachets of myrrh, turtledoves, fauns, gazelles, two youthful bodies, male and female, tumbling, tumbling in a garden of earthly delights, a Garden of Eden that is at the same time fantasy and reality. As Robert Alter points out in a perceptive afterward to the brilliant English translation by Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch, “In more explicit erotic literature, the body in the act of love often seems to displace the rest of the world. In the Song, by contrast, the world is constantly embraced in the process of imagining the body. The natural landscape, the cycle of the seasons, the beauty of the animal and floral realm, the profusion of goods offered through trade, the inventive skill of the artisan, the grandeur of cities, are all joyfully affirmed as love is affirmed.”
Given the fact that Shir Ha-Shirim explores in such frank terms the sexual awakening of two young lovers and the fact that the poet never refers directly to God in a work that spans eight chapters, the first century rabbis’ decision to include The Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible is puzzling. What led Rabbi Akiva, one of the most respected figures in all of Jewish history, to proclaim that “all the (Biblical) writings are holy, but The Song of Songs is the holiest of the holy”? There are, of course, different approaches to this question. First of all, century after century of pious commentators, such as Rabbi Akiva, added a layer of allegory to the plain meaning of the text: The two lovers came to be seen as God, the husband, and the Jewish people, His wife. In a similar fashion, the Church Fathers viewed this amorous couple as Christ, the husband, and the Church, His bride.
For those who choose to experience the text of The Song of Songs freshly and directly, without the filter of centuries of interpretation, such allegorical interpretations seem to be quite a stretch. Nevertheless, it can be argued that the purity and innocence of emotion expressed by the Shulamite and her shepherd do point beyond the lovers themselves in the direction of the pure and innocent love of the faithful for their God. Whatever our own reading or misreading of the text, we are profoundly indebted to both the rabbis and the Church Fathers for finding a way to preserve The Song of Songs in our sacred cannon.
As we, Jews in New England, celebrate the greening of our world after an especially harsh winter, may the words of The Song of Songs rekindle in each of us a sense of the miracle and the mystery of love, of life reborn, renewed and refreshed!
JAMES B. ROSENBERG (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim in Barrington.