This Shabbat we read the Song of Songs,
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for his love is better than wine.
It’s a series of stunningly passionate love poems, verging on the erotic.
For Rabbi Akiva this book is the holy of holies of the Biblical canon.
Perhaps that is because of a Rabbinic claim which insists that these poems are to be understood as a metaphor for the love between God and Israel, and what a love it is.
God becomes the comely youth, Israel the blushing bride.
In the hands of Artscroll, the great ultra-orthodox publishing house, this claim becomes axiomatic and any suggestion that the Song of Songs encapsulates human to human emotion is carefully erased; even to the point where an admiring glance at the breasts of the beloved (4:5) is translated (that’s translated!) as an admiring glance at the qualities of Moses and Aaron. Praise of Yaffa B’Nashim – the most beautiful of women is translated as ‘the most beautiful of nations.’
What drives this complete sublimation of the inter-personal love, so redolent in the Song of Songs? Perhaps an embarrassment about such corporeal language in a biblical book, perhaps a desire to be so Frum as to lose sense of the literal meaning of the verses themselves. Nonetheless there is something stirring about reading these verses, as Rabbis have done for thousands of years, as a metaphor for Israel and God.
But that doesn’t erase these verses’ romantic, corporeal appeal. Personally I like to think that the reason Akiva places the Song of Songs so highly is that he himself was a desperate romantic who served and slaved away for the heart of the woman he loved. He loved a book about inter-personal love because he knew inter-personal love.
For me the Song of Songs is both corporeal, lusty and romantic and also a tale of a relationship between a nation and her God. I know one of these claims comes close to the original intent of these beautiful verses and I know the other is a Rabbinic overlay that might conceivably lurk behind some of the locutions, but is, as a matter of historical record ‘only’ a commentary. That strikes me as an resolutely appropriate way to relate to this, and so many other religious claims. Just as I believe in the truths of our ancient tradition and the claims of modernity, just as I claim that the Torah is a composite document brought together over a thousand years and nonetheless the product of an encounter with a momentary Sinaitic revelation, so too I believe in the Song of Songs in two different ways at the same time. The ability to hold multiple ideas in the same moment is, I have always believed, a mark of sophistication. It’s certainly a mark of what it means to be a Masorti Jew.
May we enjoy great love in this time of Freedom,