The Song of Songs: Lovers Absent and Present
This Shabbat, Hol Hamo’ed Pesah, we read Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs, the provocative and enigmatic cycle of lusty love poetry that is embraced (though not without challenge) by the canon of the Hebrew Bible. Dr. Francis Landy of Calgary University wrote a powerful and lyrical treatise on the Song of Songs entitled Paradoxes of Paradise, which opens with the reflection of Rabbi Akiva—“All the Scriptures are kedoshim, holy, but Shir Hashirim kodesh kodashim, the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies”—radically deploying the term otherwise used to describe the holiest place in the Temple.
It is suggested that Pesah always falls in the springtime, naturally giving occasion for texts and poetry that dwell on fecundity, fertility, and the longings and fulfillments of lovers that seek each other, as through the chapters of the Song of Songs. Jewish tradition sees the text as an allegory of the love of God for Israel, and in a truly bizarre exercise in transplanting sacred mythos into biblical realia, the Artscroll edition of the text replaces almost every reference to human anatomy with a metaphor from theology (for example, the breasts of the beloved are the twin tablets of the Ten Commandments).
Such an approach can only be born from a pious wish to capture the love without the lovers. Landy suggests that the Kabbalists are more faithful to the embodied eroticism of the text by speculating on the way that the human loveplay might be a metaphor for the inner experience of divine love. Perhaps the night of watching and anticipation that precedes the Exodus can be understood as offering some parallel to the anxiety and yearning of lovers awaiting their return to each other. The biblical narrative is certainly clear that it was God, and no other, who “passed over”—and yet came infinitely close to—the people of Israel in Egypt. God is not mentioned directly in the text of Shir Hashirim, but toward the very end there is an allusion in the word shalhevetyah (Song. 8:6) that perhaps refers to a spark or flame of love in which God is concealed. The counting of the days of the ‘Omer connect Pesah to Revelation and the union of God and Israel at Sinai; there are many versions of a ketubbah (marriage contract) between God and Israel dated for the Revelation at Sinai. The most famous is that of the prolific Safed mystic and poet Israel Najara (ca.1550–1625).
The text of Song of Songs 8:6–7 is rendered hauntingly by the great Israeli singer Ofra Haza (z”l).
As always, I am interested in hearing comments and reflections on these thoughts about prayer and liturgy. You may reach me at email@example.com.