Do the lovers of the Song of Songs ever get to the chu­pah?

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - BY RABBI DR DEB­O­RAH KAHN-HAR­RIS

My beloved an­swered me and said to me,“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. For now the win­ter has passed and the rains are over and gone. The flow­ers have ap­peared on the land; the time of the song [bird] has ar­rived and the voice of the tur­tle­dove can be heard through­out our land. The fig tree puts out green figs and the vines in blos­som give out scent. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” Song of Songs 2: 10-13

Some years ago now, in early April a hand­ful of days be­fore Pe­sach, my hus­band and I were mar­ried. The day was sunny and while not yet prop­erly warm, the scents and sounds of spring were in the air. Though figs and tur­tle­doves may be spe­cific ref­er­ences to the flora and fauna of the land of Is­rael, these words from the sub­lime Song of Solomon were the words quoted on our wed­ding in­vi­ta­tions. More­over, those first and fi­nal words, “Arise, my love, my beau­ti­ful one, and come away” are the words in­scribed on the in­side of my wed­ding ring, for the Song is the quin­tes­sen­tial dec­la­ra­tion of love in the He­brew Bi­ble.

And yet, for cen­turies, even mil­len­nia, this su­perla­tive song has been un­der­stood not as an ex­pres­sion of two hu­man lovers, fe­male and male, pas­sion­ately search­ing for each other, de­scrib­ing in fine de­tail the con­tours of each other’s bod­ies, imag­in­ing aloud the de­tails of what they will do when they find each other, des­per­ately try­ing to es­cape the con­fines of so­ci­etal pro­pri­ety to phys­i­cally em­brace each other (and far more) be­neath the branches of newly blos­som­ing or­chards.

The whole of the Song is not read as the new life of spring cours­ing through the veins of the very hu­man voices of the text as they strain with their de­sire to cre­ate their own new life. No, the Song of Songs of Solomon, the great­est lover of the He­brew Bi­ble, is not read a com­po­si­tion ei­ther for or by Solomon ad­dressed to hu­man love, as my hus­band and I and many cou­ples be­fore and after us have read the bawdy verses of the Song, but rather, the rab­bis tells us the Song is one ex­tended al­le­gory for the re­la­tion­ship of God to His peo­ple.

As a fem­i­nist, I use the pro­noun “His” for God un­easily, but in the con­text of the al­le­gor­i­cal read­ing of Song of Songs, I have lit­tle choice. The voices of the Song are overtly a male lover, a fe­male lover, and a fe­male choral voice. Ac­cord­ing to this tra­di­tional al­le­gor­i­cal read­ing, God is the male lover and we, the peo­ple of Is­rael, are the fe­male voice of the Song. God is the mus­cu­lar king, stately as a cedar, de­li­cious and de­light­ful, and the peo­ple of Is­rael are the dis­tressed young woman, stag­ger­ing love sick through the streets, beaten by the guards of the city walls, faint with love, in need of res­cue.

At Pe­sach, we are the most need­ful of res­cu­ing that the bib­li­cal God ever pro­vides — the lib­er­a­tion from Egypt. Could a greater act of love ex­ist than the de­liv­er­ance of the Is­raelites from slav­ery? This de­liv­ery con­ve­niently takes place in the spring, as the young lambs skip in play and the first green shoots sprout forth, as the shankbone and the pars­ley on our Seder plates re­mind us (among other al­lu­sions). Both the Song of Songs and the Pe­sach story are quin­tes­sen­tial sto­ries of spring, of life re­newed, of fe­cun­dity, and of the cen­tral­ity of love to drive these nar­ra­tives.

Yet per­haps the most stim­u­lat­ing aca­demic de­bate around the Song is the ever present “will they/won’t they” ques­tion that pow­ers most mod­ern TV dra­mas, though in the case of the Song the ques­tion is per­haps bet­ter for­mu­lated as “did they/didn’t they”. The un­cer­tainty at the heart of the pas­sion of Solomon’s Song is whether or not the act of love so longed for through­out the poem is ac­tu­ally ever con­sum­mated. In this re­gard, too, the Song of Songs is a re­flec­tion of the Pe­sach story.

Is the act of de­liv­er­ance a con­sum­ma­tion of the Is­raelites longed-for de­sire for God’s covenan­tal re­la­tion­ship? Did the part­ing of the Sea of Reeds and the drown­ing of the Egyp­tian pur­suers fi­nally seal the deal? Per­haps, but, then again, per­haps not.

The lib­er­a­tion from Egypt is a prom­ise, but not a con­clu­sion. Like the Song of Songs, it lays bare the pas­sion and com­mit­ment of each party, but the hap­pi­lyever-after end­ing, the wed­ding vows, the legally bind­ing con­tract, none of it hap­pens un­til Shavuot. Shavuot is the mo­ment of rev­e­la­tion, when the thun­der and lightning and shak­ing of the ground it­self feels far more like al­le­gory for the fi­nal pas­sion­ate mo­ment of sex­ual en­counter and the Ten Com­mand­ments far more like the ke­tubah of a mar­ried cou­ple.

At Pe­sach, as we read Song of Songs, we are aroused; but we will have to wait forty days for the con­clu­sion of what Pe­sach, the Song, and the spring prom­ises.

The Song is the quin­tes­sen­tial dec­la­ra­tion of love in the Bi­ble

Rabbi Kahn-Har­ris is prin­ci­pal of the Leo Baeck Col­lege

PHOTO: ALAMY

From Cha­gall’s Song of Songs IV, 1958. The bib­li­cal book is read this Shab­bat

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