Do the lovers of the Song of Songs ever get to the chupah?
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
From Chagall’s Song of Songs IV, 1958. The biblical book is read this Shabbat