It has long been a custom to chant the Song of Songs on the Shabbat during Pessah. Many reasons have been offered to explain this. One is that Pessah takes place in the month of Aviv (Deuteronomy 16:1) - the word which came to mean springtime - and the Song of Songs is very much a song of spring and renewal. "Behold the winter has passed, the rains are over and gone, the blossoms have appeared in the land, the time of pruning has come; the sound of the turtledove is heard in our land" (Song 2:11-12).
It is most probable, however, that the reason is actually to be found not so much in the text of the song - in its simple, original, meaning - but rather in the midrashic meaning that the sages gave it. Rabbi Akiva was the most outspoken advocate of the view that the Song of Songs was to be read as a parable of the love between God - the lover - and Israel - the beloved. As Akiva said, "All of creation does not compare in worth to the day when the Song of Songs was given to Israel. For all Scripture is holy, but the Song of Songs is the holiest of the holy" (Yadayim 3:5).
The specific connection to Pessah is the fact that this interpretation sees in the Song of Songs a depiction of God coming to redeem Israel from slavery, not only in the past, in Egypt, but also in a future redemption yet to come. For example the verse "With me from Lebanon, with me from Lebanon - come!" (4:8) is read as if it said not "from levanon" but "from levanim" - bricks. "While you were still working with mud and bricks [i.e. enslaved in Egypt] I - the Holy One - jumped in and redeemed you!" (Midrash Song of Songs 4:17).
Similarly verse 2:8 "Hark! My beloved! There he comes..." is interpreted both as referring to Moses telling the enslaved Israelites that God will come to redeem them soon and to the messiah who will announce the future redemption at Pessah time (Midrash Song of Songs 2:19). Thus reading Song of Songs on the holiday of redemption, the time when the second coming redemption is also to take place according to rabbinic tradition, makes perfect sense.
Regarding the midrashic interpretation of the Song of Songs itself, the late Gershon Cohen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote a brilliant essay called "The Song of Songs and the Jewish Religious Mentality" in which he contended that the rabbis viewed the book in that way not because they were embarrassed by its simple meaning and therefore needed to reinterpret it to justify its place in the sacred scripture, but because they saw the relationship of man and woman as the best expression of the proper love that should exist between God and human beings, between God and Israel. He rightly pointed out that the Torah itself as well as the prophets utilize the language of love, fidelity, infidelity, marriage and divorce in regard to God and Israel time and time again.
As Cohen wrote, "...from the point of view of Jews of early rabbinic times, without such a work as the Song of Songs the Bible was not quite complete... How was he [the believing and faithfully observant Jew] to articulate in the here and now his affirmation of, and his delight in, God's love, his satisfaction in the unique relationship between God and Israel expressed through the Torah and its commandments?"
In his recent book The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love, my colleague Rabbi Benjamin Segal has pointed out that the Song of Songs is not only beautiful poetry but also, in its basic original meaning, a delineation of the substance of true love as opposed to false erotic infatuation. It exalts a relationship between one man and one woman in which they are equal partners, a relationship of devotion and fidelity and contrasts that with Solomon and his multitude of wives in which lust was more important than love.
Thus the Song of Songs has great meaning and importance as representing an ancient, authentic, Hebrew model of human love, and one that is as meaningful today as it ever was - perhaps even more so when such an ideal of true love seems to have gone out of fashion. Segal also suggests that taking this love as a model for our relationship to God can be very helpful in our religious struggle to establish such a relationship.
As we read this wonderful book this Shabbat, then, perhaps we can appreciate that our relationship to it and indeed to all of the Bible need not be one of "either/or" - either accept traditional rabbinic understanding or accept what modern critical biblical studies teach - but rather that these two can enrich and deepen each other. Using modern studies to investigate the ancient meaning of the text, we see in it a beautiful depiction of love that is both physical and spiritual, love that signifies understanding and devotion and not mere physical attraction. Appreciating the rabbinic understanding, we understand how such a human love can be used as a metaphor for a relationship to God and how that metaphor can then enrich our spiritual quest as religious Jews. Thus we are the richer for having this deeper understanding and appreciation for an ancient text.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.