Judaism and love

With its erotic imagery and passionate lyrics, one can easily get caught up in the explosive story of two lovers, without connecting it to events in Jewish history.

chagall's song of david_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
chagall's song of david_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
During the Passover holiday, Jewish people read the Song of Songs. From a Scriptural point of view, we can see the source of the development of this tradition in the words: “To a steed in Pharaoh’s chariots” (1:9), alluding to the confusion of Pharaoh’s horse-driven chariots at Reed Sea.
However, this simple reference does not unveil the true meaning behind this custom.
While King Solomon considers this composition to be the ultimate masterpiece by declaring it the “song of songs,” Judaism goes one step further by proclaiming this canonical text as the “holy of holies,” for it records the epic relationship between God and His chosen “bride,” the Jewish nation.
With its erotic imagery and passionate lyrics, one can easily get caught up in the explosive story of two lovers, without connecting it to events in Jewish history. Before uncovering the layers of meaning within the Song of Songs, we need to understand the idea of song in a Biblical context.
Typically, the lyrical voice in a shira (Biblical song) belongs to an individual who has been redeemed or who seeks rescue, as in the “Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15), Moses’s “Parting Song” (Deuteronomy 32) and Hanna’s song (I Samuel 2:1-10).
Song is such a powerful emotional response that even God is moved by them to perform miracles, as it states in Judges 5. According to the Talmud, even the deceased whom Ezekiel brings back to life (Ezekiel 37) arise and sing praise.
What makes the Song of Songs different from other personal or collective songs in the Bible is that it takes the form of a dialogue, a conversation between two characters boldly stating their convictions. If there are two voices to the lyrics of this song, it is because there are two partners.
This song communicates the partnership of God and His nation, which began on the evening of Passover in Egypt. Our nationhood coalesced around the communal sacrifice of the paschal lamb and with the first collective commandment, “This month is for you the head of the months” (Exodus 12:2). A calendar marking a redemptive moment was delivered to a young nation that now can appreciate the meaning of time.
The great tragedy of the Song of Songs and the great misfortune of history is the lack of synchronicity between these partners; when one is ready, the other is not. Coordinating these two partners is the ongoing challenge of the Jewish historical experience.
Not all is love in paradise in the Song of Songs. “I am black but attractive, daughters of Jerusalem” (1:5) refers to temporary episodes of rebellion, the indolence at Refidim (Exodus 17:8), the betrayal of the spies (Numbers 13-14) and the guilt of King Ahab (I Kings 21:27).
“As the king was still in his celebration, my spikenard gave its odor” (1:12). This is in reference to the catastrophic episode of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:4). This came only weeks after the passionate declaration of allegiance to God, “We will do and we will listen” (Exodus 24:7), while Moses was still finalizing the Giving of the Torah.
Surprisingly, this book – a tribute to our romance with God – clearly alludes to breakdowns in this relationship. King Solomon lists the various failures of the Jewish people and reminds us that, if anything, God’s love grows through atonement and reconciliation.
A true and lasting relationship is formed by moments of joy and intimacy, but only as it outlasts difference and strife. By surviving temporary conflict, a relationship gathers greater strength and more effectiveness. This view of our relationship with God is more realistic than the romance novels of today depicting a delusion of perfection.
The rapid shifts of this relationship foreshadow the unpredictable waves of Jewish history. Solomon prepares us for the glory just as he primes us for the grief. It seems impossible to resolve, but in the Divine mystery, all works out between God and His people.
David Nekrutman is the executive director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat. Comments should be directed to info@cjcuc.com.