The Song of Songs: Passover's Poetic Wonder

One of my favorite Passover rituals is the reading in synagogue of the biblical book the Song of Songs. Its images evoke spring and are perfect for this season of rebirth.
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If ever a holiday was intended to have "spring in its step," it's Passover. As I noted in my last post, Passover is much more than a celebration of the Exodus. It is also a celebration of spring and is rooted in agricultural rites that demonstrate a clear link between the Jewish calendar and the earth. While contemporary Jewish culture tends to thrive in urban society, Judaism has much to contribute as a faith tradition to the global conversation on harnessing religious and moral values to save the planet from human destruction. Our current state of affairs demands that Jews revisit our ancient traditions and liturgy that remind us of humanities oneness with the earth and the divine Source of life.

One of my favorite Passover rituals is the reading in synagogue of the biblical book the Song of Songs during the Sabbath that falls during Passover. For one thing, the love poetry is bursting with pastoral images of pomegranate orchards, herds of goats, lilies and roses. The images evoke spring and are perfect for this season of rebirth. The Sages of the Talmud understood the love poetry to be composed by a youthful King Solomon who inherited his father King David's gift for composing religious verse. The Sages' canonization of the text reflected their belief that the text must have been not only divinely inspired but that it was to be understood as an allegory of the loving covenant between God and Israel. How else could this erotic poetry have made it into the Bible?

Rabbi Akiva (2nd century, C.E.) underscores the point by calling the book the "Holy of Holies" of Hebrew Scripture. I imagine vigorous debates in the ancient academy where rabbis considered by some in their day as prudish sought to censor this book to keep it out of the hands of their youthful students with their racing hormones. These rabbis were countered by Rabbi Akiva and his school who recognized the work as great literature that had to have been divinely inspired. An allegorical interpretation was attached to the text, but the text itself remained in its pristine, graphic beauty.

In certain respects, the debate over the Song of Songs' inclusion in the Jewish canon has raged throughout the ages until this day. In William Kolbrener's insightful new book, Open Minded Torah, his chapter "Eros and Translation" contrasts two very different translations of the Song of Songs. A scholar of English literature, Kolbrener cites the translation of the King James Bible, published in 1611, during what Kolbrener calls "the most Hebraic of periods in English literature." He notes the King James translation of Song of Songs 1:2: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine." This translation is true to the plain sense of the original Hebrew text. Kolbrener contrasts the King James translation with the Artscroll translation, a contemporary Orthodox Jewish publication. Artscroll draws upon classical rabbinic texts, including Rashi, and incorporates their allegorical interpretations into the body of the text. Direct translations are relegated to footnotes. Thus, Artscroll renders 1:2: "Communicate your innermost wisdom to me again in loving closeness."

Kolbrener notes that the 1611 King James translation does "not shy away from presenting the physical, even the fleshy meaning of the original Hebrew, for they also understood that the tangible world serves to express the divine." At the same time, he laments that a contemporary Jewish text shies away from a direct translation. He notes that the allegory without the original text "presents a disembodied religion of passionless ideas, turning reading the Song of Songs into a cognitive exercise. Our relationship to God, however, is not merely intellectual. God wants not only our minds, but our desires as well."

In expanding on Kolbrener's critique, I believe that Judaism is rooted in finding the Divine in the natural world through the fullness of our sensual capabilities. This includes becoming more at one with nature in order to enhance our religious spirituality. Richard Louv, in his book Last Child in the Woods, decries what he describes as the growing trend of "Nature Deficit Disorder," a condition in which more and more people spend less and less time outdoors. When children grow up spending more time in front of a screen of pixels than on a see-saw in the playground, he posits that there are serious risks to our society's collective mental and physical health.

I can't speak to the science behind Louv's theories, but from a religious sensibility the concept of "Nature Deficit Disorder" makes a lot of sense. In my understanding of Jewish tradition, our religious experience is enhanced by oneness with the earth that leads one to a sense of awe of God's creation. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that "the beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living."

The Song of Songs enriches the springtime Passover festival with its poetry and sense of wonder towards Creation. This poetic religious spirit will sustain us in our quest to redeem our broken planet.

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