I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or by the hinds of the field, that you neither awaken nor arouse the love while it is desirous. (Shir HaShirim 3:5)
Did you ever notice that almost every analysis of Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) begins with the same opening sentence (except this one: I saved it for the second sentence). Shir HaShirim is arguably the most problematic book in the Bible. Scholars cannot even agree on its title. The two most problematic aspects of the poem are (1) the seeming absence of G-d in the poem and (2) the representation of physical love. These two issues have produced what I call a criticism of apologetics. Almost every commentator, Jewish or Christian, has found it necessary to minimize or ignore the overt sexuality of the poem. They then “apologize” for the absence of G-d by insisting Shir HaShirim is not about earthly love but instead an allegory for G-d’s love for Israel or Christ’s love for the Church. How else can we justify an erotic poem being included in Holy Scripture?
Even Rashi, the greatest of Torah scholars, apologizes for the presence of Shir HaShirim in Tanach. Rashi says:
Our Rabbis taught (Shevu. 35b): Every Solomon (for they were at a loss to explain why Scripture did not mention his father, as it did in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes) mentioned in the Song of Songs is sacred (refers to God), the King to Whom peace (שָׁלוֹם) belongs. It is a song that is above all songs, which was recited to the Holy One, blessed be He, by His congregation and His people, the congregation of Israel. Rabbi Akiva said: The world was never as worthy as on the day that the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the Writings are holy, whereas the Song of Songs is the holiest of the holy. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said: To what can this be compared? To a king who took a se’ah of wheat and gave it to a baker. He said to him, “Extract for me so much fine flour, so much bran, so much coarse bran, and you shall produce enough fine flour for one white loaf, sifted and superior.” So are all the Writings holy and the Song of Songs the holiest of the holy, for it is all comprised of fear of Heaven and the acceptance of the yoke of His kingdom.
It is important to note, however, that the sages who eventually canonized Shir HaShirim did so without commentary: no introduction or explanation precedes its place in Tanach. This seems to be prima facie evidence of their belief no explanation was needed. In other words, Shir HaShirim is unapologetically Holy Scripture.
Christian theologians have had even more difficult time with Shir HaShirim. For Bernard of Clairvaux, the message in Shir HaShirim is G-id’s love for us. He sermonizes that “[t]he language of love [in the song] will be meaningless jangle, like sounding brass or tinkling cymbal, to anyone who does not love” (Sermon 79.1). Andrew M. Greeley says of Shir HaShirim that it “gives us a hint of God’s passion for us. We are most like God’s love for us when we are aroused in the presence of our beloved. And we best experience a hint of God’s love when our beloved pursues us” (Love Song, 1989). Less generous in his appraisal, Augustine points to the explicit sexuality of Shir HaShirim as proof of the degenerate nature of Judaism, writing, “Behold Israel according to the flesh [I Cor. 10: 18]. This we know to be the carnal Israel; but the Jews do not grasp this meaning and as a result they prove themselves indisputably carnal” (Tractatus Adversos Judaeos).
Can Shir HaShirim be carnal and still be Holy? I believe the answer is an unapologetic “Yes!”
Throughout Shir HaShirim we a presented with various forms of love, from the love of a mother, to the love for one’s siblings; from the love of one’s self to the physical love for an intimate partner. Of all of these, it is the sexual relationship of the two lovers which is the most highly exalted. Descriptions of their love comprises the majority of the poem (often a clue to something’s importance in a text) and is expressed in the most poetic language (often a clue to something’s value in a text).
And it is not just the Male Lover who uses metaphor to describe his beloved and the pleasure she brings him. Of her beloved the Female Lover says:
|10“My beloved is white and ruddy, surrounded by myriads.||ידּוֹדִי צַח וְאָדוֹם דָּגוּל מֵרְבָבָה:|
|11His head is as the finest gold; his locks are curled, [they are as] black as a raven.||יארֹאשׁוֹ כֶּתֶם פָּז קְוֻצּוֹתָיו תַּלְתַּלִּים שְׁחֹרוֹת כָּעוֹרֵב:|
|12His eyes are like doves beside rivulets of water, bathing in milk, fitly set.||יבעֵינָיו כְּיוֹנִים עַל אֲפִיקֵי מָיִם רֹחֲצוֹת בֶּחָלָב ישְׁבוֹת עַל מִלֵּאת:|
|13His jaws are like a bed of spice, growths of aromatic plants; his lips are [like] roses, dripping with flowing myrrh.||יגלְחָיָו כַּעֲרוּגַת הַבֹּשֶׂם מִגְדְּלוֹת מֶרְקָחִים שִׂפְתוֹתָיו שׁוֹשַׁנִּים נֹטְפוֹת מוֹר עֹבֵר:|
|14His hands are [like] wheels of gold, set with chrysolite; his abdomen is [as] a block of ivory, overlaid with sapphires.||ידיָדָיו גְּלִילֵי זָהָב מְמֻלָּאִים בַּתַּרְשִׁישׁ מֵעָיו עֶשֶׁת שֵׁן מְעֻלֶּפֶת סַפִּירִים:|
|15His legs are [as] pillars of marble, founded upon sockets of fine gold, his appearance is like the Lebanon, chosen as the cedars.||טושׁוֹקָיו עַמּוּדֵי שֵׁשׁ מְיֻסָּדִים עַל אַדְנֵי פָז מַרְאֵהוּ כַּלְּבָנוֹן בָּחוּר כָּאֲרָזִים:|
|16His palate is sweet, and he is altogether desirable;” (5:10-16).||טזחִכּוֹ מַמְתַקִּים וְכֻלּוֹ מַחֲמַדִּים:|
She ends this chapter with the phrase,
This is my beloved, and this is my friend (5:16), זֶה דוֹדִי וְזֶה רֵעִי
[FULL DISCLOSURE: My wife wears this verse engraved on a bracelet – a gift from her husband on our first anniversary. The rabbi who officiated at our wedding told us it is the most important verse in Shir HaShirim.]
Shir HaShirm means “Song of Songs.” And like the construction of Holy of Holies, it means that this is the greatest of songs. Yes, Shir HaShirm is about sex. It is carnal. It is about the physical expression of love. But, G-d is not absent. Love, in all of its forms (all represented in this book) exist because G-d exists. Love, in all of its forms is Holy, and the Love of Loves is physical. No apologies necessary.